Islander to publish book of letters and poems written by Holocaust victim

TC Media
Published on April 29, 2014

The annual Holocaust Memorial service was held Monday, April 28 in Charlottetown. Remembering the more than six million murdered Jews with six candles and one more candle for the estimated four to five million other murdered civilians during the Second World War are, from left, Rosalie Simeone, master of ceremonies, Leo Mednick of the Jewish Community of P.E.I. and Kim Dormaar. After lighting the candles they continued the commemoration by selecting notes from a wicker basket, each bearing the name, age and hometown of a victim, then placing it under a stone.

©Nigel Armstrong - The Guardian

Incomprehensible deparvity came very close to home Monday in Charlottetown during the annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony.

The slaughter of some six million Jews and an estimated four to five million others during the Second World War is remembered every year with Yom HaShoah, which began this year the evening of Sunday, April 27 and ended Monday evening.

At Confederation Centre of the Arts Monday a gathering of close to 50 people lit candles, read names of victims, sang, wiped tears and heard how P.E.I. will figure in a rare glimpse into the horror.

Jacob Schwartz showed video of his family's return to their ancestral home in the Moldava region of what is now the Czech Republic. Jews by the hundreds of thousands were forced out of the region on a death march. Only a few survived, and fewer returned, the gathering heard. Schwartz's family found, on their return in 2012, only one elderly Jewish woman and an overgrown, run-down graveyard in their former hometown.

Then Michal Schwartz came to the podium to speak about her work translating the work of Czech Jewish poet and author Ilse Weber.

Rights to the English translations of Weber's letters and poems have been purchased by Charlottetown resident James Munves who plans to publish them in a book due out in 2015.

"She was a remarkable woman," said Schwartz. "She was active intellectually on many political issues that were burning in the 1920s."

Then she married, had children and put her literary aspirations aside, but kept writing to a friend she first met as a pen pal.

As the oppression and bleakness of war and the looming genocide encompassed her, she carried on writing letters to her friend now living in England.

The letters show her on the verge of a nervous breakdown, struggling about choices for their two young boys, then being deported to a concentration camp.

"Somehow when she arrived at the camp she gained some fantastic energies," said Schwartz. "She wrote many poems that the prisoners used to ask her to read to them."

She also composed and sang songs all through her life, including a popular lullaby titled Wiegala that soothed children she cared for in a concentration camp. 

She also kept writing letters, deeply personal, keenly observant letters to her friend.

That play-by-play description of the horror that leads up to and includes the concentration camp life is very rare, said Schwartz.

"It's as if you were there. Most of the (other holocaust writings) we have are from memories," she said.

"Through her we have access to what was happening on a daily basis and because she is a great writer, she conveys this in a very poetic way."

Schwartz read a sample letter Weber sent to her ten-year-old son who had been sent to safety and was living in Sweden.

"I'd like you first to read this letter in the evening before you fall asleep and when you are reading it, imagine that you are lying beside me, hearing what I'm telling you," writes Weber.

"You, my boy, have to adapt yourself," she writes. "You have to be hard working, modest and thankful. Learn to wake up early each morning and be cheerful. You'll need that," read Schwartz from her translation.

"You see what happens to a wonderful person who finds herself in a dire predicament and the choices she has to make," says Schwartz of the collected letters and poems.

Ilse Weber and her youngest son died, as inferred from testimony of a camp worker, sitting on the floor of the Auschwitz gas chambers with other children, singing.