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Felix Noskowski and Willi Konrad, "A Birthday Epistle for Moritz Henschel"

Koskowski, Felix poem 1944
US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Located approximately 40 miles north of Prague, Theresienstadt, or Terezín, was a unique ghetto within Nazi-occupied Europe. The Nazis used Theresienstadt as a transit camp for Czech Jews en route to concentration camps and killing centers, as a ghetto and labor camp for prominent German, Austrian, and Czech Jews, and as the site of carefully choreographed international propaganda initiatives.1

Because Nazi authorities incarcerated many prominent Jewish educators, artists, musicians, and intellectuals there, Theresienstadt had an especially active artistic community. Theresienstadt is particularly famous for the artwork of its children, much of which has survived.2 Performances and other organized cultural activities flourished—to varying degrees—throughout the war. Ghetto residents organized liturgical performances, recitations, parodies, folk songs, orchestral performances, and original compositions. According to the contemporaneous account of Rabbi Eric Weiner, during the month of November 1942 alone there were ten plays, two concerts, one opera, and twenty-two "fellowship evenings."3 Rabbi Weiner also recorded a great secret in the ghetto: the clandestine acquisition of a piano.4 This juxtaposition of a vibrant cultural life amid starvation and overcrowding remains the paradox of Theresienstadt.

This illustrated poem celebrates the birthday of Moritz Henschel, a member of the Theresienstadt Judenrat. Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Henschel had been the last head of the Jewish community in Berlin and was a graduate of the Berlin Rabbinical Seminary, a lawyer, and a decorated World War I veteran. These qualifications classified Henschel as one of the "prominent" Jews confined to the Theresienstadt ghetto. This piece consists of a seven page, full-color, illustrated poem composed on the occasion of Henschel's 65th birthday in February of 1944. 

The poem assumes a relatively light-hearted outlook on daily life while noting the various deprivations and differences between life inside and outside the ghetto. The poem imagines an extravagant birthday meal in contrast to the meager cabbage available in Theresienstadt. It also celebrates Henschel's role as head of Theresienstadt’s cultural association and the many artistic and theatrical productions the group organized. Therefore, the poem serves as both a gift to Henschel and as a record of the extraordinary cultural life of Theresienstadt. Henschel and his wife survived Theresienstadt and immigrated to Palestine, but he died of ill health resulting from his internment in 1946. His wife Hildegard lived to testify at the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961.

For a larger survey of the Czech lands during the Holocaust, including more details on Theresienstadt, see Livia Rothkirchen, The Jews of Bohemia and Moravia: Facing the Holocaust (Lincoln and Jerusalem: University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 2005).

See Hana Volavková, ed., I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944 (New York: Schocken Books, 1978).

Rebecca Rovit and Alan Goldfarb, Theatrical Performance During the Holocaust: Texts, Documents, Memoirs (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 228.

Rovit and Goldfarb, Theatrical Performance During the Holocaust, 224.

Coffee spiked with alcohol.

Type of cigar.

German war industry firm with factories at Auschwitz.

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A Birthday Epistle
For Moritz Henschel
For his 65th Birthday
From The German Theatre Group
 
by Felix Noskowski
Drawings by Willi Konrad
Theresienstadt, 17 February 1944
 
First hors d'oeuvres, caviar I'd choose
Russian eggs, smoked salmon from the Rhine,
Stuffed tomatoes, goose livers must be there
And add to that sparkling Mosel wine.
 
Now blue carp, with melted fresh butter,
Or trout as fish,
Spring potatoes would go well 
And as fish will swim, Rhine wine on the table.
 
As the second course I see asparagus waving,
A vol au vent filled with fine ragout.
Perhaps also a little Prague ham in pastry
With macaroni au gratin.
 
For the main course, 
Hamburg goose is pleasing, rotie au four,
And if I can give some friendly advice,
Bordeaux wine, Chateau Latour.
 
Chips and red cabbage, I want to spoil you
Lettuce, compote, red currant jelly
And to crown it all off
Last, but not least, an omelette soufflé.
 
To follow, fresh fruit and cheese,
In shallow saucers bubbling icy champagne.
For coffee I'll pour you a Chartreuse,1
Then an Upmann,2 which I can already taste.
 
And even though we don't like the cabbage
We take what the hard times offer us.
Eating cabbage, better than being famished,
My god, how modest are we today.
 
A year weighs heavy in the life of a man
If it is before us it is as light as soap bubbles,
Just as children blow bright bubbles,
It is over like a fleeing dream.
 
Today 65 years have passed
In the ocean of time, man pays his price,
You have advanced with the decades,
Upright, a man, you stand in our midst.
 
You were an administrator of right
When we are pressured by injustice.
In our free time you have helped us
Given us many a happy hour.
 
We sit here closed in the ghetto,
Outside the whole world rages a bloody struggle,
At least here we are not shot at
And no bombs are falling on us.
 
You are far away from the blood and the shell smoke,
You hope for a speedy peace,
Don't forget, that in this gigantic struggle
That our fate must also be decided.
 
Honored Boss.
 
Yes, today I must write,
For the Section "German Theatre"
And should I sometimes exaggerate,
Remember, that I was once a poet.
 
It is true, that I have long forgotten the Muse,
Wenches were frowned upon,
But to put together these verses,
I have reconciled myself today with them.
 
In response to my call She came from afar
And showed me her old familiar face.
... Today for the birthday I come twice as willing
And sit down to write your birthday poem...
 
She lead the winged horse by the reins,
Its gaze strangely captivating.
Glad, that it was alive, I jumped into the stirrups.
I thought, it had already been made into sausage.
 
Great is the suffering which all endure
Even the gang—ooh it is great pleasure
And until the times improve
One will even eat a piece of Pegasus.
 
We are content with what we have,
If only, the bowl was full
If only I.G. Farben3 would give us
Gruel, cakes or sour cabbage.
And Peace to Mankind on Earth.
 
We won't rob you forever of hope,
This war, too, must end,
You should think of a better future,
The world must arise anew from the chaos.
 
Yes, you should believe and hope,
Rely on the Poet's vision,
Your whole life, too stands, before you,
You are a human, a mother's son.
 
I hope, that in spring the doors
Will open for us, this period is not grandiose,
Only one thing is good, we don't need to march
With a steel helmet, rifle and uniform.
 
Outside is a beaming cloudless sky,
The whole world is dressing itself in fresh greenery
Suddenly you are standing in the midst of the milling mass
On the banks of the Spree, where once stood Great-Berlin.
 
We both meet again outside,
Then off to the nearest bar.
We sit down at a marble table,
And tell each other how it once was here.
 
We become pale, caused by the memory
I invite you to a cup of tea
And then I serve you a self-thought
Dressed-up to the nines evening meal as Festsouper.
 
But before we dig-in to this celebratory meal,
Which I give to you at our rendezvous,
We want two boiled potatoes in the skin
And a cup of lousy coffee as well.
 
Most of all we wish you
When your birthday returns once again
That it should bring us freedom
That is a wish better than I could imagine.
 
Our jailer's gate will open
The world will brightly shine in freedom's glory,
The bleak guards have gone
The nightmare is completely over.
 
The chains that bind us are dissolved
The mild spring air embraces us
And when you are at one again with yourself,
You will enjoy a happy, peaceful summer.
 
The summer will take us to lofty heights
The bright skylark's call is heard
And above shall God's freedom rule
That is what the Group wishes you today.
 
Noskowski

Archival Information for This Item

Source (Credit)
US Holocaust Memorial Museum
RG Number RG 24.021
Date Created
February 17, 1944
Author / Creator
Noskowski, Felix
Konrad, Willi
Language(s)
German
Location
Terezín, Czech Republic
Theresienstadt (historical)
Document Type Poem
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