Unlike “The Diary of Anne Frank,” another set of reflections penned during World War II is mostly off the radar of today’s readers: the “freedom poetry” of young Jewish inmates bravely awaiting their deaths inside the Terezin Concentration Camp, north of the Czech Republic’s capital city of Prague.
Protected from Nazi confiscation inside the walls of a school, the poignant poems and related drawings were published in the 1993 compilation, “I Never Saw Another Butterfly.” They were also the basis of a powerful interdisciplinary unit taught to St. Christopher School’s 20 eighth graders.
“It was really terrible because it was a concentration camp just for kids,” said eighth grader Kelly McWilliams, noting that 15,000 children under the age of 15 passed through the camp from 1942-44, with less than 100 of them surviving the war.
“Hitler billed Terezin as the Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews, and he put it on display as this wonderful town where he was taking such good care of everyone,” said Sheila Nicholson, the 38-year teaching veteran and school counselor who integrated the poems into her St. Christopher world geography course after learning of their existence at a bullying conference attended by staffers from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Houston.
Nicholson assigned each student a different poem to analyze and reflect on.
In the poem assigned to Kelly, the poet notes that although the number of camp inmates was growing smaller and smaller, at least each would have the dignity of dying “together, as themselves,” Kelly said.
Chenoa Fields’ poem was written by a girl who escaped her physical prison by creating a land of tolerance in her mind.
“One of the things she said was, ‘I’d like to go there, maybe soon. A thousand strong can reach this goal before too long,’” quoted Chenoa.
Larry Major said the mere sound of footsteps was a source of terror in the life of his young poet, while Grace Koehler detected an angry determination in her writer.
“It was really touching. You could feel the courage that he put into it,” Grace said. “He had no doubt in his mind that they were going to beat this, whether he had to be killed to get it done or not.”
The poems also were explored in the students’ science, art and computer classes through their studies and drawings of butterflies indigenous to the Czech Republic. In religion, the eighth graders took a field trip to Metairie Cemetery to learn about local rituals related to death.
“But the main lesson we took out of this was how Hitler was one of the biggest bullies of all time, and how he discriminated against the Jews for no reason,” Larry said. “(Terezin’s inmates) were picked on for just being themselves; they were little kids who died for no reason.”
While bullying at a Catholic elementary school is “on a very small scale compared to what Hitler did,” Grace said a single word of gossip can cause damage to another.
“You shouldn’t dislike someone for no apparent reason,” Kelly added. “That’s not how Jesus was. When we treat each other like we’re so different, we’re not really living out our Catholic faith.”