Ilse Weber has ensured her unwanted place among the victims of the Holocaust. Her letters from Czechoslovakia chronicle the events of approaching doom, and her poems give witness to the details of her Theresienstadt experience. Ilse writes in May 1939, “Well at least we’re not pestered by boredom. It’s like dancing on a powder keg.”
Ilse’s letters, written from 1933 to 1944, serve not just as an autobiography, but as a timeline of catastrophic events. Most of the letters are written to her Swedish friend, Lilian von Lowenadler, Lilian’s mother, Gertrude, and to her dear son, Hanus. Hanus was placed on a Sir Nicholas Winton transport to England and was then taken to Sweden by Lilian.
Ilse’s early letters describe ordinary life filled with mundane news. Ilse is an accomplished, creative, and talented woman. Her caustic wit, humor, and sarcasm are evidenced in her writings. She writes and composes children’s plays and performs on radio stations. She has always felt a loyal allegiance to the German culture and tongue, but in 1934 she begins to mention Hitler’s “unintelligent countenance” and notes that, “Every decent human being is dreading Germany.”
Friends and family begin to leave for Palestine, or to wherever they can get visas. By 1935, Ilse fears a war and realizes her radio shows are being blocked by certain forces. Ilse’s letters begin to implore Lilian to take her older son, Hanus, as she relates the bullying, hate, and unbearable stares of her once-close Christian friends. Her younger son, Tomas, stays with the family, and by 1936 they have moved to Prague.
Ilse and her husband, Willi, take in piece work to survive with some dignity. Her letters implore Hanus to be good and believe in the truth and beg Lilian for tidbits of her son’s new life. They are trapped, and the reader feels the angst of knowing their fate.
In January 1942 the family is taken to Theresienstadt. Ruth Bondy’s essay, “The World of Theresienstadt,” is a valuable historical account of the ghetto and concentration camp that was used by the Nazis as a “model Jewish city.”
Ilse’s poems graphically portray the injustice, brutality, and sadness of Theresienstadt. She worked as a nurse in the children’s ward and many of her poems center on the haunting plight of children torn from their parents and facing hunger and terror. The gripping, beautiful and exquisite language of the poetry is at odds with the suffering and desperation experienced by the prisoners. Chilling drawings by artist Bedrich Fritta illustrate the poems and mirror daily existence.
Ilse agrees to accompany a children’s transport east and she, Willi, and Tomas are sent to Auschwitz. Ilse and Tomas are gassed there.
The Foreword by Michal Schwartz, “Ilse Weber and Her Cultural Milieu,” provides a penetrating explanation and overview of who Ilse was and what her life became against the backdrop of history.
The Afterword, “Against Forgetting” by Ulrike Migdal, details how Willi survived and retrieved Ilse’s poems he buried under a Theresienstadt shed. Willi makes his way back to Prague and is eventually reunited with Hanus. They have a difficult silent relationship as each is reluctant to speak of and deal with their years apart. Years later, Hanus receives word that Ilse’s letters were found in an attic in England by Lilian’s husband.
The book contains complete and excellent notes aiding the reader’s understanding of the Czech and German languages, WWII era terminology, and historical references. Relatable hotographs of Ilse and her family in happier times are also included.
Dancing on a Powder Keg addresses the coming tide of the Holocaust, the heartache of saving a child by sending him away, and the reality and horror of Theresienstadt. This is a haunting and unnerving narrative of one woman’s world being destroyed.