The last post that I added to City Jackdaw was all about the wonder and splendour of this beautiful world that we live in. Today’s post is about a darker aspect of this same world, an aspect that we shamefully bring to it. I came across the story of Czeslawa Kwoka by accident. I had never heard of her before, but it was the photograph that drew my attention. I could not stop looking at it.
Czeslawa Kwoka was born in Poland in 1928. This beautiful girl was to die in Auschwitz in 1943. Not a Jew, she was a Polish Catholic girl who was sent to Auschwitz along with her mother in December 1942. Within three months, both were dead.
I have never been to Auschwitz. I did go to the Terezín camp when I was in Prague a few years ago. Although used as a ghetto and not an extermination camp, tens of thousands died there of hunger, disease, or direct abuse by the SS units known for their cruelty. What stuck in my mind was a wall that symbolised the different fates of people governed solely by the circumstance of their birth. On one side of the wall, the children of the camp commander would play happily in a swimming pool, much in the manner of children the world over. On the other side of the wall prisoners would be lined up to face a firing squad.
Life and death separated by one thin wall.
In the Jewish museum in Prague, there is a collection of drawings made by the children of Terezín. In total there were over four thousand, made between 1942 and 1944. A prisoner, Mrs Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, organised clandestine art classes for the children of the camp to distract from the horrifying situation they were in. The drawings were a vehicle of expression and communication, but also the classes acted essentially as a means of therapy, channeling the children’s extreme emotions onto paper. Many of the drawings revealed the hope for a return home to the safety of Prague, depicting crossroads, signposts and routes out of the ghetto camp. For all but a few this hope was unfulfilled, as they were mostly all moved on to Auschwitz.
The classes came to an end when Brandeis herself was moved to Auschwitz, where she would die. Before she went she deposited all of the drawings into a suitcase and hid it away. This came to light after the war. If you go to the museum today you can view these drawings, like I did. Each drawing has the name of the child artist along with the date of death and that terrible name-Auschwitz. It is a very moving experience, people viewing them in complete silence. Art created in the midst of horror. The drawings serve as surviving records of children whose names would otherwise be lost to us
The photographs of Czeslawa were taken by a fellow Polish prisoner who was a professional photographer named Wilhelm Brasse. Forced to take photographs of up to 50,000 prisoners, he lived forever afterwards with their ghosts, unable to take photographs again. In 2005 Brasse recalled taking these photographs of the fourteen year old girl: “She was so young and so terrified. The girl didn’t understand why she was there and she couldn’t understand what was being said to her. So this woman Kapo (a prisoner overseer) took a stick and beat her about the face. This German woman was just taking out her anger on the girl. Such a beautiful young girl, so innocent. She cried but she could do nothing. Before the photograph was taken, the girl dried her tears and the blood from the cut on her lip. To tell you the truth, I felt as if I was being hit myself but I couldn’t interfere. It would have been fatal for me. You could never say anything.”
You can see the cut to her lip.
Hers is just one recorded face among millions lost, in a terrible and shameful chapter of our history.
Sometimes a photograph or a story touches me so deeply that I feel moved to record and share it. To keep both the memory and the story alive. If in doing so I have caused you to be disturbed or distressed, I apologise, but I think it is important. To this tragic story, and these moving photographs of this young girl, there is nothing more that I can add. They stand together as an indictment.
Aug 15th 1928- Mar 12th 1943