Shoah victim lives on through art

PRAGUE — Amid the gloom of life in the Terezin ghetto, a light shone briefly for little Tommy.

It was Jan. 22, 1944, and his father had just given him an album as a birthday present.

It was no ordinary book. On the front cover was a picture of a little boy looking out of a window to the outside world. Scrawled below in Czech were the words, "To Tommy, for his Third Birthday in Theresienstadt," which was the German name for the Czech transit camp.

What made the book special was that his father, Bedrich Fritta, was a fine cartoonist and illustrator and the pages were filled with dozens of colorful hand-drawn pictures and verses that offered a brighter world than the drab, depressing surroundings of Terezin.

The illustrations include a picture of a boy with his thumb in his mouth and a child playing games.

That album is far from forgotten. On Dec. 26 at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, a Hebrew version was granted a special honorable mention as part of the Yad Vashem-backed ben-Yitzhak awards for illustrations of children's books.

The work is all the more valuable because the Nazis murdered its author in the autumn of 1944. Fritta was head of the ghetto's technical drawing department, which was used by the Nazis to draw up plans and prepare propaganda illustrations.

The small team of Jewish artists there were tortured after the Nazis found paintings that depicted the grim reality of the ghetto, rather than the family camp image their captors wanted the world to see.

Fritta, whose real name was Fritz Tauzig, was later sent to Auschwitz, where he was killed. His wife also died during the war after contracting typhoid fever.

Little Tommy survived the war and now lives in Prague. He became Tomas Haas after being adopted by a Terezin artist named Leo Haas who survived the war.

"I am very pleased that my father's book is being honored," Haas said. "I don't really remember my father but I have very deep impressions in my mind of Terezin. The book is optimistic and it is like my father is communicating with me."

Haas, who now works as a teacher at Prague's only Jewish school and who still has the original album, said he was unable to attend the award ceremony in Jerusalem.

The album has lasted the test of time as a work of art in its own right. Ivan Klima, one of the Czech Republic's greatest living writers who wrote additional text for a Czech version of the book, said he believed it was a fine example of children's illustrations.

"Fritta was a marvelous painter and this book was really a personal present for his son," said Klima, 68, who lived in a neighboring room to Fritta and knew him well. "There is a lot of optimism in it and it is valuable as an example of the spirit of the ghetto camp."

Over the last 20 years the album has been published in Germany, Belgium, Holland, Sweden, Japan and Israel. It will be available in the United States in January.

One Hebrew edition is frequently used in teaching kindergarten and first-grade children about the Holocaust, while another is designed for adults.