The Power of a Poem

Some people have never sat down and read a poem, some of have never or rarely sat down and read a book. I read all the time. There are books throughout my house, in pretty much every room. I love books, I love the stories in them and I love how an author can solicit empathy for characters, but mostly, I love how inside the pages of a book or the words of a poem, the author gives you a tiny glimpse into themselves. You find it in the way that they write and the words that they choose. And had it not been for a short poem called The Butterfly we would not know the name of Pavel Friedmann and we would not know the first hand pain and despair of a young man living in the Holocaust Ghettos.

 

The Man

Pavel Friedmann was born 7 January 1921 in Prague, Czech Republic. We know almost nothing about him really, we know when he born and we know when and where he died. We know that he was a Jewish poet. And, we know that he wrote a poem that was lost for a while, then found and it has become is legacy and voice.

 

The Poem

Pavel was 21 years old when he was taken to Theresienstadt concentration camp on 28 April 1942 (his recorded arrival date). A young man, with a whole life in front of him. On a thin sheet of paper on 4 June 1942, Pavel wrote a short poem, called The Butterfly. Pavel was transferred to Auschwitz 29 September 1944, where he was murdered upon arrival.

The Butterfly was lost to the world until 8 May 1945 when the Red Army liberated Theresienstadt and the poem was found. The poem made Pavel famous and through it he’s achieved fame and inspired The Butterfly Project of the Holocaust Museum Houston.

I am going to give you two translations of the poem, as it was written in Czech:

Version 1:

He was the last, truly the last

Such yellowness was bitter and blinding

Like the sun’s tear shattered on stone

That was his true colour

And how easily he climbed, and how high

Certainly climbing, he wanted

To kiss the last of my world

 

I have been here seven weeks,

“Ghettoized”

Who loved me have found me

Daises call to me,

And the branches also of the white

Chestnut in the yard

But I haven’t seen a butterfly here

The last one was the last one

There are no butterflies, here, in the ghetto

 

Version 2:

The last, the very last

So richly, brightly, dazzling yellow

Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing

Against a white stone…

 

Such, such a yellow

Is carriedly lightly ‘way up high

It went away I’m sure because it wished

To kiss the world goodbye

 

For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,

Penned up inside the ghetto

But I have found my people here

The dandelions call to me

And the white chestnut candles in the court

Only I never saw another butterfly

 

That butterfly was the last one

Butterflies don’t live here,

In the ghetto

 

Which ever version you prefer, cannot deny that they are powerful words. Today, we take for granted when a butterfly flies across our path. We don’t stop to think that that could be the last one we ever saw. To me, it is evident that Pavel knew he would not survive the ghetto or the Holocaust, and he left us this poem as his legacy to the world.

 

One of a few known photographs of Pavel Friedman

The Butterfly Project

Pavel’s poem inspired some three Houston area teachers to put together a Holocaust lesson to teach their students what happened during the Holocaust.

Projects Mission:

To start a global conversation that challenges us all to find connection through hope- standing up and taking action against hate together.

That is a pretty powerful mission, and a very needed one as well. Between 1942-1944, two short years, 12,000 children under the age of 15 were sent to Theresienstadt, 90% of them died there. It is difficult for us to imagine what 12,000 could physically look like, let alone 1.5 million (the number of children killed in the Holocaust).

So, as the poem has become a symbol of freedom around the world and the butterfly is a powerful symbol of hope and transformation, the teachers decided to have each of their students create a butterfly. There are currently 1.5 million butterflies in traveling displays, each butterfly represents a child lost in the Holocaust, a life cut tragically short.

You can go to butterflies.HMH.org and color a butterfly, take the pledge, view videos on the project and much more. It’s worth your time and its worth sharing with your children.

 

 

From the first moment I read this poem, I was moved. One of the most haunting images from Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List is that of a young boy, hiding up to his chest in human waste, a halo of light shinning down on his face, it makes me wonder how many children did that, just to survive. It shows how hate can ravage the human moral compass when it comes to murdering children. We, as a collective, have to stand up to hate and violence in all its forms, so that we can make this world a better and safer place for our children. I encourage you to look up the project and learn about it, color a butterfly and go hear a Holocaust survivor speak. Make sure their voices are never silenced, because we have heard their stories and we will keep telling them, just like Pavel’s poem and his story keep being told.

 

I hope that you have enjoyed this blog and will share it with your friends and family members, via email, social media, print, whatever format you choose. I will see you again in two weeks, with another story from the Holocaust and World War II.

 

The Amazing Kraus’

As I sit down to write this, it seems as if the world has gone insane. When I scroll through my Facebook feed, I see so many meme’s about how people need God and how this country needs to get back to religion, but what I often think when I see those is that this country, every country and every person needs to care less about themselves and more about each other. Every major religion I have ever studied has a basic foundation in doing good for others, helping those less fortunate then ourselves and caring for our poor and elderly, I think those are the ideals that we need to aspire to once again.

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus were just such people.

 

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus

To be honest, there was nothing extraordinary about Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus. Eleanor was born in 1903 and went to Quaker schools. Gilbert was born in 1897 and attended the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He became a lawyer after graduation and before long became a partner in the law firm he worked at.

Gilbert never seemed to sit still, he was president of Philadelphia Records, founded the Doyleston Legal Aid Society, President of Bucks County Mental Health Society, a member of the Eagleville Hospital and somewhere in there he raised guernsey cows.

The couple had two children and lead a nice life in Philadelphia. But the rise of Adolph Hitler would quickly change all of that.

 

The Mission Begins

In January of 1939 a man named Louis Levine reached out to Gilbert about helping save Jewish children. Louis was president of a fraternal organization called Brith Sholom. Brith Sholom was a Jewish organization that set out to help the less fortunate in the Jewish community, as well as provide news and assistance to all Jews in the area.

Louis wanted Gilbert to spearhead an effort of find ways to bring Jewish children from Europe, as they already saw what was happening and knew that Hitler wanted to destroy the Jewish race. Louis and Brith Sholom would fund the mission and when they got the children into the United States, they would be able to use Brith Sholom’s newly remodeled 25-bedroom country retreat.

Within a week Gilbert and Louis went to Washington D.C. to meet with members of the State Department. While they were in Washington, Eleanor was working hard to secure fifty affidavits from families that would be willing to foster the children in the United States. Eleanor enlisted the help of Murray Levin of the Hebrew Immigration Aid Society, he already had experience working with the government to bring Jews into the United States and would prove invaluable to Eleanor.

In six short weeks Eleanor managed to secure a total of 54 affidavits, four more than she needed as a precaution in case some families fell through at the last minute. Along with the affidavits, she had to procure copies of each family’s statements of financial security, financial records and letters of reference from family members and neighbors of each family. A mountain of paper work!

Along with the mountain of paperwork for each family, she needed the same information for Gilbert. Another mountain of paperwork!

After the affidavits were collected, in Washington D.C. Gilbert and Louis met with Under Secretary of State George Messersmith. He confirmed that their theory of using the “dead number visas” was a plan that could just work. (A dead number visa, is a visa into the United States that had been pre-approved but was rejected or returned at the last minute by the person the visa was assigned to.) Messersmith also encouraged Gilbert and Louis to go to Berlin and meet with the U.S. Consul there, and he warned them that other American aid agencies could try and discredit them and their work.

When the two began to plan their trip to Germany, the Passport Division of the United States warned them that Eleanor could come to harm in the current political climate in Berlin. Eleanor suggested that their close friend Robert Schless go with Gilbert. Schless had two major things going for him- he spoke German and he was a doctor; thus, he would be able to make sure that the children were in good condition for the long journey to the United States.

February 1939 saw Congressman Leon Sacks meet with Gilbert, Louis and Messersmith to discuss their rescue plan. Due to the 1924 Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) there were strict quotas on immigration and they needed a way around that. Between the INA and the Great Depression, it was increasingly tougher to bring in more immigrants. Messersmith again confirmed that the use of the dead visa numbers was their best option to bring in the children. After the meeting Messersmith reached out to the Consul Charge d’Affairs in Berlin, Raymond H. Geist, so that he can determine the feasibility of the plan on the Consuls end.

 

The Kraus’ 50 children

Problems and Criticism

Of course, the criticism that they knew would come, eventually did. Several other American Jewish aid organizations said that this trip was just a publicity stunt. The German Jewish Children’s Aid society wrote to the State Department to find out if Brith Sholom had acquired 250 entrance visas. Visas that would have been over the quota. The same group accused the Kraus’ of putting their rescue plans in jeopardy because of the plan they had in place to rescue children.

The Kraus’ started a public fundraising campaign to help pay for supplies, office space and staff once they arrived in Berlin, but once again the German Jewish Children’s Aid caused problems. They asked them to stop the fundraising because it caused problems with theirs. The Kraus’s stopped but received the help they needed from Europe.

 

Headed to Germany

On April 7, 1939 Gilbert and Robert Schless left for Germany. They sailed from New York City and a week later arrived in Berlin on April 14th. They had planned to start assessing the Jewish children in Germany, but were informed by Geist that they already had 200 children ready to go in Vienna. The two set out immediately for Vienna.

When they arrived in Vienna, they meet with Consul General, Leland Morris and Vice Consul Thomas Hohenthal who told them that many Viennese Jews applied for and were granted visas to the United States, however when it came time to leave they couldn’t afford the outrageous Nazi property confiscation fines or they couldn’t find sponsors in the United States.

Back in the states, Eleanor got a call from Gilbert letting her know that they had begun their work in Vienna, that he was safe and that he wanted her to join them as soon as possible. Eleanor booked passage to Europe on the U.S. Line Ship George Washington. It left New York for Hamburg at midnight on April 20th, she had just hours to make the ship when she arrived in New York! She left their children with friends and went to help her husband.

In Vienna Gilbert and Robert were setting up the criteria for the children they would take, they decided that the children must be between ages 4 and 14, be healthy and of a sound mind, and they began screening them on April 19, 1939.

With the help of Jewish committees in Vienna, they had set up an office, with supplies and a staff to help them. When Eleanor arrived on April 28th, the screening was in full swing and she assisted with the interview process. They initially select 26 children and on May 2nd delivered the list of names of Vice Consul Hohenthal.

The Kraus’ and Schless knew that they were under surveillance of the Gestapo. They stayed in first class hotels and ate in the finest restaurants but to the Gestapo Gilbert and Eleanor were still Jews.

Hohenthal confirmed that each child on the initial list are eligible. Soon the list grew to fifty eligible children and the Kraus’ began to match each one with a host family in the United States. The Vienna Consul ran out of “dead number visa’s” and suggested that they head to Berlin and get the last few there. The Kraus’ heeded his advice and on the evening of May 20th they had a farewell dinner with the children and their families at the Kultusgemeinde (Viennese Jewish Community). The next morning the parents saw their children off at the train station, for many it will be the last time they see their children.

By the time they arrived in Germany, they had completed the physical exams and final paperwork for each child. On May 22nd Gilbert purchased 53 tickets for passage on the S.S. President Harding that left Germany the following day for the United States.

Just before departure, Heinrich Steinberger, one of the 50 children, got sick and became to ill to travel. He was replaced by Alfred Berg. Archival records show that Heinrich and his mother were sent to Izbica on June 14, 1942 and then onto to Sobibor, where they were killed on arrival.

 

The Kraus’ and the children on board the President Harding.

The Children, the Voyage and the United States

The children that the Kraus’ brought to the United States came from all kinds of backgrounds and social classes, but every child had experienced life under the Nazi regime. There were some that were born in Austria, but many came from Poland, the Ukraine and Romania. Even though the entire family wanted to emigrate, they just didn’t have the money to pay the exorbitant exit fees demanded by the Nazis and chose to send their child instead.

Through the eleven days at sea many of the kids became sea sick, some worried that the ship would sick (most had never seen the ocean before). With three adults and fifty children, their cabins were spread throughout the ship.

When they arrived in New York, the group was met by Louis Levine, Congressman Sacks and nearly two dozen people from Brith Sholom. They took the kids to Pennsylvania where they would stay for several months taking courses in U.S. Civics and history, as well as intensive English lessons. They also received medical care and food. It was a safe place for the kids to begin their new life.

By August the kids began to grow restless at the retreat and the Kraus’ began matching them with their new foster families. Some of the kids adapted well to life in the United States, and some of them rejected their parents when they came for them after the war. Some longed for their parents and never really settled into life in the United States. Others felt that their foster families were not well matched for them. Of the 50 kids, may were reunited with their families after the war.

Gilbert and Eleanor took in a brother and sister, Robert and Johanna Braun. They would eventually be reunited with their parents after the war.

 

Post War

When the war started, the Kraus’ rescue operation was one of the largest operations. Neither Gilbert or Eleanor talked about what they did before the war, most of the family only knew that they did “something”. The couple were everyday people who did something extraordinary. They put complete strangers ahead of themselves and their family. They saw a wrong and they worked to right it.

They were outraged at the lack of government involvement and also involvement by the wider Jewish community in getting the Jews of Europe out before they were destroyed.

Gilbert and Eleanor were not practicing Jews. Their children attended Quaker schools and they celebrated Christmas. As Robert Braun would say years later “Not an inkling of Judaism in their home”.

Eleanor had written a memoir of their adventure of saving the children. No one in the family knew about and it didn’t come to light until after her death in 1989, it was found in a drawer.

 

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus were everyday people, your next-door neighbors, but like so many others that I have talked about in this blog, they saw something wrong and they worked to fix it. Not for their own glory, but because someone needed their help. It is people like the Kraus’ that give me hope for the future. Somewhere out there is someone or many someone’s doing extraordinary things, they just don’t make the nightly news for the whole world to know. They just do the right thing and know in their hearts that what they have done changed the world, even just a little.

 

I hope that you have been inspired by the story of the Kraus’ and that you too will aspire to do extraordinary things for your fellow man. We are all one race, the human race. We need to lookout for each, protect each other and care for each other, that is what will heal mankind.

 

Until next time, please share this blog and follow it. Have a wonderful day!