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.