Caught on paper
For child survivors, drawing is therapy—and a tool of justice
From the trials of Nazis to the genocide in Darfur, children’s sketches have provided vital evidence
This is the headline and lead-in of an article in this week’s The Economist which caught my eye even before the words began to register. ‘Child’, ‘survivors’, and ‘justice’ are among those keywords that arrow-speed right through my DNA. So that no matter how awake or droopy my eyes may be, I feel a surge of high alert riveting through my being. If awake, I feel my eyes widen, my ears growing antennae. Mind and body ignited. If drowsy, all signs of tiredness vanish. So does any vestige of rest. In other words, I’m stabbed into a lengthy state of super consciousness.
It may have been clocking midnight after a long day’s work and the prospect of another early start the next day for cold comfort. No matter. That’s when I read through how children’s sketches of the heinous horrors they have witnessed and which hound them with indelible scars offer some therapeutic relief as well as provide raw, authentic evidence of atrocities that are so often refuted or played down by ever sinister propaganda machines, in turn, fueled by brutes. Despite the article’s brevity, the horror is up close and personal. For all the surface neutral tone, the journalist’s feelings and opinions impossible to miss. I was particularly struck by the conclusion which I would like to quote in full:
As yet, there is no plan to enlist these as evidence. But as courts whirr into action—on January 23rd, as The Economist went to press, the International Court of Justice was due to issue a ruling on the slaughter—interest in them may grow. Experience shows that, uncluttered by adult artifice, children can provide the most honest impressions of unspeakable acts, and the most searing.
I have seen sketches by children whose lives have been blighted beyond their comprehension. Though they do not depict atrocities, their bewilderment, their hunger, their deprivation, their pain, and their terror are palpable not merely visible. I am referring to a good number of old copybooks depicting family members, friends, mealtimes and playtime among other everyday scenes. Also, flowers, pets, and doodling as the musty air filled my nostrils and clung to my clothes. You will be able to share the very same poignant and disturbing experience if you ever visit the Jewish quarter in Prague which houses a sizeable museum of the Holocaust period since the Prague ghetto was a stepping stone to Theresienstadt and eventually the extermination camps, with Auschwitz being the largest and the most notorious.
I was born into a practicing Catholic family – on both sides scarred by WW2 experiences which spurred both my brother and I to dig deeply into the history of the Second World War and inevitably the Holocaust. As I write these very words, I can visualize my father’s pained eyes as he recounted his meeting with a few American soldiers who had liberated Dachau. His typical few words were more than enough to intimate the horror. I am still thankful that he was spared witnessing the unacceptable, the unjustifiable, the indescribable which did happen.
Although I am not a Jew, I firmly believe in upholding historical facts (that in themselves do not necessarily posit a chronicle of human progress) and moreover, in the importance of speaking about man’s inhumanity to fellow man. If anyone thinks that concentration camps can never be repeated, such people must be living in cloud cuckoo land. I suggest that they look up what thousands of Bosnian men and especially women suffered in the 1990s. Besides, the list of genocides (dubbed ethnic cleansing) across the globe before and after WW2 illustrates the abomination of evil that exists both in man’s being and in man’s response to circumstances.
Twenty years have passed since my visit to the Check Republic. But the morning spent in the equally charming and chilling Jewish quarter in Prague lives on as one of those impossible to eradicate memories. In a way, I was asking for such a permanent imprint. I have always been highly impressionable and can still remember the impact of seeing the luring red apple in Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs ominously filling up the screen before the fatal bite. I wasn’t even four yet. And I must have been a brooder even before I could articulate my thoughts with words.
Admittedly, I would not have made my way to the Jewish quarter had I been alone in Prague. But I happened to be with another writer friend of mine who was determined to visit the place. So, it was a matter of acquiescing as well as the urge to see things for myself. For this was the time I had discovered Primo Levi’s poems. He was an Italian Jewish chemist, writer, partisan fighter, and Auschwitz survivor. It is still unclear whether his death in 1987 – forty years after If This Is A Man (his memoirs of Auschwitz) had been published – was suicide or an accident.
How did Levi survive the starvation, the constant beatings, and the regular shuttling of the old and infirm to the gas chambers? The answer is a combination of luck, larceny, and deviousness. Nevertheless, he was appalled at the mercenary Sonderkommandoes which he described as ‘wolf to man’. These were mostly fellow Jews who acted as collaborators in the Final Solution. Enjoying much better food and living conditions yet implicated in genocide and with blood reeking on their hands, they loomed as the ultimate brutish traitors who could never turn back even if they tried. Not that it saved them since the Nazis would ensure that they too would be eventually exterminated. Only a handful survived – by happenstance rather than by design.
Given that this is the week marking Remembrance Day, I feel it is opportune to share my commentary (and more) on Levi’s autobiographical poem, called ‘The Survivor’.
Dopo di allora, ad ora incerta,
Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns:
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.
Once more he sees his companion’s faces
Livid in the first faint light,
Grey with cement dust,
Nebulous in the mist,
Tinged with death in their uneasy sleep.
At night, under the heavy burden
Of their dreams, their jaws move,
Chewing a non-existent turnip.
‘Stand back, leave me alone, submerged people,
Go away. I haven’t dispossessed anyone,
Haven’t usurped anyone’s bread.
No one died in my place. No one.
Go back into your mist.
It’s not my fault if I live and breathe,
Eat, drink, sleep and put on clothes.’
(Translated by Ruth Feldman & Brian Swann)
A tone of haunting anguish as well as of tormenting anger permeates The Survivor. The haunting strain points to Levi’s guilt at surviving the unspeakable horror of Auschwitz while countless others perished.
A fascinating read Noemi. I am reminded of The Painted Bird, a controversial novel by Jerzy Kosinski. It is a first-hand account of a child who gets separated from his parents in WWII. His journey is both tragic and grim, it captures just a small fraction of what is possible during wartime. That being said, the greatest atrocities are often those of the children caught in the middle – those who are either exterminated or unjustly destroyed by happenstance. Those who remain are often scarred by the twisted nightmares of what they witnessed or experienced. Humanity is never without war. At some point somewhere in the world, all throughout our checkered history, one tribe is throwing rocks at another. We teach our children that this is an acceptable part of our nature, but it isn’t. It never will be…
Thank you, Aaron, for your time and appreciation.
Ongoing war shows that a good part of human history is the incessant unleashing of a beast at its most bestial with little thought given to its brutalising impact especially both young and old. Worse still, it is also in times of peace that we kill the innocence of children as we have daily proof.
Noemi this is Very powerful!!!
Thank you, Larry, for your time and appreciation. That people, still question or negate the Holocaust while continuing to be totally blind to the genocides taking place before our very eyes, is beyond atrocious.
You touch here a very important and sensitive point : how can people become the personification of evil ?
As I read in another comment, unfortunately today we have to be very vigilant because dark forces do exist in our societies, and they have a bigger impact thanks to the wide audience that social media can offer …
It is important to remember the Holocaust and the sacrifice of so many Jews in the name of ethnic cleansing as well as rereading Primo Levi’s book “Se questo è un uomo” to understand that man can become a monster if we are not careful, if we forget to fight for what is right and just , if we forget that every person in this world , whatever the color of his skin, whatever his ethnicity, whatever his beliefs, has a right to basic human dignity .
Manuela thank you ever so much for your time and especially for your very pertinent comments. Being vigilant is crucial because today’s dark forces are not merely thriving through the impact of social media, but also because both political and so-called educational systems have engendered generations of uncritical minds devoid of historical knowledge.
Buonasera Noemi, non potevo non attendere un tuo articolo in questa settimana dedicata alla memoria dell’Olocausto. Raccapricciante capitolo della nostra storia che i realtà riaffiora ogni giorno nella memoria di ognuno di noi. Come rimanere indifferenti e come non batterci per debellare episodi antisemiti che ancora oggi, nel 2020 si susseguono. Bisogna intervenire subito per correggere, prevenire e punire certi comportamenti.
Nelle parole di Primo Levi leggo quell’istinto di sopravvivenza, di autotutela, di auto-giustificazione dettati dall’orrore vissuto.
Argomento, come tu sostieni, cupo ma necessario.
Grazie mille Gabriella per le tue valide riflessioni. È davvero un dovere morale ricordare uno dei capitoli più oscuri della nostra storia umana poiché non vi è alcuna garanzia che non accadrà mai più.
Brava Noemi, i bimbi sono il futuro, non si toccano. Mai dovrebbero subire il male generato in ogni tempo ed in tanti luoghi, di certi si parla molto di altri meno. Mai nessuno dovrebbe essere privato della libertà fisica e di espressione e sempre si dovrebbe avere qualcosa da mngiare. Condivido Primo Levi che subiva vergogna e voglia di morire per non sopravvivere e vedere morire gli altri.
Vorrei andare a vivere su un “claud cuckoo con te! Almeno vivremmo senza pensieri che altrimenti ci danno sofferenza.
Graze mille Massimo specialmente per i tuoi riflessioni. E’ ancora piu’ doloroso il modo in cui stiamo uccindendo l’innocenza dei bimbi nel mondo d’oggi quando dovremmo sapere meglio. Pero’, dobbiamo anche fare un gran sforzo di non perdere speranza
Noemi, grazie per questo articolo… Mi sento solo di aggiungere come l’assurda ignoranza, vuoto interiore, assenza di se stessi o quale altra diavolo di cosa sia (e lo dico con una certa rabbia e disperazione) porti anche qui in Italia, proprio in questi giorni, episodi e atteggiamenti neonazisti nei confronti di altre persone, come sento anche in altre parti di Europa… e non è solo da adesso. Movimenti che evidenziano una crescita di questo “male”, come entità, che comunque sia, trova lo spazio, oggi forse in modo anche più subdolo … e sappiamo che non è solo un fenomeno a se stante, e neanche è solo attribuibile a questo genere di persone o pseudo movimenti politici.
Sono convinto che quello che posso fare in primis di fronte a tutto questo è quello di cercare di vivere in me stesso, e con gli altri, quello che vorrei fosse per tutti, contrastando e abolendo ciò che in me può essere causa di ciò che non desidero. La prima cosa e forse la più importante è quella di impegnarmi a vincere me stesso ogni qualvolta (e a ben guardare così soventemente) che questo “me stesso” si presenta a me come il mio reale nemico, con quello che ho a disposizione… amare e voler migliorare per Amore… Che non è in quella forma banale, sdolcinata, patetica e tutto quello che ci posso ancora aggiungere… ma è inteso come quella forza che tutti abbiamo in noi… Che ha la potenza della vita in sé, in tutte le sue sfaccettature… Così potente che se ne viviamo un’impossibile assenza, rimaniamo prigionieri di noi stessi, facendo tacere tutto intorno a noi e dentro noi.
Molto sentito e profondo il tuo commento, Claudio. Davvero grazie di cuore.
Noemi, I enjoyed reading your article. You made mention of the Holocaust. Here in New York anti-Semitic attacks are at unprecedented levels in terms of severity and frequency. Synagogues are being vandalized and burned. All of these events point to the possibility (G-d willing however remote) it could happen again. G-d wanted to destroy the world when he saw how evil man was. G-d still sees evil. Not all of us are evil.
Joel, I am so pleased and relieved with your response because the last thing I wanted was to add sulphur to old wounds. At the same time, I firmly believe that we cannot remain silent in the face of pure evil. Your news about New York saddens me deeply for it echoes a similar pattern in Europe and also with the countless of Christians who are being persecuted in Africa and Asia with total impunity. I know that it is very hard, but I do take heart from the good people I meet and hear of. Thank you once again.
Noemi, I recently read a piece, the abject and willful ignorance of which made me want to scream and cry. I won’t name the author of the piece or the medium in which it appeared. But I recalled it when I read this: “The impossibility to grasp malice does not exonerate our propensity, our collusion or our apathy towards evil.”
It is neither pessimism nor fatalism to recognize the dark aspects of human nature — craving for power; murderous cruelty; objectification, demonizing and eradication of entire cultures and populations; on and on — that fall under the rubric of evil. We serve no one by burying our heads in Utopian sands.
If peace on earth were possible, we’d have achieved it by now. But we will ensure more peace for more people if we accept reality and use it to create barriers, impediments, and other deterrents to our inherent propensities to abuse each other.
Yours is a beautiful, powerful, and very necessary read. Thank you.
I can imagine your complete disgust at the wilful ignorance expressed in the piece your read.
I would say that in today’s world our heads are likely to be buried in Dystopian sands though I am with you that ‘If peace on earth were possible, we’d have achieved it by now.’
Logically, the creation of ‘barriers, impediments, and other deterrents’ to prevent pure evil makes sense. Yet again, human behaviour is neither spurred by not geared towards logic. If only we could all get into our hearts and heads that discussing ways to peace is perfectly futile unless we truly believe that peace is the way. Thank you, Mark, for your time, appreciation and most of all for your comments.
Very touchy and disturbing evidences of unbelievable terror, mostly done on Jews.
It is beyond comprehension of an ordinary human mind. Written with hardly hidden emotions, grief in the first place, and sufficient distance of the author who wanted to give us facts which we all should remember. Another great article of Ms Noemi.
The mind indeed boggles at man’s inhumanity to fellow man. And it is even more disturbing to see no end of it.
Thank you ever so much, Nermin, for you time and reflections.