Danc­ing on a Pow­der Keg

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

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.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions