Oh, I wish you all will be children again,
with the right to love, to feel shining sun,
to the joy each child can claim at birth,
round cheeks and glances bright with mirth,
the chance to eat, some this, some that,
you poor children of Theresienstadt.
(from Blue Hour at the Children’s Ward)
Ilse Weber (nee Herlinger) was born January 11, 1903, into a prosperous German-speaking Jewish family in Ostrava, a city in the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, Austro-Hungarian Empire that ultimately became Czechoslovakia after World War I.
Ilse was musically talented, and could play the piano, guitar, lute, mandolin, balalaika and the concertina. She was also quite literate, and growing up was always immersed in a book.
At age sixteen Ilse completed a personal questionnaire, revealing that her favorite occupation was “writing letters, stories and poems,” and that her “little passion” was “children.”
She was able to combine her various passions, and wrote children’s poems, songs and plays. By age 26, Ilse could boast of having published three children’s books, written a series of audio plays for the radio, and published numerous poems and articles.
As a young teen, Ilse advertised for pen pals. While she developed a network of correspondents, her closest relationship developed with Lilian von Lowënadler, the daughter of a Swedish diplomat. This correspondence ultimately flowered into an intense friendship.
In 1930, Ilse married Willem (Willi) Weber, also from Ostrava, a successful small businessman. Shortly thereafter their first child, Hanuš, was born (December 31, 1931). Following Hanuš’ arrival, life for Ilse looked unquestionably good—a home, a son, a husband.
Then came Hitler.
Some of Ilse’s letters to Lilian were miraculously preserved [more on that later] and have just been published in a new book: Dancing on a Power Keg, (Bunim & Bannigan/Yad Vashem, 2016). They cover the period from February 6, 1933 (one week after Hitler seized power), through Ilse’s deportation to Theresienstadt in 1942, until September 29, 1944, when she was transported to Auschwitz. As such, they constitute a compelling window into the life of a typical Jewish family in Czechoslovakia as they gradually and remorselessly fall victim to the humiliations, torments and persecutions of The Final Solution. In the words of Peter Fritzsch, writing in An Iron Wind: “Victims steadily lost the ability to make themselves at home in the world.”
In 1933, the start of the correspondence, of course, all of these dangers were no more than a cloud, the size of a man’s fist, on the horizon. Ilse’s letters are chatty, and filled with news of her children’s illnesses, her radio work, the family’s travels, etc. A second son, Thomas, followed on March 3, 1934.
By 1937, the idyll of living in Czechoslovakia had long since vanished. Ilse writes: “I laugh very little these days.” (April 29, 1937).
Worse was to come in 1938, as the Munich Crisis heated up. Hitler, determined to incorporate Czechoslovakia’s Sudeten Germans into the Greater Reich, threatened war, while encouraging the Sudeten Germans to foment unrest. March 28, 1938: “I no longer know here any one of my, until recently, German friends, who doesn’t ogle Germany. . . . And the worst is for us Jews. How Hitler must fear us that he persecutes us so! Up to this day I have believed in God; but if he doesn’t give us a token of his existence soon, I can no longer. This persecution of Jews is inhuman.”
By the end of 1938, learning that Lilian had lost a newborn daughter who was born prematurely, Ilse’s attempt to provide some comfort reveals her state of mind: “You will probably not be able to forget this little girl for the rest of your life. But perhaps one day you will be happy that it parted from you without having to know the cruelty of this ugly world and its despicable people.” (December 1, 1938).
So also my mother goes
along strange ghetto lanes,
hunched by age and duress,
eyes blank with loneliness,
of all she loved, nought remains.
By mid-1939, Ilse concluded that Hanuš would be safer away from Czechoslovakia’s increasingly dangerous atmosphere, and so she arranged for his inclusion in a “kindertransport” organized by Nicholas George Winton (later knighted), which ultimately rescued 669 children (most of them Czech Jews) by bringing them to England. From England, Ilse’s friend and pen pal Lilian took Hanuš to Sweden, where he spent the war years, initially in Lilian’s custody, and later in the care of Lilian’s mother, Gertrude von Lowënadler.
In my thoughts and dreams I hold you near
and yet it’s a blessing to me you’re not here.
Life has taken so much away,
all my joy gone since you left that day.
Oh yes, the burden is hard to bear,
but at least I know that you are spared.
A thousand torments to be endured,
if your happy childhood is ensured.
It’s getting late and I must lie down.
If I could rest eyes on you again!
Dear son, no matter how strong my need,
I can only write letters you’ll never read.
(from Letter to My Child)
Ilse’s letters, first to Lilian, and then to Gertrude (and often jointly to Hanuš) are filled with typical motherly exhortations, to wash up, to study, to obey. At the same time, they reveal the worsening situation in Czechoslovakia.
By the end of 1940 the Webers, who had moved earlier that year from Ostrava (because “one had to fear for one’s life in the streets”) to a three-room apartment in Prague, were forced yet again to move, this time to a single room in an apartment owned by a certain Dr. Weidmann, a pediatrician “though now without a practice,” a euphemistic way of explaining that he, like all Jewish doctors, had been barred from his previous profession.
In the same letter (December 1940), Ilse expressed thanks upon learning that Hanuš had received some clothes from the Red Cross: “We’re no longer used to kindness by anyone. You know, all it takes is for someone to say to me a sympathetic word and I already cry. My nerves are so kaput.”
And it only got worse. By April 21, 1941, Ilse observes, “In the last two years I aged a hundred years, and almost everyone with me.”
Even the simplest pleasures were increasingly hard to come by. That summer Ilse described one of her favorite pastimes, a walk down to the Vltava River that flows through Prague: “[B]efore me the wide river with its beautiful arched bridges and small boats, in the background wooded hills. It is beautiful, even when you can only look at it, not being allowed to go there. Sometimes it really surprises me that we’re not forced to wear black glasses. So we caress the green splendor with our eyes and remember past days when the trees still turned green indiscriminately for all people.” (July 6, 1941)
One month later Ilse writes she is “not good for anything anymore. I’m unable to write even one poem. Inside, I’m like dead.” (August 31, 1941)
From the distance I could
hug you only with my eyes,
too cowardly to run to you
to slip by your side.
I saw you and the others
pass through the barracks gate
tormented and without a home,
off to an unknown fate.
I didn’t say goodbye to you,
and you may never know
that even as I deserted you
I never felt so close.
(from Goodbye Mother)
By January 1942 Ilse had hit rock bottom, missing Hanuš and worn down by her daily struggles. “I can’t imagine that I will see my child again. Last night I was so desperate that I seriously suggested to Willi to end it all and rather commit suicide with me and Tommy. Luckily, Willi is a rational, calm man and knows how to handle me. Fact is that mentally I simply can’t go on.”
One month later (February 6, 1942), Ilse, Willi and Tommy were deported to Theresienstadt, a ghetto and concentration camp located in Terezin, Czechoslovakia. Upon arrival Ilse started a children’s infirmary. Oddly enough, she thrived in her new role—she even began composing poems again, many of which she also set to music. As a contemporary of Ilse’s later wrote: “Ilse’s indescribable sense of duty for her family and children–patients never let her rest. She allowed herself only little sleep. She took advantage of every free moment to draw images with words that captured everyday life in Theresienstadt.” Willi even concluded later that Theresienstadt was the peak of Ilse’s career as a writer.
Someone with a sympathetic heart
for others’ sorrows, tears and hurt,
who possess to the full
determination, who can hide her fear:
this is what is needed here,
essential to survival.
I cannot pity those who lack
these qualities, who keep looking back,
who to their fancied pasts succumb.
They are clueless who think this way.
Here only inner value holds sway,
our only asset in days to come.
(from A Conversation in the Alley)
In September 1944 Willi received a transport notice to the dreaded “East”—Auschwitz. He immediately filled a sack with Ilse’s poems and sketches and buried them in a hole beneath a shed in Theresienstadt to which he had access by virtue of his job as a gardener.
“Today,” a little boy with a head bandage says,
“I dreamt I lived under a tree. I was
in cloud-cuckoo-land that
offered nothing to do but eat.”
“What did you eat?” asks a girl with round eyes.
“Cakes, sausages and all kinds of pies,
all in cloud-cuckoo-land, all to enjoy.”
“Cakes!” grumbles a yellow-jaundiced boy
whose hungry hopes have just been dashed,
“What I want is potatoes, mashed.”
“And I,” calls out a shrill wee voice,
“a scrambled egg would be my choice.”
Young voices echo through the hall:
“An egg! Just this once! Eggs for all!
For ten months not one egg eaten,
and how it tastes we’ve long forgotten.”
Shortly after Willi’s transport, the entire children’s infirmary was ordered onto a transport to Auschwitz as well. Rather than abandon her young charges, Ilse voluntarily registered herself and Tommy so as to accompany them, even though she had previously pledged to Willi that she would “under no circumstances” do so. On October 4, 1944 she began her journey to Auschwitz.
A hoarse voice rises jovially:
“At home we had an apple tree,
if I could have an apple, just one. . .”
Then from a dim corner a wail’s begun,
Heinzi, tubercular and lame,
his cheeks, pale, white as snow, says “Home . . .
if I could only . . . how I wish . . .
to have what I left on my dish.
I ate no soup, no potatoes, no meat.
They yelled at me each time I didn’t eat,
now mother is sick and father is dead,
and all I want is a piece of dry bread.”
(from Blue Hour at the Children’s Ward)
After the war, Willi (who survived) returned to Theresienstadt and miraculously retrieved the cache of poems, which are also included in Dancing on a Powder Keg, several of which are reproduced in part here. [Willi, who was born in 1901, the same year as Odd Nansen, died in the summer of 1974, one year after Nansen.]
In 1977, thirty-three years after Ilse’s death, the husband of Lilian Lowënadler (Lilian had died during the war of complications after contracting pleurisy) was cleaning out his London apartment when he discovered a trunkfull of Ilse’s letters covering 1933-1944. He delivered them to Hanuš, who then left them unread for another twelve years, so fearful was he of revisiting his mother’s trauma. Only in 1989 did Hanuš (now aged 58), in response to a request from his uncle (who was writing a family history), read their contents for the first time.
I could not protect you from
your hunger and privation.
Illness found you helpless;
death was your salvation.
Your coffin has been carried off.
Oh to feel grief, to even sigh.
I’ve forgotten how to cry.
Ilse (and Tommy) did not survive the war. It was not until 1999, over a half-century later, that Hanuš learned the details of their death from a friend from Ostrava and Theresienstadt who had been employed in Auschwitz’s “Leichenträger” [corpse carrying] commando:
“Sometime in autumn 1944 I noticed a group of ten or fifteen children that had arrived with a transport. Ilse stood in their middle trying to comfort the little ones.” [Despite the danger, the worker went over to Ilse, who immediately recognized him.] “’Is it true that we can take a shower after the journey?’ she asked. I did not want to lie and so I answered: ‘No, that is no shower room, it is a gas chamber, and I will give you a piece of advice now. I have often heard you singing in the infirmary. Go as quickly as possible into the chamber. Sit with the children on the floor and start singing. Sing what you always sing with them. That way you will inhale the gas quicker. Otherwise you would be trampled to death when the panic breaks out.’ Ilse’s reaction was strange. She laughed, somehow absently, hugged one of the children and said: ‘So we will not be taking a shower. . . . ‘”
One month later (early November, 1944), all gassing ceased at Auschwitz, per order of Heinrich Himmler.
The best things of the world are these:
A little home full of luck and peace,
Without the neighbors’ envious looks,
With silent hours in homely nooks.
A sound of music, a children’s song
And far away are hate and wrong.
No one is there who grieves my heart,
But You shall come and never part.
(Written to Lilian von Lowënadler, February 3, 1939)