In Brief | Lost Soul

Sunday, May 13, 2007


OF PETR GINZ, 1941-1942

Edited by Chava Pressburger

Atlantic Monthly 161 pp. $24

What is the significance of the writings and art of a murdered 16-year-old boy, especially when he was one of 6 million slaughtered only because of his parentage? Is it that we get to glimpse at least something of a life prematurely and cruelly ended that seems to make that life more lasting and meaningful? Is it that we can better comprehend the infinite horror of each individual loss, which we can then multiply to produce 6 million infinities? Is it, if the writing and art are of distinction, that we can marvel at such precociousness and talent and think of all the richness that that boy and the world never got to experience?

The answer, in the case of Petr Ginz, is all of the above. Ginz was a Czech of mixed Jewish and non-Jewish parentage who was deported in 1942 to Theresienstadt and then, in 1944, to his death in Auschwitz. His diary came to light in 2003 after the Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon took Ginz's drawing "Moon Landscape" with him on the doomed space shuttle Columbia. After the shuttle exploded, a man in Prague who had found the diaries years earlier in a house he purchased saw news reports about Ginz and his painting and contacted the Yad Vashem museum in Jerusalem, which already had a collection of Ginz's artwork. Now published by his surviving sister, the book includes some of his promising watercolors, linocuts and drawings, and excerpts from his writings, including the incomplete The Secret of Satan's Grotto, one of his six unpublished novels:

"It occurred to me then that my feelings at that moment were like a newspaper before it hits the rolling press. All the pressure from every side disappeared. I wondered: why does the pure paper of children's souls have to pass from a young age through the rolling press of life and society, which imprints it with all sorts of qualities and crushes it under the pressure of worries about livelihood and the attacks of enemies."

So much of young Ginz's writings deal with such sadness. While the diary itself is mainly recitations of the personal and political events of his days, his art and the brief excerpts of his journalism (he founded and edited a magazine in Theresienstadt) and novels reveal a burdened though delicate heart, and a fine mind and hand that were never allowed to grow so much finer.

-- Daniel Jonah Goldhagen

© 2007 The Washington Post Company