Ilse Weber’s letters and poems, 1933−1944, record with vivid immediacy the lives of her small family during a time of increasing danger, when Europe descended from peace to the chaos of war and genocide. Ilse wrote to her Swedish friend, Lilian, who lived in London, and from 1939, also to her older son whom the Webers sent to Lilian on a Kindertransport. In 1942, Ilse, her husband and younger son, were deported to the Thersienstadt ghetto. Working there in the children's infirmary, Ilse eased the daily suffering of her patients and fellow inmates with songs she wrote and set to music, accompanying herself on her contraband guitar. These more than 60 songs and poems that trace Ilse’s last years, have been performed by various artists and ensembles from around the world, having become symbols of ghetto life under Nazi occupation.
Translated from the German, and Foreword, by Michal Schwartz
Reviewed by Karen Rigby
January 27, 2017
This sobering, respectful collection brings a haunting legacy out of the viciousness of the war.
Dancing on a Powder Keg elucidates one Jewish woman’s experience in Czechoslovakia during the Holocaust. Translated from the German by Michal Schwartz, Ilse Weber’s brave reflections reveal the effort to keep artistic practice alive while raising young children in dark times. Historic, unsettling, and beautifully composed, these writings add a crucial note to existing scholarship on the Holocaust.
A writer for radio, lyricist, children’s book author, and later a nurse on the children’s ward at the Theresienstadt concentration camp (which was also called the Theresienstadt Ghetto), Weber turns everyday events into lively descriptions through letters that span 1933–1944. The majority are written to Weber’s friend in England, Lilian; Lilian’s mother, Gertrude, who sheltered Weber’s eldest son in Sweden during the war; and to her son. Germany’s growing threat is drawn through mentions of scarce finances, the plights of friends, pogroms, and divisions among the Czech people, and all while Weber persisted with household duties. Affectionate portraits of her children rapidly give way to accounts of anti-Semitism and fear. In the absence of Lilian’s replies, these letters become a personal record of losing freedom and keeping faith. Questions linger unanswered. They build with urgency, turn briefer and rarer, then suddenly cease.
A useful note by Ruth Bondy on Theresienstadt and an afterword by Ulrike Migdal provide background. Biographical details and the story of how Weber’s writings were preserved add necessary context. The account of her surviving son, Hanuš, is particularly fine. It balances between the tragedy of a young son who was separated from his family—and who, at the time, remained unaware of their ordeal in the camps—and the adult who later learned the truth. It’s here, in the unspoken weight of such knowledge, that the full impact of Weber’s death comes to rest.
Weber was known for her compassion toward children in the camp. Her lullabies and poetry portray their longing with staunch intelligence. Spare images depict the pain of imprisonment and horror of transports even as they hope for an end to suffering. This sobering, respectful collection brings a haunting legacy out of the viciousness of the war.
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From the back cover:
"The literature about Theresienstadt (Terezin) and the fate of Czech Jewry during the Holocaust is voluminous, but Ilse Weber's story is unique. A tremendously gifted young woman, a poetess and musician, a son who is rescued to Britain and Sweden, a devoted husband, and many of whose wonderful poems have been miraculously rescued, form a unique testimony. Ilse Weber worked as a nurse in a children's sick-room in Theresienstadt, and refused to abandon her charges when they were transported to Auschwitz. Miraculously, again, her last spoken words at the entrance to the gas chamber were preserved. Her husband survived, and her older son finally made this publication possible. I have read many accounts, but this account by someone who did not survive, and whose story has been reconstructed, is exceptional."
— Prof. Yehuda Bauer, academic adviser to Yad Vashem, academic adviser to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, and senior adviser to the Swedish Government on the International Forum on Genocide Prevention.
In 1998, he was awarded the Israel Prize, for "history of the Jewish people," primarily in connection with his Holocaust studies.
Of the numerous reviews for Ilse Weber’s letters and poems’ German edition, below is a translated selection of the most significant German-language newspapers.
"…Ilse’s charismatic and helpful personality made these poems not only popular, but for many inmates they became more important than “water and bread,” as they restored their courage to face life, pride and hope… the book’s story and the fate of its protagonists, finally wrested from oblivion… is absolutely touching… it necessitates a filming of Ilse Weber’s life…it must be recognized by future generations as one of the most important testimonies of the Shoa." — Florian Hunger, Jüdische Zeitung
"…with her smuggled guitar, this charismatic woman made music secretly half night through … Ilse became a legendary figure among the survivors of Theresienstadt." — Oliver Pfohlmann, Neue Zürcher Zeitung,
"Reading these [letters ] today one remains speechless. Likewise the straightforward and visually expressive poems. They present themselves without flourish and embellishment, and for that they are gripping." — Roland Maurer, Der Kleine Bund, Züruch
"….even today, 60 years after the horrible events… Ilse Weber’s letters and poems... manifest the fate of an individual in dark times… get 'under our skin.'” — Hugo Ernst Käufer, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.
"Letters written to a best friend are something very personal…One confides things one doesn’t dare say loud, one is even afraid to think… I read Ilse’s letters and at times couldn’t hold back the tears: not because this young, educated woman was maudlin, but because I could not stop the calamity. To hope that the course of events would suddenly change is of course naive…but one must have hope when we get so close to this woman, get to know her…" — Stefanie Nannen, Hamburger Abendblatt.
Ilse Weber was born in1903 in Vítkovice, in northern Czechoslovakia. A Jewish poet, she wrote in German and published children’s books and radio scripts. In 1930 she married Willi Weber. In 1931 she gave birth to her first son, Hanuš, and in 1934 to Tommy. In 1938, Hitler’s Third Reich annexed Vítkovice and soon after, it occupied all of Czechoslovakia. In the spring of 1939, the Webers sent Hanuš with a Kindertransport to England. In 1942, Ilse, Willi and Tommy were deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto. Ilse worked there with sick children, and in 1944, as the entire infirmary was deported, she refused to abandon the children and voluntarily registered to the transport to Auschwitz, where she and her younger son were murdered. Ilse’s husband survived and retrieved her poems. The letters were fortuitously discovered decades later, when a London attic was emptied.