Letters from a Life, Poems from the Camp

Book review: Dancing on a Powder Keg, by Ilse Weber

In 1942, Jewish author Ilse Weber was deported from Prague along with her husband Willi and the younger of her two sons to Theresienstadt, the Jewish ghetto and the Nazis’ “model” concentration camp, trotted out as a fake village for events like Red Cross visits. Beginning in 1933 as political and social changes began taking root across Europe, Ilse had been writing prolifically to her friend Lilian, a Swede then living in London. The first part of Dancing on a Powder Keg is a collection of these letters, detailing the everyday and the mundane. Eventually, Ilse and her husband sent their older son to Lilian in England on one of the famous Kindertransports, ultimately saving his life.

Ilse and her younger son, like millions of others, didn’t survive the camp system, perishing in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Ilse worked in Theresienstadt as a nurse on the children’s ward, and volunteered to accompany a transport of sick children east to Poland, even though the camp inmates were already well aware of what that move entailed. In the book’s enlightening afterword, details of her actions in this time and her incredible bravery finally emerge after many years.

Ilse’s husband buried her poems in Theresienstadt, saving them from the chaotic postwar destruction, and some were published without crediting the author. Her surviving son recognized one of these published poems years later, and finally the author was matched to her life’s creative work. Along with this identity revelation came stories about how inspirational and comforting her poems and songs had been to others in the camp.

The book really gets interesting in its second half, composed of the poems and bits of songs and lullabies Ilse wrote during her imprisonment in Theresienstadt. Even in translation, her words are simple but touching, often heart- and gut-wrenching. She had a strong but sensitive soul, and she pulls back the curtain on what the Nazis tried so hard to obscure from the rest of the world in the ghetto, baring the unimaginable pain and horrors inflicted on the prisoners there. Her poems are absolutely haunting, impossible to read without being deeply affected. Accompanying illustrations by a Czech artist, Bedrich Fritta, created within Theresienstadt, are powerfully haunting and provide fitting imagery to match her emotional poetry.

I found that many of the letters to Lilian dragged on and didn’t contribute much meaningful content to the book as a whole. I do find it interesting to read about daily lives of another era, especially World War II stories, but I couldn’t stay interested in the intricacies of family members and relationships, particularly since so little happened for so long in the course of the letters. They could have been edited for greater impact, because her story was inarguably emotionally impacting and her poems so haunting and beautiful that this could’ve been a really great historical work.

As it is, combined with its telling of her life story, the book is still a worthy testament to a woman who gave not only inspiration and hope to so many in the camps, but with her words and creativity, gave them voices to echo through history and a lasting testament to their experiences.

Be kind to one another in word and deed, / otherwise these times will knock us down.

Dancing on a Powder Keg: The Intimate Voice of a Young Mother and Author, Her Letters Composed in the Lengthening Shadow of Hitler’s Third Reich, Her Poems from the Theresienstadt Ghetto
by Ilse Weber, translated by Michal Schwartz
published January 15, 2017 by Bunim & Bannigan

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher in exchange for review.

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