Holocaust Survivors' Network
Holocaust survivor's artwork exhibited
Bergeron / Daily News Staff
Like many other young children, 12-year-old Helga Weissova drew pictures of her nightmares.
Starving neighbors picked through garbage for something to eat. A tired woman boiled sheets to keep typhus from spreading. People waited for the dark truck that would carry them to the crematorium.
Helga didn't dream up her demons.
Growing up in the Nazi-controlled ghetto of Terezin in Czechoslovakia, she witnessed the Holocaust through a child's clear eyes as it consumed her world.
With crayons and paintbrushes, she recorded institutionalized barbarities and everyday decencies in images that still sear the soul.
of the drawings by Helga Weissova-Hoskova shows two
violinists performing an impromptu concert in
primitive barracks. (Contributed Photo)
One of the drawings by Helga Weissova-Hoskova shows two violinists performing an impromptu concert in primitive barracks. (Contributed Photo)
The 36 images in "A Child Artist in Terezin: Witness to the Holocaust" can be seen in Smith Hall in the fourth floor lobby above the Rehm Library through March 18.
Built northwest of Prague in 1780, the city of Terezin (known in German as Thereisenstadt) was transformed by Nazi occupiers into a ghetto where Czech Jews were kept as workers before being sent to extermination camps.
After three years at Terezin, Helga Weissova was one of the lucky ones.
She lived - as just one of an estimated 150 to 1,500 children who survived from among the 15,000 who spent time in the stone-walled fortress.
Helga was sent to Auschwitz with her mother Oct. 14, 1944, and on to labor camps at Freiberg and Mauthausen.
Now 74 and known by her married name, Helga Weissova-Hoskova, she is one of the Czech Republic's best known artists.
Friends cherish artwork
Hana and Edgar Krasa also survived Terezin to forge new lives in Israel and now in Newton.
Decades later, they befriended Weissova-Hoskova at a 1991 Boston exhibit featuring Terezin artists and regard her drawings an invaluable testimony of enduring righteousness.
"These drawings are the truth," said Hana Krasa. "There will be a time when there are no living witnesses. I hope these drawings help people understand what really happened."
In 1941 at the age of 21, Edgar Krasa "volunteered" to go to Terezin as a cook as part of an agreement to protect his parents from deportation to a Polish labor camp.
Now 84, Krasa is a sturdy animated man with thick graying hair.
He said the Nazis forced 60,000 Jews to live in a converted fortress designed to hold 7,000 people. Due to disease, malnutrition and mistreatment, 33,000 Jews died at Terezin and 88,000 Jews were deported from there to Auschwitz and other camps where they were killed.
"I'm a pretty tough guy. I'm not very emotional," said Krasa, sipping coffee. "It was reality. I lived it. Boys became men. Women grew up fast."
Though both spent several years in Terezin, the future husband and wife never met because men and women lived separately. Krasa, however, knew his wife-to-be's father, a respected leader in Terezin's Jewish community.
Since immigrating to the United States in 1962, the Krasas have returned twice to Terezin and agree that Weissova-Hoskova created art that honors people who refused to surrender their humanity.
Thomas Doughton, a lecturer in the college's Center for Interdisciplinary and Special Studies, said the exhibit documents the experience of one young woman at Terezin. "Sixty years later, we wonder what we have learned. It's an area of contestation," he said.
The exhibit is cosponsored by the Holy Cross Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture, CISS and the Cantor Art Gallery. It is offered in collaboration with Clark University's Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies Exhibit "Forging a New Life: The Jewish in Central and Eastern Europe on the Cusp of a New Millennium."
Doughton uses the exhibit in his class on the Holocaust to encourage students to ask: "How should we live in response to the darkness that surrounds us."
In class, he urges students not to view the drawings as a "chronicle of victims," comprising stereotyped images of Jews, "perpetrators, liberators and bystanders."
Rather, Doughton hopes viewers regard the drawings as one artist's humane response to anti-Semitic genocide.
"It's helpful if students can see (the drawings) as an expression of one kind of accommodation to a horrific experience. It's important students understand people who didn't survive ... live on in the memories of the families, friends and neighbors," he said.
Helga Weissova-Hoskova was 12-years-old when she was deported to Terezin on Dec. 17, 1941, along with her parents who'd hidden paints and brushes among their belongings.
After the child first painted an imaginary snowman, her father encouraged her to "draw what you see."
For the next three years, she embraced that advice, chronicling the commonplace indignities of camp life with sharp-eyed detail.
Most pictures are on single sheets of paper about eight- by 11-inches.
Mothers carry children and an elderly woman, wearing a Star of David badge to identify Jews, leans on a cane as newcomers arrive in Terezin. A violinist performs a makeshift concert for camp members in a drab barracks. Men carry loaves of bread into the camp on a wooden cart used to carry away corpses.
The childhood drawings combine realistic portrayals of daily life with an abstract universality that reaches beyond Terezin.
Roger Hankins, curator of the Cantor Art Gallery, said, "These are drawings by a child of great skill." He suggested that Weissova-Hoskova's art could be interpreted as an attempt to understand her drastically changed circumstances or "give form to her fears."
Hankins observed the subject and style of the drawings became "a lot more dramatic" as time passed.
As conditions worsened, several of the later drawings featured childlike fantasies of gaily dressed children carrying platters of food through fields of flowers. Others showed castles in clouds.
Perhaps the most ominous of the later drawings depicts people lining up for "A departing transport," a truck that carried them to death camps, including the artist's then 46-year-old father.
Weissova-Hoskova and her mother survived and returned to Prague where the artist lives today.
As the war approached its end, Edgar and Hana Krasas' lives took separate, violent turns.
Edgar Krasa was sent to Auschwitz. He recalled stepping from a train with hundreds of other Jewish prisoners who were herded into two lines, to the right for forced labor to the left for the gas chambers.
"There were miles of electrified barbed wire. I saw a chimney and asked a Nazi guard why there was so much smoke. He told me it was the bakery,"he said.
On a work detail, Edgar Krasa tried to flee and was shot in his side and left for dead in a ditch.
Crawling into the forest, he found other escapees who kept him alive. After hostilities ended, he returned to Terezin and found both parents alive.
In early 1945, Hana Krasa's father was taken from Terezin with 20 other men and forced to throw thousands of boxes containing the ashes of Jewish dead in the Ohre River to hide evidence of Nazi war crimes. Her mother was sent to Auschwitz. She never saw her parents again.
Asked whether she still felt embittered by their "death," Hana Krasa paused and then said firmly, "They didn't die. They were murdered."
After years of near starvation, Edgar Krasa returned to his trade as a restaurant cook, gaining 80 pounds in six weeks to regain his pre-war weight of 163 pounds.
After the war, Hana and Edgar Krasa met at a New Year's Eve party in 1946 and were later married.
He joked, "At one point, she proposed and wouldn't take 'no' for an answer."
Amid the post-war chaos, Russia installed a communist government and the Krasas fled Czechoslovakia to Israel in 1950. In 1962, they emigrated to the United States where they raised their two sons, Daniel and Rafphael, who live in Newton and Natick, respectively.
Edgar Krasa spent 22 years as an administrator at the Jewish Rehabilitation Center in Boston working alongside his wife, and in 1985 opened his own restaurant in Brookline.
Now retired, he remains active in "Facing History and Ourselves," a Brookline nonprofit dedicated to educating students about the Holocaust.
Hana Krasa, who doesn't like to speak before audiences, shared her family's story with her grandchildren. She was moved when her 11-year-old granddaughter, Rebecca, wrote about Terezin for a school report using books with Weissova-Hoskova's drawings.
Hana and Edgar Krasa pray children like Rebecca will never again have to live the nightmare portrayed in the artist's drawings.
On their bedroom bureau, they keep a sprig of edelweiss from the years before the war and a stone carving of "chai," the Hebrew word for "life."
"This is what we always wanted for our children, a better world," said Hana Krasa. "When I see my children and their children, I know with certainty the Nazis did not succeed in eliminating our people. This is our family. This is sacred."