On 15th October 1938, German troops occupied Weber’s hometown of Vítkovice. Located in the Sudetenland, the German term for the part of Czechoslovakia inhabited by over three million Sudeten Germans, this area was ceded to Hitler as part of the Munich agreement, followed by the resignation of the Czech government.
Weber and her husband Willi were forced to reconsider their options; life as they knew it began to change dramatically. The rest of her family moved from Vítkovice to join them in Prague, but as religious and cultural life became controlled by the German occupiers, with the ban of liberal newspapers and magazines and gradual erasure of Jewish art, music and literature, Weber struggled to find work. As such, their financial situation deteriorated. Receptive to Zionist ideas, she considered emigrating with their family to Palestine, though this did not work out. In May 1938, they succeeded in at least getting Hanuš out of the country to the United Kingdom, who was taken in by Weber’s friend and pen pal, Lilian von Löwenadler, the daughter of a Swedish diplomat. In a letter dated 14th March 1938, Weber wrote to Löwenadler in anticipation for the arrival of Hanuš: “He has not yet been directly affected by antisemitism. Perhaps there will be miracle and we Jews will continue to be equal here […] Once again, thousand thanks to you and your husband for your goodness”. Hanuš was brought to England on the last of four train transports of children from Prague organised by Sir Nicholas Winton, and stayed with Lilian and his Uncle for some time, before moving to Sweden, where he survived the rest of the war in the care of Löwenadler’s mother, Gertrude.
On March 15th 1939, Germany occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia, including Prague where the Webers were then residing. Ostrava’s six synagogues were torched. In October of that year, 1,290 Jewish males were sent to Nisko nad Sanem, a forced-labour camp. Weber continued to write to both her friend and her son for as long as she could. Yet, for Weber, Willi and Tomáš, the situation was not so hopeful. In February 1942, all three were deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp and ghetto. An additional 3,558 Jews from Ostrava were also deported to Terezin between February and September 1942. Therese, Weber’s mother and musical inspiration, was deported to Treblinka death camp on 19th October 1942, where she was murdered upon arrival.
Weber’s Creative Works in Theresienstadt
During her stay in Theresienstadt, Weber began working in the children’s infirmary, doing everything she could for her young patients without providing them medicine, which was forbidden for Jewish inmates. As confirmed in a letter written to his brother, Tomáš was housed in the camp’s children’s home. Both Weber and Willi also continued to write to Hanuš from the camp, imploring him to be safe, well and to write to them more. As their letters were subjected to censorship, they informed recipients that they were “well” and healthy, disguising the true nature of their situation.
As part of Weber’s rehabilitation for the children in her care, she composed nursey rhymes, lullabies, and poetry, in which she had taken such comfort as a young girl following the death of her father. Taking advantage of the time during her night watch and after her work duties, Weber created a small seating space for herself and others, from which she wrote approximately sixty poems during her incarceration, all in German. She set many of these to music, accompanying herself on the guitar and utilising “deceptively simple” tunes and imagery to describe the horrors she and her fellow inmates witnessed, the primitive nature of their everyday surroundings, and the importance of keeping music alive in spite of everything. Her guitar, which had been smuggled into the camp by a Czech police officer, hung on the wall and remained hidden from the SS guards. She also encouraged her young patients to write their own songs and poems, and formed a choir that played a part in the inmates free-time activities. Ruth Elias, whose space in the camp was next to Weber’s and therefore bore witness to much of Weber’s creativity, remembered of her friend: “It may sound paradoxical, but we spent unforgettable hours…during which she sang songs with the lute. Ilse was not only a poet, but also an excellent musician…I found it incomprehensible how she managed during this terrible time to see so much ugliness, but sometimes also beauty, and describe it so expressively in her verses…I became witness to her creation”.
Her written prose and songs included: I Wander Through Theresienstadt, Musica Prohibita, Emigrants Song, The Lidice Sheep, Wiegala, And the Rain Falls, and Avowal of Belief. Although the creation of certain artworks, theatre and, musical performances were permitted in Terezin by the authorities, usually as part of the Nazis’ propaganda agenda for the camp as a false “model” for Jewish internment, clandestine and informal artistic creativity was illegal. Therefore, Weber’s songs and secret performances can be understood as a form of spiritual resistance. This is perhaps best demonstrated in the narrative of Musica Prohibita in which Weber reflects: “In this place, we are all condemned, a shamed, despairing crowd. All Instruments are contraband, no music is allowed. […] Music lights up a poet’s words, from our plight brings release, even the sparest songs of birds bear moments of blessed peace”. For Weber, then, it seems that salvation could be found in music. Moreover, her performances provided the children in her care with a sense of joy, normality, and relief. In a letter sent to Hanuš and Gertrude in Sweden, dated 21st April 1941, she wrote: “It is, after all, amazing, how much my bit of music making helps […] When I come and sit down with my guitar, my table is immediately surrounded and there is singing”.
Whilst she could not express her fears, anxieties or worries in her censored letters to her loved ones, she could capture them in song and poetry, and find “consolidation in language”. Writing lyrics became her method of coping. Moreover, the simplicity of her works do not adhere to an interpretive or “avant-garde” style of reflection that one might find in the works of survivors written years after the war, but they are contemporaneous recordings of camp life which bear witness to camp and ghetto life. Moreover, she adapted traditional German storytelling tropes for her nursery rhymes, such as The Magdeburg Barracks Gate which, as Michal Schwartz suggests, alludes to Weber taking control of the language of the perpetrators, and uses their own culture to describe the suffering of their victims, and the rupture of Germany’s values. In her ironically titled Theresienstadt Nursery Rhyme, Weber presented a macabre, paradoxical view of death through her sprightly and rhythmic nursery rhyme, which detailed children assisting with the “dead wagon”, which carried away bodies deceased prisoners:
We’re riding in the hearse,
We’re riding in the hearse,
We stand there, we stand here
riding fast, cold corpses near,
We’re riding in the hearse”.
As an act of political resistance, Weber also referred to current events in her works, including the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich and subsequent violent retaliation by the SS, in which the entire village of Lidice was gradually liquidated. Dedicated to the victims of this massacre, Weber composed her poem The Sheep from Lidice. In doing so, the bravery with which she addressed such issues through intelligent, subtle satire and ridicule concretises the ways in which Weber sought to process the surrealness of the world around her, even if punishable by violence, or death.
An Act of Love: Voluntary Deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau
For two years, Weber and her family managed to create some kind of calm and productive life in Theresienstadt. According to Hanuš, who continued correspondence with his mother until the end, his parents remained optimistic about the future, especially when they could attend theatre plays and receive food packages. He even noted that his father, who worked as a gardener, was able to smuggle weapons into the camp, storing them in the fire stations. At the same time, deportations to Poland occurred regularly. Inmates were acutely aware that they could be next, as rumours started to spread of the horrific fates that awaited Jews deported “to the East”. Weber even composed her pre-emptive Lullaby from the Poland Transport, one verse of which reads: “Sleep well little one, we have come far, our home has vanished in the dark, stolen a long time ago. We loved it dearly, it is no more. We sit in silence and find no words, we’re going all the way to Poland”. Because of this, her husband Willi implored his wife to promise that she would not volunteer for any transportation out of Theresienstadt, to which she agreed.
Yet, in 1944, Willi found himself on a transport list of 5000 men selected to “work in Dresden”, who were in fact brought first to Auschwitz, then to the Gleiwitz concentration camp. Willi was assured that his deportation would mean that his family could stay “comfortably” in Thereseinstadt”, and that he could correspond with them regularly. This turned out to be a false promise, one of many that the SS made to prisoners in order to gain their trust and cooperation. In a letter written by Willi to Gertrude von Löwenadler in 1945, he recalled the moment in which the family were separated in 1944, as well as the importance of her songs for those who were interned in the camp: “Until September 44, Isle, Tommy and I, with some relatives of mine, were still in Theresienstadt. […] her poems and songs have become with time the common property of thousands of people. […] a nurse who had worked with Ilse took away my illusion and told me that after the departure of the 5000 men, another 15,000 persons were sent away. Ilse was in one of these transports”.
The nurse who Willi had met in Prague confirmed that Weber and Tommy had left for Auschwitz following the news that the entire children’s infirmary in which she worked would be deported at the beginning of October 1944. According to her colleague, Weber refused to abandon the sick children, and so voluntarily registered to accompany them to Auschwitz, most likely under the belief that she would be reunited with her husband, despite knowing the destination of the transport and what that could potentially mean for her and her son. Tragically, Weber and Tommy were gassed immediately after they arrived in Poland on 6th October. Willi asked every Auschwitz survivor that he encountered if they had seen his wife and child, or remembered encountering them in the camp. Eventually, he had to abandon hope, and pronounced them both dead in 1946, confirmed officially by the Civil District Court in Prague on 9th January 1947.
Wilhelm, who carried his own miraculous story of survival from Gleiwitz, was eventually reunited with his son Hanuš following the end of the war, when the child was sent back to Prague to live permanently with his father. Eventually, Hanuš settled in Sweden. Willi eventually remarried, this time to a woman he had met in Theresienstadt, before passing away aged 73 in 1974. After World War II, approximately 250 Jews returned to Ostrava and a Jewish community—covering northern Moravia and Silesia—was re-established. By 1997, this number was reduced to eighty.
Post-war Memory and Recovery of Works
Prior to his transport order to Auschwitz in 1944, Willi collected the physical copies of his wife’s creative works with the intention of concealing them in a hidden location in Theresienstadt. Given his position as a gardener, he had access to the perimeters of the camp. He filled an old sack with these precious documents, including the songs and poetry she had composed throughout her imprisonment, and dug a hole in the ground in one of the tool sheds he used before burying the bundle, and covering the hole with a layer of clay. Two or three days later, he was deported. After his liberation in 1945, Willi regained enough strength to return to Terezin, where he visited the shed to retrieve the sack. Fearing the Soviet liberators might burn the documents, he smuggled Weber’s works out of the camp with the aid of a soldier with whom he was familiar. Thanks to these extraordinary efforts, Weber’s body of works survived the war, even though she herself did not. In the earlier years of the post-war period, Willi and Hanuš were also sent additional verses written by Weber from friends or inmates who had been in the camp, but which had not been preserved in the hidden collection. According to Hanuš, a great many people reported that Weber’s poetry and songs had been a source of inspiration during those bleak times, and had helped them retain their will to live, demonstrating the impact that her presence and resistance had on those around her.
In her research, historian Ulrike Migdal also recalled a remarkable story concerning the legacy of Weber’s contemporaneous works during the war. According to another survivor of Theresienstadt, the aforementioned poem The Sheep from Lidice, Weber’s response to the SS massacre of Lidice, was smuggled out of the camp but fell into the hands of the Germans, who sought to identify and punish the author. Weber was never identified, nor was she singled out by any of her fellow prisoners. Such acts of comradery illustrate the importance of Weber’s creative works and the legacy of her compositions amongst those who encountered them. Moreover, she was often asked by the inmates and children in her care to repeat her songs over and over, resulting in many memorising her words by heart. As such, Willi and Hanuš continued to communicate with numerous survivors who recalled the comfort that Weber’s lyrics and prose had provided them, both during the Holocaust and after. As Willi would later conclude: “Theresienstadt was the peak of Ilse’s career as a write […] with her songs and poems, she gave people new hope for a better tomorrow”.
In 1977, not long after Wilhelm’s passing, a trunk containing Weber’s letters to Gertrude and Lillian von Löwenadler, from 1933 to 1944, was delivered to Hanuš in Sweden. Unable to bring himself to read his mother’s words, he stored the letters away. Weber’s brother Oscar, who resided in Israel, asked to see the collection of correspondence as part of a personal initiative to piece together his familial history, which encouraged Hanuš to finally read the letters, and to learn of her journey from the rise of National Socialism, until her death. Only then did Hanuš realise the extent of his mother’s artistic skill, her passion for storytelling and her love for music, and gained insight into his family’s wartime experiences. Some years later, Hanuš encountered an old friend from Ostrava, who had seen Ilse Weber in her last moments before entering the gas chambers in Auschwitz. He informed Hanuš that he had recognised Weber and Tommy from Theresienstadt and she, who in turn recognised him, had asked what was about to happen to her and the children from the infirmary – would they be taking a shower? He recalled telling her: “…it is a gas chamber, and I will give you a piece of advice now. I have often heard you singing in the infirmary. Go as quickly as possible into the chamber. Sit with the children on the floor and start singing. Sing what you always sing with them”. In response, Weber let out a strange, absent laugh, hugged one of the children, and began to inform them: “So we will not be taking a shower…”.
Beyond those who encountered Weber personally, and who could recall her songs as part of their own, lived memory, her works have also become increasingly well-known as part of the collective memory of the Holocaust, especially following the fall of the communist regime in the Czech Republic. In addition to her pre-war writing and children’s books, which are currently preserved in the archives of institutions such as the Jewish Museum Berlin, Weber’s compositions from the war period have since been published. The first of these was a collective volume in 1991, entitled “Inside These Walls, Sorrow Lives”. Copies of her collection of poetry, songs, and letters have been provided to the archives of the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Centre, where they are now available to read digitally. In 2008, the Munich-based publisher Carl Hanser Verlag brought out a collection of her letters and poems entitled: Wann wohl das Leid ein Ende hat (When will the suffering come to an end), collated by the German historian Ulrike Migdal. Weber's son Hanuš participated in a cultural program commemorating his mother's work in Berlin on 22nd May 2008, before writing a book on his mother’s life titled Ilse: A Love Story Without a Happy Ending. In 2016, her poems, songs and letters were also published in the substantial volume Ilse Weber, Dancing on a Powder Keg, in coordination with Yad Vashem. Her song Wiegala was used in Paula Vogel's play, Indecent.