I have just returned from the Czech Republic on a research trip for a new project. Getting away from this little island was quite a reawakening after the insularity of the pandemic. I was immersed in the history of a part of Europe where dictatorships have raged and scarred and changed borders, demographics and culture, and apparently still do.
And where, despite never having been there before, the architecture, fairy tales and pastries felt a lot like home to me.
In December I was surprised by an invitation to collaborate on a new project – to make a book based on the experiences of one family during world war two. I won’t tell you what happened, that’s for the book itself, but much of the story takes place in a small fortress town not far from Prague, called Terezín, which from 1942 to 1945 functioned as a prison ghetto and transit camp – Theriesenstadt in German. It had a distinct purpose in the nazi plan, and many eminent Jews in the fields of art, science and music were sent there, as well as nearly all Czech Jews, and also elderly Jews from all over the reich, who the nazis wanted to make a show of treating well. As members of my own family had been sent there too, never to return, I felt both curious and honour bound to take up the project and see where it would lead, especially as I’d be working with a wonderful collaborator whose work in other fields I admire.
She already has a lot of books and knowledge about the strange world that existed at Terezin during those years. I began to catch up with her, reading, watching documentaries, (like The Music of Terezín) and exchanging thoughts.
We agreed I needed to go there and draw before the real work could begin. I took a lot of art materials and books to help, like Austerlitz by WG Sebald, and East West Street by Philippe Sands, and for communist era insight (and laughs,) the brilliant B. Proudew, by Irena Douskovà, translated by Melvyn Clarke.
One of the main reasons for my journey was to look at an extraordinary art collection: drawings made by children at the ghetto in clandestine classes run by an artist inmate called Friedl Dicker Brandeis.
Trained at the Bauhaus, Friedl had long worked with imagination at the forefront of her own practice. Using hard won resources like the old forms left by the previous Czech military occupants of the place and the materials she herself had filled her one case with on deportation there, she set the children exercises in drawing that she knew had the power to temporarily release their minds into another reality. Some of the children’s drawings are in a small gallery at the Pinkas Synagogue, one of many compelling sites in Prague’s old Jewish district.
I spent some hours in that space, drawing from the children’s pictures, hoping to hear them and learn from them through an imitation of their gestures.
Works by the child prisoners include charcoal drawings of different rhythms, experimental exercises in colour and dynamic collages, often using a stash of red wrapping paper and some green that was found in the camp and carefully saved for art class.
Friedl along with practically every child she taught, was murdered at Auschwitz in the autumn of 1944. After liberation, over 4,500 of the children’s drawings from her classes were found hidden in two suitcases in Terezin. I was extremely grateful to be able to spend some time in the Jewish Museum Archive looking at more of the drawings in close up and finding out about them from their curator Michaela Sidenberg.
During the middle of the week, days four and five, I was at Terezin. Now parading as a seemingly normal small town with cafes, shops and Czech residents.
I was taken on tours in English both days by kind, well-informed guides, who both had a firm handle on the painful facts and statistics. On day four I’d caught the bus from Prague and walked across the road from the ghetto itself to a place called the Small Fortress.
It was a haunted place, from its grand SS villa and empty swimming pool to its windowless solitary confinement cells. Whilst on the tour we experienced every type of weather, from blazing sun to hail, matted grey sleet-chucking clouds to rainbows. I felt the ghosts were operating the skies and illuminating the darkest of all dark human enterprises.
The days back in Prague after Terezín were less intense. Adam had come to meet me and we walked by the erasing gush of the Vltava river in the biting wind. I returned to the present, a place of gift shops and garnets, and great Czech taunts to gravity such as dumplings and giddying spires.
Since my return home I am resolved on drawing more than ever. I discovered a power to those tender marks on paper that really does outlive the tyrant.