What do we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do? It’s a question with which I continuously grapple. It is impossible to deny that much of this history showcases the most devastating and bleakest views of humanity. Yet, despite this heart-breaking reality, as educators, we understand the critical importance of teaching our students the consequences of allowing antisemitism and other forms of bias and hate to pervade a society. From this realization, another equally vital question emerges: How do we best teach this history?
The horrors of the Holocaust are undeniable, and though they must be taught, it is imperative that students are able to understand the material in a way that inspires them to engage positively with their communities to ensure that the past does not repeat. Art can act as an excellent gateway for students to effectively connect to the lessons of this history. Art raises questions seldom addressed when dealing with a historical subject. Art elevates viewpoints to a whole different level, which traditional historical approaches alone cannot inspire. While there are many types of art mediums from the Holocaust, poetry in particular is an excellent way to engage students. Poetry highlights an individual’s voice. This allows the reader to more fully empathize with the author’s experience and inspires both personal reflection and a greater understanding of the subject matter. Essentially, Holocaust poems are the whispers and cries from a dark past that we must bring to light.
A poem I often recommend educators introduce into the classroom is Five, by Hanuš Hachenberg, a Jewish boy from Prague who wrote these words in 1943 when he was 13 years old.
This morning at seven so bright and so early
Five novels lay there, sewn up in a sack
Sewn up in a sack, like all of our lives
They lay there so silent, so silent, all five.
Five books that flung back the curtain of silence
Calling for freedom and not for the world
They’re somebody’s novels, somebody who loves them…
They call out now, they cried, they shed tears and they pleaded
That they hadn’t been finished, the pitiful five.
They declared to the world that the state trades in bodies,
And slowly they vanished and went out of sight
They kept their eyes open, they looked for the world
But nothing they found, they were silent, all five.
Hanuš wrote this poem and others, for Vedem (“We Lead”) – a clandestine magazine produced by Jewish teenage boys imprisoned in the Theresienstadt Ghetto. There, amidst their crushing reality of ever-present death and disease, horrific overcrowding and hunger, living in constant fear of transports “to the east”, Hanuš and the boys of his dormitory performed an incredible act of resistance: they created. They secretly wrote stories, poems, jokes, and essays. They illustrated comics and drew fantasy drawings. They wrote bitterly about the inhumane prison they were forced to endure while trying to make sense of the hatred that had engulfed their lives. Mourning their lost childhoods, they still dared to hope that the world they knew would one day be restored. They cautiously dreamed of a brighter future. They remained determined to retain their human dignity in a world that had betrayed them, and their magazine was a means to that end.
Almost of all the young contributors to Vedem were murdered in Auschwitz and other death camps. Of the 7,590 children deported eastward from Theresienstadt, a mere 142 survived to be liberated. Of Hanuš, all that remains behind to show that a person of such sensitivity and brilliance ever existed are his beautiful Vedem poems and writings and a few black and white sketches. Not one photograph of this young man survives. We know almost nothing of his early life, except that it probably wasn’t a very happy one — following his parents’ divorce Hanuš spent 5 lonely years in an orphanage. The few people who remember Hanuš can only tell us that he was a frail, thin child with very dark and expressive eyes. Even in death he left nothing tangible behind. We will never have the solace of putting a memorial rock on his tombstone, running our fingers lovingly over the name engraved on its surface, sanctifying it with our tears. Auschwitz is his grave, and his poem Five is his epitaph.
For me, Hanuš lives on in his poetry, and its power to move us. His maturity, sensitivity, and brilliance are almost palpable in each line that he writes. Reading the poems of Hanuš, I am overwhelmed by a deep sense of loss. And anger. And yet, his poetry offers us a conduit to connect students to his inner world, to give voice to his fear and despair, his anger, his hope, and his dread of being forgotten. It is a towering testimony to his humanity and individuality. The imagery in Five leaves us to face difficult and important questions to address with students:
- How could such grotesque hatred have led to these young innocent lives being cut short, like unfinished novels? How was this possible?
- What sack are the 5 books sewn into? Is it the closed sack of the impenetrable walls of Hanuš and his friends’ prison, Theresienstadt? Or are the novels engulfed by the indifference of the world, a world that would bury them out of sight, muffling their pleas and stifling their cries?
- And the most heartbreaking question of all: If only the five books had been completed, if only they had been allowed to reach their natural conclusion, what might have been contained in their chapters and pages? What could Hanuš and his friends have given the world? Furthermore, what could a million and a half murdered children have given the world?
I think this is at the heart of what we, as Holocaust educators, seek to do. As we accept the challenge of teaching our students this painful history we can amplify it by the use of powerful mediums such as poetry; mediums that can inspire important and meaningful reflection. As educators, we want our students to be the ones to open the sealed sack, take out the forgotten books within, read their brief unfinished chapters, vow to remember the stories, and assure the voices behind them are still heard. By adding to our teaching the personal artistry of the poet, we not only honor the memory of Hanuš, his friends, and all victims of the Holocaust, but also inspire students to reflect on and create more healthy and humane futures.
About the Author: Liz Elsby is a Holocaust Educator and Museum Guide who has worked at Yad Vashem since 2006.
Looking for additional ways to teach about the Holocaust using art and poetry? Please explore the following resources from Echoes & Reflections and our Partners:
- Webinars: Creating Portraits as Testimony and Using Poetry to Teach the Holocaust
- Lesson Plans:
- IWitness Activity: Found Poetry from Holocaust Testimony
- Article: A Creative Response to the Holocaust, Genocide, and Injustice
- Video Toolboxes (Yad Vashem):
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: this toolbox video includes a discussion of “Written in the Sealed Railway Car” by Dan Pagis, found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on “The Final Solution”
- Poetry in Holocaust Education: “Testimony” by Dan Pagis: this poem is also found in the Echoes & Reflections unit on the “The Final Solution”