Butterflies Do Not Live Here and On Shoes, Braid and Dummy

Butterflies Do Not Live Here and On Shoes, Braid and Dummy

Production and Reception History of Two Czechoslovak Documentaries on the Holocaust

Jana Rogoff
In 1958 and 1961, two documentaries on the Holocaust were released in Czechoslovakia: Motýli tady nežijí / Butterflies Do Not Live Here by Miro Bernat and O botičkách, copánku a dudlíku / On Shoes, Braid and Dummy by Drahoslav Holub. Both of these films employed drawings and paintings made by Jewish children imprisoned in Theresienstadt between 1941 and 1945. Apart from using the same material, the films share similarities in style, as both directors worked in the tradition stemming from interwar avant-garde practices of cinematic montage and experimented with elements of animation. However, within these similar coordinates, each chose a different approach to the material. Reception of the films was also starkly different. The former received a good deal of international attention and praise, the latter was barely noticed. From today’s perspective, however, they are equally forgotten, missing from both Theresienstadt film studies and studies of Holocaust films. This article seeks to address this glaring oversight by examining the history of the films’ production as well as the history of their reception by the public, press and official cultural establishment. At the same time, it explores the films’ cultural-political significance in the context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1950s and early 1960s and considers the factors that led to the contrasting histories of reception. This analysis is based on original research at the Archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague, on contemporary press critic and oral history sources, including two interviews with the survivors who participated on making of the films, Helga Hošková-Weissová and Anna Hyndráková, conducted by the author in 2019.
Miro Bernat; Jiří Weil; Hana Volavková; Drahoslav Holub; Karel Reiner; William Bukový; Theresienstadt; ghetto; children’s drawings; Czechoslovakia; Holocaust; documentary film; compilation film; animation; reception history.

The Theresienstadt Collection and the Production of Butterflies Do Not Live Here

The central focus of both films discussed here is children’s artwork from the Theresienstadt collection.1 As an artifact, this collection has inspired countless works of art since its discovery in 1945.2 At present, it is a world-renowned archive on the Holocaust, considered an invaluable and rare visual record of everyday life in the ghetto3 and of the children’s emotional and psychological states. Their drawings became a repository of memory, history, and trauma. In this first section of the article, I will focus primarily on the early popularization of the Theresienstadt collection, its curatorial and exhibition practices in the mid-1950s, and the ways these intertwined with the script-writing, production, and distribution of the film Butterflies Do Not Live Here.

Despite the cruel and harrowing conditions of the Nazi terror, Theresienstadt was a place where children and adults produced a large quantity of progressive art, including plays, cabarets, puppet theatre, radio programs, concerts, recitals, opera productions, and works of literature.4 In part, this was because many Jewish artists, composers, scientists, and writers were among the prisoners. However, as Helga Hošková-Weissová, a former child prisoner in Theresienstadt, pointed out, a heightened urge for self-expression through art was common even among prisoners who had no previous history of art-making.5 The children’s drawings and paintings were part of this vibrant cultural context and their creation was also directly connected to pre-war avant-garde art. The children deported to Theresienstadt drew pictures under the guidance of a fellow prisoner, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (1898–1944), a former Bauhaus student and one of the most outstanding artists from the interwar avant-garde. Her art classes, with elements of art therapy, were part of the improvised educational program organized in the extreme conditions of the ghetto. Brandeis employed some of the Bauhaus experimental methods to develop the children’s creativity but at the same time strived to allow them freedom of expression as a way of coping with their dire experiences. Before her transport to Auschwitz, she hid two suitcases with 4,387 children’s drawings, which she had collected during almost two years of teaching, in one of the children’s dormitories.6

Hana Kalichová. Fairy Tale Characters. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum in Prague

At the end of the war, the Nazis in Theresienstadt were burning documents and trying to conceal any evidence of the atrocities committed there.7 The children’s drawings were left behind as insignificant. As the art historian and the first postwar director of the Jewish Museum in Prague Hana Volavková8 remembered: “In Terezín, only books, books and papers—remnants of the complex Terezín administration—were found. And drawings of child prisoners were scattered as spoilage amongst them. In these pictures hunger was portrayed as a cook, the war was an execution, delight was a fruit stand, an ideal was a hospital bed, and return was a sign, pointing to Prague.” (Volavková 1966: 222) One of the former Theresienstadt youth educators, Willy Groag (1914-2001), brought the drawings to Prague, and Volavková requested them to be deposited in the archive of persecution at the Jewish Museum (Magda Veselská 2012: 172 and Jiří Weil 1959: 6). For a long time, they went unnoticed, until Jiří Weil, a Czech-Jewish writer and journalist, who worked at the Jewish Museum as a researcher, recognized their immense value and started curating the collection methodically.9

Malvína Löwová. Palestina. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

As Weil reflected, he could not fully comprehend the significance of the drawings until he was able to review them in the context of the poetry written in Theresienstadt. A collection of poems written by children in the ghetto was handed over to the Jewish Museum in 1952 by Anna Flachová, whose husband was an educator at the children’s home L417 (Weil 1959: 6). Weil recalled:

Perhaps I would not understand their significance either if I did not come across other documents, the poems written by children in Theresienstadt, including the verses of Pavel Friedmann. An excerpt from Friedmann’s poem “Motýli tady nežijí” (“Butterflies do not live here”) also gave the title to [Bernat’s] film later on (Ibid.).10

Whereas the drawings were rich in colors and depicted, for the most part, imaginary characters and lands with an abundance of food and toys (Fig. 1-3), the children’s poems rendered a much darker testimony to the hunger, violence and suffering in Theresienstadt. Weil’s emphasis on the inseparability of the two components—drawings and poetry—became the key curatorial concept for the collection and also for the production of the film:

Only the contrast and, at the same time, unity gives strength to this rare document because through both poems and drawings, the children strived in the middle of terror and violence to preserve the most precious thing – their humanness” (Ibid.).

Weil initiated the first exhibition of the children’s drawings and poetry in 1955 in Prague. It was prepared by the art historian Olga Herbenová, who had meticulously analyzed the children’s drawings in terms of both form and content. Further exhibitions followed in many places abroad, starting with Paris (1956), Brno (1957) and Leipzig (1958).11 The powerful response to the exhibitions inspired Weil, together with Volavková and Herbenová, to create a book and a film simultaneously.12

Ilonka Weissová. The Land of Wellbeing. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum in Prague.

Examination of sources in the Archive of the Jewish Museum in Prague shows that Weil had already written the first version of the film script in 1957, under the working title Children’s Drawings from Theresienstadt.13 This version relied on extensive use of the drawings and poems, documentary photography and some limited acting. The narrator’s commentary was rich in historical background, with information on the building of the fortress in honor of the Empress Maria Theresa in 1780, Reinhard Heydrich’s turning it into a ghetto in October 1942, the Wannsee Conference, and the excruciating living conditions in the ghetto. Weil also included a compelling section on the “Sounds of the Theresienstadt”:

The clanging of shovels in the morning as men went to work, the creaking of funeral carts pulled by people, from ten o’clock on, the murmur in hungry lines for food … grinding of prostheses at night, there were many invalids, and squeaking of hand lamps, the streets were not lit.

and the sounds that were missing there:

No bells were ringing in the ghetto, no clock chiming, no cocks, birds, dogs, cats or other animals. There was an unusual silence particularly around the clock tower (Ibid.).

Unfortunately, this poetic part was cut in the radically revised version of the script from July 1958. Weil’s initial concept of the film was abandoned in favor of a less educational, less informative and more visually oriented and visceral film style. The second version of the script was authored by the prolific documentary filmmaker Miro Bernat (1910-1997), although developed in collaboration with Weil and Volavková.

Miro Bernat’s Poetic Documentarism

Bernat became interested in the material after reading Věra Kosinová’s reportage on the children’s drawings and also through his personal relations to some of the victims who passed through Theresienstadt that he knew from his pre-war cultural life in Prague. The painter and poet Petr Kien (1919-1944), for example, had introduced Bernat to experimental photography before the war.14

Bernat’s previous documentary films included a wide range of subjects, mostly in the genre of popular science, but his education and interests were very versatile. Over the forty years of his filmmaking career, he made more than eighty documentary films, largely focused on agricultural issues including beekeeping (Včely budou žít/ Bees Will Live On, 1951, shown at the 1953 Venice Biennale), soil erosion, forestry, large scale poultry farming, etc., but also subjects such as the Roma minority in Czechoslovakia (Cesta dlouhá tisíc let/ A Thousand Year Long Journey, 1961), research on human memory, portraits of visual artists and writers, herbaria, trains, causes of physical pain and many others.15

In his script for Butterflies, he listed four sources as his main inspiration: Weil’s introduction to the exhibition of drawings, the diary of Helga Hošková-Weissová,16 the children’s drawings and poetry, and Věra Kosinová’s text Dětské kresby v Terezíně (Children’s Drawings in Theresienstadt).17 His version of the script reduced the historical contextualization and the narrator’s commentary significantly. The main role was given to the children’s drawings and poems. With only a few minor alterations, the text corresponds to the film’s final shape.

In terms of Bill Nichols’s seminal typology of modes of representation in documentary film (poetic, expository, participatory, observational, reflexive and performative), Bernat’s revised concept relates the closest to the poetic mode. This mode is associated with the modernist avant-garde tradition, which, according to Nichols, relies on the historical world for its source material, but at the same time “stresses mood, tone, and affect much more than displays of knowledge” (Nichols 2001: 103). Whereas Weil’s original script juxtaposed lyric impressions with factual education about the centuries-long history of Theresienstadt/Terezín and the functioning of the ghetto,18 Bernat’s version narrowed the temporal focus and loosened the rhetorical element, thereby, characteristically for the poetic mode, “opening up the possibility of alternative forms of knowledge to the straightforward transfer of information” (ibid.). This shift may have come as an impulse from Bernat in order for him to integrate the subject with his poetic documentary film style, but his version of the script with its less articulated historical narrative also could have been more acceptable from the perspective of the producer, Krátký film (Short Film) studio, the production of which was consistently attuned to the state’s ideological priorities.19 In any case, the final shape of the film defies simple categorization in terms of genre. The contemporary cinematography periodicals characterized it using a variety of terms, such as “political”, “ideological”20 and “kulturfilm”21, displaying ambiguity in the understanding of the format. Butterflies also resonated with films framed as a form of evidence for the trials of Holocaust perpetrators, such as Drahoslav Holub’s Pohlednice pro kata / Postcard for the Hangman (1963).22 Primarily, though, the film represented an act of commemoration, which, in retrospect, to a remarkable degree avoided the impact of Cold War ideologies and their narratives.

Finally, the archival records at the Prague Jewish Museum show that since its release, the film and the collection of the children’s drawings were often exhibited together. On several occasions, the film doubled as a form of publicity for the collection. For example, on 4 March 1960, the director of Volkshochschule Böblingen Sindelfingen requested the exhibit through the Czechoslovak Filmexport company after seeing the film at the festival in Oberhausen, asserting that, in his opinion, “other community colleges throughout West Germany would also be ready to show the images.”23 The exhibit was circulated under the same title as the film, Butterflies Do Not Live Here, a title that over time served as a label for many cultural and memorial events related to the children victims from Theresienstadt and their art.

All the above listed functions of the film—social, political, educational, cultural, judiciary and commemorative—affirm Nichols‘s tenet of documentary film as a “practice without boundaries”.24 However, as Brad Prager pointed out, Nichols’s definition of documentary film as a form that “speaks about situations and events involving real people (social actors) who present themselves to us as themselves” needs to be reconsidered “in [the somewhat atypical] case of the Holocaust … because many of the people involved, the social actors, are dead and cannot speak for themselves.” (Prager 2015: 13) In most cases, these subjects are gone and the filmmaker speaks on their behalf. The existing cinematic approaches to this important aspect of documentary film on the Holocaust have not been sufficiently theorized. As I show further in this article, the authors of Butterflies as well as On Shoes, Braid and Dummy have chosen an auto-antonymic or self-contradictory framing of this aspect, purporting that through the film, the children have spoken for themselves. This framing is embedded in the concepts of the films but, at least in case of Butterflies, it was also explicitly stated in various commentaries on the film’s production.25

Butterflies Do Not Live Here: Film Synopsis and Reception

The 14-minute film is an animated montage of the children’s drawings, paintings and paper cutouts combined with post-war documentary footage of Theresienstadt. The soundtrack consists of original music, composed by Karel Reiner (1910-1979),26 and voice-over in which the narrator’s commentary alternates with recitations of excerpts from the children’s poems and diaries. The film director Bernat employed the best Czechoslovak actors of the time. Václav Voska was the narrator. Jiřina Jirásková, Olga Sluníčková, Luděk Munzar as well as child-actors read the literary excerpts.

The opening voice-over commentary sets the basic contours of the narrative:

Everything was planned out. Strange signs are still visible on the buildings, Block Q, L – Querstrasse, Langestrasse, numbers on houses, doors, even people had their numbers.