Once upon a time, not so long ago, entire villages of families were taken from their homes and transported to new quarters, where the men and women were separated, their children taken from them, and all were made to work until sent to their deaths.
It wasn’t a fairy tale.
And Author Susan Goldman Rubin says, “It could have been me.”
Having written more than 25 books, the Sycamore Canyon resident says, “As a Jew, and as a children’s book writer and as an artist, I had always wanted to make some contribution to the body of holocaust literature geared toward children. Children should know, so this kind of thing doesn’t happen again, to anyone.”
She researched intensively at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, where she first learned of Terezin, a ghetto/concentration camp in what was then Czechoslovakia, which imprisoned many artists and musicians. The Nazis forbade education of the Jews, so it was carried on in secret. The children wanted to learn, wanted to be in school, Rubin notes. Despite the sickness, overcrowding and starvation, the children of the camp were encouraged by the artists to write poetry, perform music, act, and paint and draw. A Bauhaus-trained applied artist, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, gave art lessons to the children, saving their works in suitcases that she hid each night.
When the Nazis gave orders for Jews to pack and leave for the camps, they permitted only 110 pounds of belongings per person, says Rubin. Instead of packing personal items, Dicker-Brandeis, already an art therapist and a teacher, brought art supplies. The Nazis gave Jews a number to dehumanize them, says Rubin, but Dicker-Brandeis kept them humanized by encouraging art and having the children sign their works.
Of the 15,000 children who passed through Terezin, only about 100 survived. “Just the numbers are staggering,” she says. “The Nazis established Terezin as a hoax. It was supposed to be a model camp, so people thought it would be safe there, but it was a way station to Auschwitz.” One of the transports, carrying 1,000 Jews, took Dicker-Brandeis and 30 of her students to Auschwitz-Birkenau and murdered them.
So Rubin, who has written other biographies for young people, including ones on Frank Lloyd Wright and Margaret Bourke-White, chose to focus her book on Dicker-Brandeis, depicting the story accurately but inspiring hope. Titled “Fireflies in the Dark,” the 48-page book, designed for children ages 8-12, includes photographs and reproductions of the artwork of Dicker-Brandeis, her colleagues and her students at Terezin.
Rubin and her husband, Michael, had been planning a special holiday in Brittany and Normandy, a romantic trip, she says. But the publisher, Holiday House, immediately offered her a contract. Rubin asked her husband if he would mind the detour. She continued her research at the Wiesenthal Center, requesting letters of introduction so she could begin interviewing survivors.
In Prague, they met Dana Liebl, now a professor of foreign languages and director of the Terezin Initiative, an association of survivors. “It was a life-changing experience,” Rubin says.
The Rubins toured Terezin, assisted by an Austrian intern, who worked there in lieu of military service. She says the camp is visited by hundreds of schoolchildren from all over the world.
Rubin also contacted another survivor, Ela Weissberger, living in New York, who had sung in every performance of “Brundibar,” a children’s opera composed by one of the prisoners at Terezin.
At the launch and book signing of “Fireflies in the Dark” Sunday at the Wiesenthal Center, children from Opera Pacific will be singing excerpts from Brundibar, and Weissberger will be present. It’s a family program, Rubin emphasizes.
Rubin is planning a second book on the survivors. “My research certainly doesn’t end with the publication of this book.” She is continuing that research at the Wiesenthal Center Library. “It’s a marvelous library, dedicated to educating in the spirit of preventing any kind of evils happening anywhere in the world again.”
The national launch and book signing for “Fireflies in the Dark” begins with a family program May 7, 3:30-4:30 p.m., Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance, by reservation only, free admission, telephone 772.2526.