In April 1999, Sara and I spent a few days exploring the historical Czech city of Prague. During our stay we visited many of the interesting sights including the castle, so memorably depicted by the writer Franz Kafka, the art collection at the Schwarzernberský palace and the home of Bedrich Smetana, composer of the patriotic Ma Vlast (My Country). We were also fortunate in obtaining tickets to attend a concert at the Rudolfinum that included Mozart’s Prague symphony and the Czech Suite by Anton Dvořák. However, the most powerful image that remains in my mind from this visit to the Czech capital is that of the Pinkas synagogue, with its poignant reminder of the terrible discriminatory and destructive force of which man can be capable, and which was manifest in the holocaust instigated under the Nazi regime.
The walls of this simple building are inscribed with the names and dates of birth and death of 77,297, Moravian and Bohemian Jewish victims who died in European concentration camps during the second world war. Standing in silence reading these names is a chilling experience, but even this is surpassed when one enters the second part of this memorial. In rooms upstairs at the Pinkas synagogue a permanent collection of children’s drawings from the Terezín ghetto depicts the everyday lives of children who suffered terribly during this dreadful period of history. In order to assist children in their understanding of their lives, to remember better days and commemorate their experiences, a remarkable teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, ran art classes in the ghetto for children and encouraged them to record their troubled lives. Immediately prior to her own deportation to Auschwitz, where she was to die in the camp, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis filled two suitcases with around 4,500 children’s drawings and hid them in the hope that they might last as a permanent memorial to the children’s experiences. These were recovered after the liberation of the country and are now lovingly exhibited at the Pinkas synagogue museum.
Having been moved by the names written on the walls of the synagogue I found myself unable to cope with the powerful images produced by children who had suffered so much under such an evil regime. After ten minutes we could take no more and left emotionally drained and overcome by the messages contained within such simple drawings and paintings. I have often found myself recalling this visit and know that I could not bear to revisit this site, though I am glad that I did so then, and know that in some way the experience reinforced my beliefs about the necessity to challenge the ways in which children continue to be so badly treated in many parts of the world.
Why am I writing about this now? It is 15 years since making that visit to Prague, but this morning the memories of that trip, and particularly the images from the Pinkas synagogue are particularly strong. I am a regular reader of the UNICEF website and switching in to the site this morning came face to face with children’s drawings that were horrendously similar to those seen in Prague. Workers in Bossangoa in the Central African Republic have been encouraging children to reproduce through their art work, memories and experiences of their lives in a country torn apart through conflict. On the UNICEF site there are reproductions of some of these drawings that depict the violence and destruction witnessed by these young innocent victims of war. The use of art as a therapeutic process is articulated by Jean Lokenga, a UNICEF worker who is cited as saying:
“Many displaced children have witnessed violent incidents, and it’s still in their heads. If not addressed immediately, the long-term impact of their exposure to distressing events can be huge.”
The work of UNICEF in many parts of the world has been crucial to the rehabilitation of children and the restoration of some form of normality into their lives. Most children like to draw, but hopefully very few will be placed in a position of doing so in order to cope with the horrors of everyday life. Our reactions to the images that children produce are often emotional. In the case of drawings such as these they should surely prompt us to rail against the injustices and maltreatment that has become a part of the daily lives of innocent victims around the world. It would appear that in the words of George Santayana “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
An article about the drawings produced by children from the Central African Republic can be found at:-