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.
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.
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:
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,
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
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.
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.
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.