In hidden letters, she discovered her grandmother’s horrifying past. Now she’s helping share her experiences in song
A few years ago, musician Lenka Lichtenberg was cleaning out her late mother’s apartment in Prague.
As she hunted in a desk for paperwork, she came across two notebooks she’d never seen before. Curious, she opened them and immediately recognized the writing. It was her grandmother’s distinctive script, familiar from the many letters she had sent.
But the woman Lichtenberg met within those pages was nothing like the glamorous, lighthearted social butterfly that she had known growing up. There, on the floor of her mother’s bedroom, Lichtenberg read from midnight until 3 o’clock in the morning, utterly stunned.
Those notebooks contained 65 poems her grandmother, Anna Hana Friesová, had written between 1940 and 1945. Before the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1939, Friesová had lived a comfortable life as a well-educated, arts-loving wife and mother within a prosperous Jewish family. In pictures taken in the mid-1930s, she’s riding in a sports car, wearing long gloves, smoking an ever-present cigarette.
Slowly, however, Friesová’s rights were eroded under the Nazi regime. Her poetry picks up the story about what happened next.
“Her marriage was becoming more strained because her husband, my grandfather, felt responsible for the well-being of his family, but he was completely helpless,” said Lichtenberg of those first poems, which document the marital breakdown. “He was falling apart and she was trying to sustain the relationship, and it wasn’t working.”
Then came December 1942, when Friesová, along with other family members, was sent to the Terezin concentration camp. Lichtenberg doesn’t know how, but her grandmother kept writing poetry, describing the feeling of being in that place through symbolism and allusion without explicit details. “You can see how hope changes into hopelessness and how she’s praying to find her faith again, because it’s gone,” said Lichtenberg.
Friesová survived the war and never spoke to her granddaughter about what she had experienced. “On the surface, she was not exhibiting any signs of any trauma that happened to her at all,” said Lichtenberg. “When I read those poems, I said, ‘Who is this?’ I couldn’t fathom that this was the grandmother I knew.”
After finding the poems, Lichtenberg sat on them for a while. Then she decided to do what she’d always done: make art. A multilingual vocalist, composer and producer, she collaborated with other female musicians to set the poems to music. The result is “Thieves of Dreams,” released last year and nominated for a Juno Award for Global Music Album of the Year.
On Wednesday, Lichtenberg will perform some of those songs at a special concert at Toronto’s Heliconian Club, marking the beginning of Women’s History Month. “Silent Tears: The Last Yiddish Tango” is a musical evening centred around a record of the same name, which features Lichtenberg as a vocalist.
That album, created by the Payadora Tango Ensemble, has similarly extraordinary source material. Five of the songs are inspired by the experiences of Molly Applebaum, a 92-year-old Torontonian whose memoir “Buried Words” is a harrowing chronicle of how she survived the Holocaust.
At just 12, she and her cousin found refuge on a farm in the Polish countryside, hiding underground in a box — which had just a palm-sized hole to let in air — for two and a half years. Unable to sit up in this box, always in the dark, the girls were allowed out only to relieve themselves; most of the time, the only other person they saw was the farmer who hid them. This man was their protector, but he also sexually abused both Molly and her cousin. Fear, boredom and hunger marked their days.
Molly recorded all of this in her diary and later in a memoir, which were published together in 2016. On “Silent Tears,” some of those stories are retold, including the last letter Molly received from her best friend, Sabina, in which she tells her she must do whatever she can to survive; days later, Sabina was murdered by the Nazis.
Other songs on “Silent Tears” draw on the experiences of a group of women who lived at Toronto’s Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care, part of an extraordinary group poetry project led by Paula David.
It was the 1990s and David had only recently joined the facility as a social worker. Part of her purview was organizing the annual Holocaust remembrance service at this Jewish care home. That meant she got to know many residents who were Holocaust survivors themselves and, once the business of organizing the event was done, the group kept meeting.
“They said they would like to talk about the Holocaust and then they stopped talking,” said David of those early sessions. “They said it was too much or they can’t talk. People were in tears.”
Still, the group wanted to keep meeting, getting closer, forming friendships. After a year, there was a breakthrough moment.
“Something came up about a ghetto and another woman piped up and said, ‘I was there,’” said David. “Suddenly all these voices came in and one woman said, ‘Were you there the day they threw the babies out of the nursery window? They threw my baby.’”
It was, as David describes it, like a dam bursting. The stories — and the tears — kept coming, things that they had never told anyone, even their families. (Touchingly, the women would ask David, “Are you OK, dear?”) These memories included being experimented on by the notorious Josef Mengele; being forced to steal food to feed their children; and sexual violence.
Another year passed and David began taping the sessions, initially to help her keep track of what she was hearing.
One night, she took things the women said — sentences, phrases — and organized them under thematic headings, like “pain,” “hunger” and “loss.” Almost by accident, she created a poem, entirely made up of verbatim things the women had said to each other. It was a way, David said, “to protect their identities but tell their stories — sexual violence, the capacity for brutality mankind has — things they never did tell, partly because they didn’t have the words.”
The group loved it and, with their permission, David began taping all the sessions, returning each week with a new poem.
“We had this collection of incredibly impactful poems that resonated with them and they were quite pleased with themselves,” she said. “It took some of the edge off remembering.” Together, they decided to self-publish a book. (The book binders were so moved by the material that they printed personalized versions for each of the 14 women with their names on the covers.)
“It was incredibly therapeutic for everybody involved,” said David. “One woman actually said, ‘Now, when I die, it’ll be all right because I’ve left a piece (behind).’” All of those women are gone now, David added, but their stories are still being told.
A chance meeting with music producer and journalist Dan Rosenberg led to these poems being featured on “Silent Tears.” As part of the project, the women’s words were translated into Yiddish.
“That brought me to tears,” said David. “It was such divine justice for that group of women.” That’s because she knew their struggles with expressing themselves in English (the group had been conducted in that language for David’s benefit as a non-Yiddish speaker). “What a tribute and honour to them to take it back to their mother tongue.”
David said telling their stories was motivated by a desire to prevent what happened to them from happening ever again.
And yet, she said, “it’s still happening today and we’re still not hearing the true stories of the absolute devastation we’re capable of doing.” Art like this, she added, is a crucial medium to ensure that the gravity of what is happening somewhere else is communicated to those unaffected by it.
“This could be Ukrainian women speaking today,” David said.
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