How the Children of Theresienstadt Concentration Camp Used Art as a Coping Mechanism

The Holocaust helped give rise to the concept of art therapy.

In 1964, Hana Volavková, a curator at the Central Jewish Museum in Prague and a Holocaust survivor, published an anthology called I Never Saw Another Butterfly. The book collected artworks and poems of Jewish children interned at Theresienstadt, a concentration camp in German-occupied Czechoslovakia that functioned as a propaganda tool for the Nazi government. Fifteen thousand children under the age of 15 entered Theresienstadt; only 100 survived. Their surviving artworks are a pioneering example of the use of art as a therapeutic tool to mitigate the effects of trauma.

At 86 years old, Ela Weissberger is among the last of those 100, and one of the roughly 100,000 remaining survivors of the Holocaust. Despite her age, today she travels the world to honor the children who were not so lucky, and to advocate for the use of art as a vessel both for preserving history and for educating young people on the atrocities of the past. On Jan. 24, she appeared at a New York screening of Not the Last Butterfly, a short documentary about an arts-based Holocaust education initiative; on Jan. 30, she’ll be in Newcastle, England for the annual Brundibár Arts Festival, named after the children’s opera that was performed at Theresienstadt; and in May, she’ll tour schools ahead of the Santa Barbara Opera’s performance of Brundibár, in collaboration with the Ojai Youth Opera and the Santa Barbara Youth Symphony.

Ela Weissberger, center, at the Jan. 24 screening of 'Not the Last Butterfly' in New York. Credit: Ryan Greiss
Ela Weissberger, center, at the Jan. 24 screening of ‘Not the Last Butterfly’ in New York. Credit: Ryan Greiss

Born in the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia in 1930, Weissberger was eight years old when her family fled to Prague, and eleven years old when she was deported to Theresienstadt on Feb. 12, 1942. She had an uncle high up in the Czech government, and after Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, the family attempted to flee to the U.S.; but President Roosevelt had severely restricted Jewish immigration, and they were unable to leave Europe. Soon, Weissberger — then Ela Stein — was forbidden to go to school.

So when she and the other Jewish children came to Theresienstadt, she told Flavorwire, “We were all very hungry to meet our teachers.” Unlike the other camps, in Theresienstadt, children were offered lessons and cultural activities; it was the one camp that allowed a visit from Red Cross inspectors, who were treated to a performance of Brundibár in June 1944. For the children who performed it 55 times between 1943 and 1944, the opera was its own subtle form of resistance: It tells the story of a group of children who triumph over an evil organ grinder, Brundibár, drowning him out with song.

The resurgence of children’s performances of Brundibár in recent years is, for Weissberger, “something special.” It’s been nearly 75 years since the opera was first performed, and today, Weissberger is one of two surviving singers. “I love it. I can sing every verse. It’s in your body; you don’t let it go. The same thing happened with Friedl,” she said, referring to Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, an artist and teacher at the Bauhaus who in 1942 was sent to Theresienstadt, where she gave art lessons to the children. She died in Auschwitz in 1944.

“The caretaker of my room, she was a music teacher,” Weissberger recalled of another instructor. “So we started to sing and know about music right away, and she was the best friend of Gideon Klein, who was the youngest composer. And I liked him because he was playing the piano in the children’s opera. Very handsome,” she adds. Klein was a pianist and composer, but, like Weissberger, his studies came to a halt when the Nazis invaded and shut down Czech universities in 1939. The next year he received a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Music in London, but Britain’s immigration policy stopped him from going. Soon after, he was deported to Theresienstadt; in 1944, he was sent to Auschwitz. He died in the Fürstengrube coal-mining camp in Poland in 1945, at the age of 26.

“He was at an age that he could have really been somebody,” Weissberger remarked. “They’re gone. If we will not remember those people, like from the book I Never Saw Another Butterfly, the poems and all that — that’s something today you don’t see anymore.”

When the war ended, Weissberger returned to Prague and enrolled in art school. “I wanted to go to the Academy of Arts,” she recalled, “and they told me only if I will join the Communist Party. This was after the war, in 1949. They took everything from me and the only place that let us in was Israel.” Weissberger emigrated to the newly formed state and joined the Israeli army, where she met her husband, Leopold, and had a daughter. In 1958, she moved to New York, where she lives today. She worked as an interior decorator along with her daughter.

She keeps a CD with 23 children’s paintings reprinted in I Never Saw Another Butterfly, some of them her own, and still carries the yellow star that she and every other Jew was forced to wear when the Nazis invaded her country. “Friedl told us, if we can hold something between our fingers, we can create something and we should not throw away anything,” she said. As the years go by and fewer and fewer Holocaust survivors remain, Weissberger’s experience is a reminder that the living have an obligation to carry within them the stories of the dead. “Friedl Dicker-Brandeis,” Weissberger says, “my art teacher, lives in my body.”

 

Friday, Jan. 27 is International Holocaust Memorial Day. Today, Donald Trump is expected to sign an executive order that “would indefinitely block Syrian refugees from entering the United States and bar all refugees from the rest of the world for at least 120 days.”