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Butterflies, Birds, and the Poetry of Freedom

Butterflies, Birds, and the Poetry of Freedom

bird in branches

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps, Mark Ludwig, executive director of the Terezin Music Foundation (TMF), has created “an artistic memorial” to the 15-20 million people who died or were imprisoned in the Third Reich’s more than 42,500 camps and ghettos. Terezin served as a Nazi propaganda ploy to showcase how well Jews were treated in the camps, for example, by allowing musical and theater productions.

One of the most famous Holocaust poems was written in Terezin, “The Butterfly” by Pavel Friedmann:

The last, the very last
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow.
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing
Against a white stone…

Such, such a yellow
Is carried lightly ‘way up high.
It went away I’m sure because it wished to kiss the world goodbye…

The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly…

In Liberation: New Works on Freedom from Internationally Renowned Poets (Beacon Press) 63 poets from 25 countries reflect on freedom from oppression, past and present. Subjects range from the Holocaust to racial injustice in America to violence against women in Afghanistan to coping with a debilitating disease.

Significantly, the upper right corner of the book’s cover shows a hand reaching for a dove in flight – a metaphor that recalls the biblical story of Noah releasing doves in the hope of determining that the deluge had come to an end.

Birds, like butterflies, symbolize the fragility of freedom. In her poem, “Free as a Bird,” Gillian Clarke makes no distinction between the vulnerability of birds and children imperiled by a mighty storm.

…And I think of the trapped wren, bewildered
in our room of glass, that couldn’t tell
pane from air. A flight, a muffled thud. A fall.
I caught and held her, heart in my hand, pulse
powerful as ocean beating at the wall,
fragile as the children in their blood,
slaughtered while the whole weeping world
would free them, if it could.

In “Tjulpu” (a name for birds in Yankunytjatjara, a language of central Australia), Ali Cobby Eckerman portrays birds as our guardians, even saviors.

life is extinct
without bird song

dream birds
arrive at dawn

message birds
tap at windows

guardian birds
circle the sky

watcher birds
sit nearby

fill my ears
with bird song

I will survive

The Nazis reveled in stirring irony into their cauldrons of cruelty. For example, in Germany, they situated concentration camps in settings with idyllic views of nature. Buchenwald (beech forest) was perched on a wooded hilltop overlooking fertile fields near the charming city of Weimer, home of the great German poets Johann Goethe and Friedrich Schiller. The women’s concentration camp Ravensbruck was constructed near a health resort on the shore of a tree-lined lake some 50 miles north of Berlin. For some prisoners, looking beyond the barbed wire at animals in a field or ducks in a pond might have been a source of comfort and hope; for others, it might only have intensified their misery and despair.

It is said birds abandoned Auschwitz-Birkenau during the Holocaust and never returned. Toby Saltzman, daughter of Auschwitz survivors, questioned this oft-repeated assertion after noticing that her mother, who periodically succumbed to bouts of despair triggered by Holocaust memories, would regain her sunny disposition every spring when she heard the songs of birds. Toby traveled to Poland to see for herself.  

“As I headed toward the [former] gas chamber,” she recalls, “I was startled by a surreal vision: cheerful little birds flying towards me from a nearby house surrounded by pretty green trees and blossoming shrubs…. I left Auschwitz feeling a surge of triumph that my parents survived, and gratitude to the birds that gave my mother spiritual sustenance and hope.”

“Because music and poetry are true soul mates,” says Mark Ludwig, he will commission composers to set some of the poems in Liberation to music. His vision is “to blend music with poetry and the visual arts as agents of dialogue and healing…. to inspire empathy and move people to do even one small thing to help diminish oppression.”  

Aron Hirt-Manheimer is the Union for Reform Judaism's editor-at-large.

Aron Hirt-Manheimer

Published: 1/12/2016

Categories: Jewish Life, Arts & Culture, Literature
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