Auschwitz is the iconic site of much literature dealing with the Holocaust, but Terezin, or as the Germans dubbed it, Teresienstadt, may be the site that has inspired the greatest variety of postwar artistic effort.
This may follow from the artistic wealth of the place itself during wartime, when not only clandestine but public art flourished, partly as a propaganda tool aimed at an international audience.
The camp received a remarkable number of Czech, German and Austrian composers, actors, visual and cinema artists, who not only practiced their art but also held classes for children and created musical venues for public performance. Among them was Karel Ancerl, a leading Czech conductor. The music of Viktor Ullmann and Hans Krása – especially the latter’s children’s opera, Brundibár – has gained substantial popularity in recent decades. This follows the early and influential books dedicated to art by children at Terezin, most famously I Never Saw Another Butterfly. Published by the State Jewish Museum in Prague in 1959, its appearance in an English edition in 1978 coincided with a substantial increase in Holocaust scholarship and art worldwide.
Terezin’s effectiveness as a source of Holocaust education and creativity arises from its singularities: the fact that it was not a death camp; the role of children in its legacy; and the particular form of German madness undertaken there, including the propaganda film The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews.
Monique Polak’s What World Is Left (Orca) takes Terezin’s history in a personal direction, deriving key aspects of its narrative from her mother’s two-year internment there with her family. Among them was her mother’s father, Jo Spier, a well-known Dutch newspaper artist before the war. Spier’s fictional counterpart in the novel is a Dutch artist named Joseph Van Raalte, and it is through the eyes of his 14-year-old daughter, Anneke, that we come to know Terezin. Like other creative personalities incarcerated by the Germans, Van Raalte plays a part in the propaganda projects undertaken by the camp leadership. As the camp is dressed, almost like a film set, for a visit by Danish Red Cross officials, Anneke wonders if her “father is helping the Nazis carry out their evil plan.” She considers, too, how she is “benefiting from my father’s situation. It’s because of him that we have our own apartment. It’s because of him that we haven’t been shipped off on a transport. It’s because of him that Commandant Rahm sent Opa to us.”
As in much Holocaust fiction – even the most gruelling Auschwitz novels and stories of Tadeusz Borowski and Eli Wiesel – the perpetrators are not the narrative’s main focus. In What World Is Left Germans make short and brutal appearances and then disappear from sight for long passages. In this, Polak’s novel resembles Holocaust memoirs, which focus on the way that people survived, on the experience of victimhood and its postwar legacy.
In her author’s note, Polak informs us that her mother did not share the story of her two years in Terezin until more than 60 years after the liberation of the camp. Further family recollections were available in an illustrated book by Polak’s grandfather, published in Dutch in 1978.
What World Is Left has been nominated for a major American Library Association award. If it wins, the novel may be destined to become a part of the influential canon of Holocaust fiction inspired by personal memories.
Norman Ravvin’s essays on Holocaust literature are collected in A House of Words: Jewish Writing, Identity and Memory. He is the chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.