KITTY GRAVY WORKS THE SYSTEM, 1825

Mrs Gravy

Mrs Gravy

 

In the English city of Chester one day in September 1825 ‘an elderly-looking woman’ was brought before a local magistrate and the town clerk to answer a few questions. She had arrived back in London from Australia two years earlier, where she had ‘promptly been robbed of 170 pounds’.

In those days there were no social security welfare payments and those without other means of support had to apply to the parish for relief.

The interview began with the woman being asked her name:

‘Well my name, your Honour’s, a very ugly name – it’s Kitty Gravy, (dropping a curtsey) I come from the Vale of Clwyd.’

Next, they wanted to know if the woman was married;

‘Married! O yes; I are be married very often; I have had four husbands, and the last he is in Liverpool Infirmary with a broken leg, and his name’s John Joachim Gravy; a very ugly name, isn’t it your Worship?’

What His Worship replied, if anything, was not recorded but Mrs Gravy went on to tell the panel that she had been married at Botany Bay. They thought she meant a place in Chester near the canal, opposite Queen Street.

‘Pooh, no: I mean Botany Bay – the real Botany Bay, 30 000 miles off, your Honour.’

‘And what took you there?’

‘ ‘Pon my word, they transported me for seven years for doing nothing – nothing at all; God knows what for, I can’t tell. I never stole anything in my life.’

Kitty then put her hand into her ‘sinister pocket’ and drew out some papers. They turned out to include what purported to be a certificate from the Governor General of New South Wales dated twenty years earlier. On the back was a description of the ‘fair complexion’ of a much younger Kitty. When the clerk read it out ‘Mrs Kitty, looking very knowing, and with a shrug of her shoulders, exclaimed, “Aye, but it’s withered now”.’

Kitty went on to explain that Mr Gravy, a German, had been a free settler in New South Wales, living at Woolloomooloo. It was there that she had, presumably, met and married him.

All this time, Kitty ‘appeared to be in high glee’. So much so that she was rebuked for her levity by one of the Aldermen. She replied:

‘Thank your Honour, (curtseying), I’m much obliged: I paid 100 pounds for my passage home, and everyone loves poor Kitty. I’m all fair yea and nay, your Honours.’

It was then suggested by one of the interviewers that Kitty was in fact living with a Frenchman in Brighton ‘but she repelled the charge indignantly’ and went on to catalogue the history of her various husbands.

‘My first husband was James Miller, and he was a Scotchman; Thomas Wilson was my next, and he was a Hollander in the Navy; my third husband John Grace, an Irishman, from the County of Wicklow; and my fourth was John Gravy, a German. So you see (said Mrs Kitty with all the naivety of an accomplished punster) that for my last two husbands I had Grease and Gravy!’ Of the four, Kitty reckoned the first had been ‘worth them all.’

When asked when she had first married, Kitty replied:

‘Eh! The Lord knows, it’s a long while ago.’ She told the panel that she had a daughter aged 46 with six children and it was eventually decided that Kitty Gravy must have been seventy-six years of age.

Although she was asking for financial help, her fingers were decked with rings, some silver, and the papers in her ‘sinister pocket’ included a number of receipts for relief she had already received from other parishes. Whether the interviewers decided that Kitty was a deserving case for the Poor Books we do not know. But her practiced arts of flattering and cajoling the system to satisfy her needs, real or contrived, were certainly on display that day in Chester and they would also have served her well in the penal system of New South Wales.[i]

 

NOTES

[i] A broadside from The Australian of 1826, reproduced in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, p. 104. A version of this story appeared in my Great Convict Stories.

THE GREATEST MONSTER WHO EVER CURSED THE EARTH

Thomas_Jeffries 2

Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries, Jeffreys), 1826

On 4 May 1826, the ‘gentleman bushranger’ of Van Diemen’s Land, Mathew Brady, awaited his imminent hanging. Brady was ready to die for his crimes but lamented that he was fated to enter oblivion together with a man he once called a ‘de-humanised monster’. Brady had a point. Suffering that day at Hobart Gaol alongside the other condemned was Thomas Jefferies (Jeffries), a ghoulish embodiment of the creatures the transportation system could produce. Even by the standards of Van Diemen’s Land his crimes were considered exceptional enough for the people of Launceston to attempt to lynch him when he was finally brought in from the bush.

Jefferies stood apart from the general rabble of convicts even before he left Britain. While awaiting transportation he accepted the role of flogger and executioner. Arriving in October 1823, Jefferies was soon sent to Macquarie Harbour after threatening a constable. Following that twelve-month sentence, he was unwisely appointed as a watchhouse keeper in Launceston. Here he again took up the task of official scourger and sexually assaulted several women. He took to the bush and began a brief but bloody career. From Christmas Day 1825 he and some accomplices carried out a number of callous murders, including that of a five-month old baby whose brains Jefferies smashed out on a tree trunk because the mother he had kidnapped could not keep up with the fleeing bushrangers. The colonial press told the tale:

It is with feelings of the utmost horror, that we have to make public the following appalling circumstance. On Saturday last, Jeffrey [sic], the notorious villain, who lately broke out of the Launceston watch-house, accompanied with the two miscreants who followed him, after having robbed Mr. Barnard’s hut, proceeded to the residence of a respectable Settler named Tibbs, about 5 miles from Launceston.  They arrived there about noon.  Mr. Tibbs and his wife, a young and respectable woman, to whom he had been married about two years, with their child, and a servant of a neighbouring Settler, named Basham, were in the house.  The ruffians attempted to bind them, but, upon their offering resistance, these diabolical murderers shot them both.  The man fell dead; Mr. Tibbs was dangerously wounded, but he escaped with his life, and contrived to give an alarm.  The whole town of Launceston, with one accord, rushed out after the murderous villains; but the unhappy female and her child were gone.  About 3 o’clock on Sunday, she returned to her forlorn residence. She was in a state of distraction. The dæmons had murdered her infant. We cannot relate the rest.  The agitation this dreadful event has excited is beyond expression.  We hope and trust the execrable monsters may be quickly brought to condign punishment.[i]

Fleeing from these appalling crimes and running short of food, the bushrangers murdered one of their group while the foolish man slept. His body kept them alive for four days until they were able to slaughter a couple of sheep. They were still carrying about five pounds of human flesh when apprehended. Jefferies surrendered without a fight and was happy to inform against his accomplices.

Captured in late January:

‘The monster arrived in Launceston a few minutes before nine o’clock on Sunday Evening. The town was almost emptied of its inhabitants to meet the inhuman wretch. Several attempts were made by the people to take him out of the cart that they might wreak their vengeance upon him, and it became necessary to send to Town for a stronger guard to prevent his immediate dispatch. He entered the Town and gaol amidst the curses of every person whomsoever.’[ii]

Jefferies was called ‘The greatest monster who ever cursed the earth’ and nobody mourned his death.

Notes

[i]Colonial Times, 6 January 1826.

[ii]Hobart Town Gazette, 28 January 1826, given in broadside form in Geoffrey Ingleton, True Patriots All, Charles E Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, 1988, p. 107.

WIVES FOR SALE


Thomas Rowlandson, Selling a Wife, 1812 – 1814 
 

Here’s an update on an intriguing folk custom I wrote about in Great Convict Stories.

 

*
A ‘disgraceful transaction’ took place at Windsor (New South Wales, Australia) in 1811. Ralph Malkin, transported in 1801, put a rope around his wife and led her down the street seeking a buyer. He found one. Thomas Quire stumped up 16 pounds on the spot, plus a few yards of cloth.
While the better classes of society were outraged at such a ‘gross violation of decency’, wife selling was a custom practiced throughout Britain since at least the 16th century. And not only by the common folk. The 2ndDuke of Chandos is said to have purchased his second wife around 1740 and many recorded cases of the custom involve tradesmen and skilled men as the purveyors of their spouses. While the practice was not legal, it was commonly believed to be so and there was often a reluctance by magistrates to prosecute cases, particularly as, it was claimed, the women involved were agreeable to being sold.
By the time Ralph Malkin decided to offer his wife to the highest bidder in Windsor, the custom was increasingly frowned on by public opinion. The writer of the letter in which the event is recorded used words like ‘shameful’ and ‘contemptible to describe the seller and the buyer of Mrs Malkin.
 
 
But all was not as it might seem to contemporary or modern sensibilities. For a wife selling to proceed, the woman had to agree to be sold. Research on this custom indicates that in quite a few cases the women were sold to men who were already their lovers. It seems that wife selling was a form of folk divorce at a time when the average person could not afford such proceedings, or even access the legal means to achieve that state.
Prices paid for wives exchanged by this custom varied from a high of 100 pounds down to three farthings. There are even cases where wives were given away free or for a glass of beer. The price was not as important as the fact that the sale took place in public, usually a market, fair or public house. This ensured the presence of plenty of witnesses to validate the transaction. Popular participation and approval was an important element of the custom and, in some incidents, magistrates seeking to stop a wife sale were driven away by the crowd and on others the crowd refused to allow a sale to proceed if the woman was not agreeable.
An occasional reason for sale was that the wife was simply fed up with the husband, as in the case of a wife sold in Wenlock Market, Shropshire in 1830. When her husband showed signs of cold feet at the last minute she reportedly flipped her apron in his face and said ‘Let be yer rogue. I wull be sold. I wants a change.’
Selling a Wife at Smithfield Market, 1816
 
In the case of the Windsor event, Mrs Malkin (who is never named) was thought to be: ‘… so devoid of the feelings which are so justly deemed the most valuable in her sex, agreed to the base traffic, and went off with the purchaser, significantly hinting that she had no doubt that her new possessor would make her a better husband than the wretch she thus parted from.’ Which was the long-winded nineteenth century way of saying that she not only agreed to be sold but that she thought the new husband was a whole lot better than the old one.
While everyone involved in this transaction was seemingly perfectly happy with it, the local bench of magistrates investigated and determined that a breach of some law had taken place. And in any case, the three ‘base wretches’ involved quite readily admitted to their crime, if it was one. Ralph Malkin received fifty lashes and three months hard labour in irons. His wife – or ex-wife – was transported to the Coal River (Newcastle) for an indefinite period. There seems to be no record of any proceedings against Mrs Malkin’s purchaser.
Wives continued to be sold in Australia. There was a case in the Swan River colony in 1839 and another on the Mount Alexander goldfield in 1861:
‘Last Saturday week a miner residing near Cockatoo discovered that his wife was untrue to him, the gay Lothario being a miner named Sam. The latter party, a cool sort of customer, informed the husband that a row would bring no gain to either party, and that perhaps an arrangement satisfactory to both parties might be effected. The husband offered to sell his wife, tent, cooking utensils for £5.- Sam agreed to the terms, paid the money, and the husband departed.’
But Sam soon tired of his new spouse, a woman of twenty-seven years and reportedly ‘not by any means destitute of personal attractions’. He went in search of another buyer and soon found a miner willing to pay two pounds for the lady.
The belief that wife selling was legal persisted for a long time. Nineteenth century newspapers frequently pointed out that it was a ‘popular error’ but there was a recorded sale in England as late as 1913.
 

 

SOURCES

The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 March 1862, p. 2, surveying wife selling in England from 1766 to the 1830s.

Geoffrey C Ingleton, True Patriots All, Angus & Robertson, Sydney 1952, p. 58; Bruce Kercher, Debt, Seduction and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales, Federation Press, 1996 pp. 66-7; ‘Wife Selling’, Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud, A Dictionary if English Folklore, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, p. 390. There is a treatment of wife selling in Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge(1886) and an excellent article by Lauren Padgett, ‘Brutal exhibitions of depravity’: 19th Century Wife-selling in Literature, Illustrations and Practice’ at http://www.leedstrinity.ac.uk/blogs/leeds-centre-for-victorian-studies/19th-century-wife-selling-in-literature-illustrations-and-practice, accessed August 2018.

The Perth and Independent Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 24 January 1862, p. 3 (in article on state of the colony in 1939).Mount Alexander Mail, 7 June, 1861, P. 5 (reprinted from the North West Chronicle).

Dance’s Historical  Miscellany at http://www.danceshistoricalmiscellany.com/id-sell-my-wife-if-anybody-would-buy-her-wife-sales-in-england/, accessed August 2018.

 

BURYING THE DEAD HORSE

 

From Stan Hugill’s Shanties from the Seven Seas
In the days of sail, when sailors signed on to a voyage they were paid a month’s wages in advance. This was spent on clothing and equipment needed for the trip, as well as grog, women and the other necessities of a matelot’s life. Because they had to work this payment off before they were paid again, the first month of the voyage was known as ‘working off the dead horse.’ When the month was over and they began receiving their pay, they might perform a folk play known as ‘Burying the Dead Horse’
… The crew dress up a figure to represent a horse; its body is made out of a barrel, its extremities of hay or straw covered with canvas, the mane and tail of hemp, the eyes of two ginger beer bottles, sometimes filled with phosphorus.  When complete the noble steed is put on a box, covered with a rug, and on the evening of the last day of the month a man gets on to his back, and is drawn all round the ship by his shipmates, to the chanting of the following doggerel:—
BURYING THE DEAD HORSE.
You have come a long long way,
And we say so, for we know so.
For to be sold upon this day,
Poor old man.
You are goin’ now to say good-bye,
And we say so, for we know so.
Poor old horse you’re a goin’ to die,
Poor Old Man.
Having paraded the decks in order to get an audience, the sale of the horse by auction is announced, and a glib-mouthed man mounts the rostrum and begins to praise the noble animal, giving his pedigree, etc., saying it was a good one to go, for it had gone 6,000 miles in the past month!  The bidding then commences, each bidder being responsible only for the amount of his advance on the last bid.  After the sale the horse and its rider are run up to the yard-arm amidst loud cheers.  Fireworks are let off, the man gets off the horse’s back, and, cutting the rope, lets it fall into the water.  The Requiem is then sung to the same melody.
Now he is dead and will die no more,
And we say so, for we know so.
Now he is gone and will go no more;
Poor Old Man.
After this the auctioneer and his clerk proceed to collect the “bids,” and if in your ignorance of auction etiquette you should offer your’s [sic]to the auctioneer, he politely declines it, and refers you to his clerk!
This was how Richard (later Sir) Tangye, bound for Melbourne aboard the Parramattain 1879 recalled the ceremony aboard that ship. (Richard Tangye, Reminiscences of travel in Australia, America, and Egypt, London, 1884).
Amazingly, on the same ship and the same voyage a young man named George Haswell took the trouble to document the sailors’ work shanties. He was a skilled musician and transcribed the words and music of their songs, including the ‘Dead Horse’ ceremony described by Tangye (bottom of first page and top of second page, below, for melody).
 

 

(SLNSW)NB: Very early use of ‘folksong’ here, especially in its combined form – yes, you really wanted to know that!)
There are many other accounts of this maritime ceremony, which was extant before 1845. It must have been eerie in a probably empty sea at dusk, as well as enjoyable for crew and passengers. Certainly, all accounts involve alcohol. 
But what did it sound and look like as the crew advanced across the deck chanting and pushing or pulling a horse-shaped structure, sometimes with glowing and occasionally, if the captain allowed, with fireworks? We’ll never know. But we can hear the song in a very nice modern rendition by the Ian Campbell Folk Group.
The Dead Horse ceremony usually took place in one of the ocean regions known as ‘the horse latitudes’. Respectively, 30-35 degrees north of the equator and 30-35 degrees south of the equator, these were areas where the winds often died away, becalming sailing ships. As the legend goes, if a ship was becalmed long enough in one of these regions for the drinking water to run out, any horses (and presumably other livestock) might be thrown overboard to preserve water for the crew. A bit more folklore – might even be true!
Graham Seal

MASSACRE AT CHILCOT ISLAND

 

 

 

Pacific Island recruiting ship ‘Para’, c 1880 (SLQ)
Thomas Harris, master of the schooner Douglas set sail from Trinity Bay in Queensland for Dunk Island in early January 1877. With ten crew aboard, their ultimate destination was the Coral Sea guano island of Chilcot owned by Beaver & Co, also the owners of the Douglas. The seeds of future trouble were sown the morning after they reached the island:
…  two canoes came off, each having a native on board ; they came on board my ship voluntarily’; I gave them tobacco and other things ; I also gave them to understand that they could come with the ship for eighteen months if they liked ; they said “ budgerrie,” and three days after, just when we were getting underway, four natives came off (the two who had previously visited the ship, and two others); three of them were allowed to come on board ; the other one I refused to take with us on account of his treacherous looks…
Harris and the Douglas were engaged in ‘blackbirding’, the then-legal procurement of black labour, including Aborigines, from Pacific islands to work the sugar cane fields of colonial Queensland.  He provided the details to the magisterial inquiry established to get the facts of the ‘massacre’, as the press termed the murders:
there was a license authority sent on board the ship at Melbourne, authorising me to recruit native black labour on certain islands in the South Pacific, or from the main land, for a period of twelve months, to be engaged in beche-de-mer fishing, or procuring guano. Natives so engaged were not to exceed twenty in number …
What happened when they arrived at Chilcot was recounted by Harris in his evidence:
… at night two of the men (Humphrey Coughlan and Alexander M’Intosh) were left to sleep on the island, two of the blacks remaining with them; the men had no arms save half-axes, which they were cautioned to be careful not to leave in the way of the blacks…
They all turned in for the night. Everyone was tired and with the boat a kilometer or more from land Harris did not consider there was any need to set watch. But:
about midnight, while the mate and I were asleep on the “lockers,” we were awoke by a cry of “Save me, they are murdering me.” I said to the mate, “For God’s sake, get up.” He rushed out and I followed. The mate went by the port side, and when I reached the deck I met one of the hands (James Purcell), all cut and bleeding. I told him to go down into the cabin. He went down but seemed half stupid. I next saw a black following the mate with a raised axe. I sang out to him and he turned round and struck at my head, severely wounding my hand, raised to guard my head. I immediately closed with him to take the foe, but could not succeed. So I made for the cabin where I found Purcell lying in a pool of blood and moaning very much.  The boy was also there. I tried to load a revolver, but could not on account of the wound on my hand.
By now their assailants were trying to smash in the skylight glass using lumps of coal and oars. Harris managed to load his revolver and got off a few shots. The attackers were now in full possession of the dock, ‘cutting and hacking everything with the axes they had.’
about fifteen minutes to 5 o’clock a.m. heard a blackfellow’s voice, and immediately afterwards the steward tumbled down into the cabin, wounded. I gave him a revolver, and told him to fire at the black stationed at the skylight. He fired and I believe hit the black, but did not kill him. He ran up on deck and put another shot into him, which killed him.
Harris heard one of the crew forrard cry out: ‘One of the blacks is overboard’. He looked through a porthole and saw a man swimming:
 I told the steward to fire at him, which he did, but cannot say whether the fugitive was hit. I saw him land on a rock, and sent the boy to the maintop to watch his movements. Next saw a sea take him off the rock. Never saw him again, believe he was drowned.
On looking around saw two blacks dead and ordered the bodies to be thrown overboard. Also saw the body of Patrick Troy, greatly mutilated. On mustering crew, found the others badly wounded, the mate and steward only being unhurt. I sent them away in a boat to the island to see how matters stood there. When they returned, they reported that the two men, Humphrey Coughlan and Alexander M’Intosh, had been murdered in the hut. The mate stated that the bodies wore much cut about the head and that decomposition was fast setting in. But before sending the boat away again, I ordered the body of Patrick Troy to be wrapped up in his blankets and taken on shore to be buried with the others. The murders were no doubt perpetrated with the half-axes. Those now produced are the weapons mentioned.[1]
The exact truth behind these grim events will never be known but it seems clear that the Aboriginal men taken aboard at Dunk Island were either tricked or forced into accompanying the crew. This was the era in which the kidnapping of indigenous people for labour was legal. Most were ‘kanakas’ from the South Pacific islands. Known colloquially as ‘sugar slaves’, it is thought that around 60 000 were forced or cajoled to work mainly in the Queensland sugarcane industry where they were often badly treated and poorly paid. The trade began in the 1860s and lasted until 1904 when those who had been indentured and their descendants were deported in accordance with the Commonwealth of Australia’s Immigration Restriction Act (the ‘White Australia Policy’).  But several thousand islanders remained in Australia, forming the basis of a descendant population now numbering 20 000 or more who live mainly in North Queensland.


[1] The Mercury (Hobart), 24 March 1877, 3

PRIMAL EVIL

 
 
 
 
The ancient fear of what dwells without is invoked in this ballad, together with the dread of home invasion. Horrifyingly, the fear turns into reality as the bog-dwelling Lankin and the treacherous nurse combine to harm those inside the castle.
Beware.
*
Long Lankin, the stonemason, builds Lord Wearie’s castle high and strong. But when Lankin asks the Lord for the payment due, Wearie will not give him money.
‘I have nothing for you’, he says, ‘unless I sell my lands, and that I will never do.’
‘You will rue the day you did not pay my fee’, threatens Lankin darkly as he shuffles off to his home in the moss bog.
The next day, Lord Wearie leaves for London, trusting his lady and newborn son to the safety of his fine stone castle and the care of a nurse and the maid. As he mounts his horse, he tells his Lady: ‘Beware of Long Lankin that lives in the moss.’ He gives instructions to bolt the doors and pin the windows ‘And leave not a hole for a mouse to creep in.’ Then he kisses his fair lady and rides away, content that his house is protected from evil.
But it is not. The mason has built one little window into an out-of-the-way part of the castle, so small that everyone has forgotten it is there. But not Lankin. And not the false nurse, who was secretly in league with the mason. She makes sure the shutters on the window are unbolted. That night, Lankin creeps up close to the dark castle walls. The window is just large enough for him to slither through. Once inside the castle he speaks with the ‘false nurse’.
‘Where’s the Lord of this house?
The nurse tells him that the Lord is away in London.
‘Where’s the Lady of this house?’ he demands.
‘Asleep in her chamber.’
Knowing he now has command of the situation, Lankin hisses: ‘Where’s the little heir of this house?’
‘Asleep in his cradle’, the nurse is quick to tell him. But it is not fear or love that makes her betray her mistress. She has her own reasons for colluding with the creature.
‘Fetch the baby’, Lankin orders the nurse. ‘We’ll prick it with a pin until its cries bring the Lady downstairs’.
The false nurse gives the mason a large pin and Lankin pierces the helpless baby. The false nurse holds a basin ‘for the blood to flow in.’ The Lady hears her child screaming and calls out:
O nurse, how you slumber, O nurse how you snore,
You leave my poor baby to cry and to roar.
The nurse calls back, saying she has tried to comfort the child with an apple, a pear and:
I’ve tried him with milk and I’ve tried him with pap,
Come down, my fair lady, and rock him in your lap.
The Lady replies that she dare not come down in the dead of night without a fire kindled and no candle light. The false nurse calls back, her voice thick with envy of her mistresses’ beauty, wealth and finery:
You have three silver mantles as bright as the sun,
Come downstairs, my lady, all by the light of one.
Reluctantly, the Lady at last comes down the stairs. In the darkness at the bottom of the staircase, Lankin lies in wait. She reaches the bottom stair and suddenly:
There’s blood in the kitchen. There’s blood in the hall,
There’s blood in the parlour where the lady did fall.
Hearing these dreadful deeds from her own sleeping quarters, the Lady’s maid fearfully locks herself in the tower. As the grey light of dawn streaks the morning sky, she sees the Lord returning from London. She cries out the dreadful news of what Lankin and the false nurse have done:
O master, O master, don’t lay the blame on me,
‘Twas the false nurse and Lankin that killed your lady.
And now, although too late for the Lady and the child, justice must be done and order restored. The murderous mason is taken and hanged by the neck while the false nurse is burned to death ‘in a fire close by.’
*
NOTES
Based mainly on a version collected from Sister Emma Clewer, Berks., 1909 by Cecil Sharp.
First print version Bishop Percy, 1775 (from Kent, England).
This ballad is widespread in Britain and America.

Recorded by, among others, Steeleye Span on Commoner’s Crown and by Martin Carthy & Dave Swarbrick on But Two Came By.

KEYWORDS: Long Lankin, Child ballads, folksong

LINES OF LIGHT – How Jewish children’s art survived the darkness of the Prague ghetto and Nazi death camps.

 

 
 
It was one tragedy among many millions. But the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis and the children of Prague’s Terezin (Theresienstadt) ghetto shows how creative expression can defy the everyday horrors of totalitarian regimes.
When Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia from 1939, Prague’s Jewish population was quickly interned in what was called a ‘model ghetto’ in the city’s Terezin quarter. Many Jews, young and old, were brutalised, starved and then deported from the ghetto to extermination camps. But through one woman’s selfless dedication, drawings made by children in the ghetto survived the war and Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich.
Friedl Dicker-Brandeis (born 1898) was a Viennese artist who came to Prague to escape Nazi persecution in her home city. Unfortunately, it followed her. She and her Czech-born husband, Pavel Brandeis, were eventually ordered to the Terezin ghetto in December 1942. Here Friedl devoted much of her time, energy and considerable creative skills to teaching art – and more – to the ghetto children. With no children of her own she became a mother of sorts to her students, encouraging them to express themselves through creative work as a form of escapist therapy for their traumatic experiences.
Friedl lived at the girls’ boarding home L410, where children forcibly separated from their parents stayed. She organised exhibitions of the children’s work as well as theatre performances for which she designed the sets and costumes. Much of the teaching had to be conducted in secret and was based on Friedl’s theory that art should ‘unlock and preserve for all the creative spirit as a source of energy to stimulate fantasy and imagination and strengthen children’s ability to judge, appreciate, observe, [and] endure.’
It all came to an end in October 1944. Pavel was deported in September and Friedl volunteered to be taken away. She was deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp on transport EO-167, apparently with some of the children she taught. Perhaps they were able to take some comfort in being together as they met whatever end the Nazis inflicted. Before she left, Friedl gathered up into two suitcases over four thousand of the works the children had created and entrusted them to L410 tutor Raja Engländerova for safekeeping, in the hope that they might somehow escape the Holocaust.
The war finished in 1945. Pavel Brandeis was a lucky survivor but only around 100 of more than 600 Terezin child artists escaped the ghetto and the camps. There are various accounts of how the preserved drawings were rediscovered, but in any event they were eventually passed to the Jewish Museum in Prague where they can be seen today, together with some others in the Pinkas Synagogue in Terezin. The pictures testify to the resilience of children in the most extreme circumstances and are a memorial to the courage and dedication of a remarkable woman. Their plain lines of crayon and paint stand for light and love against the darkness of evil.
Those of Friedl’s students who lived on after the war remembered her as an inspiring teacher and human being. Eva Dorian wrote: ‘I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation’.
Another former student, Erna Furman, would later write: ‘Friedl’s teaching, the times spent drawing with her, are among the fondest memories of my life. Terezin made it more poignant but it would have been the same anywhere in the world… Friedl was the only one who taught without ever asking for anything in return. She just gave of herself.’
The children’s work, together with what survives of Friedl’s own art, have been exhibited around the world from time to time. Daisaku Ikeda, founder of the Fuji Art Museum, took the 1999 exhibition to Japan, noting that:
‘The various artworks left behind by this great woman and the children of Terezin are their legacy to the present, to all of us today. They demand that we continue in our quest for a society that truly treasures human life, transcending all differences of race, religion, politics and ideology. It remains my heartfelt hope that this exhibit may provide a moment of introspection for its viewers, a moment for us to reaffirm the importance of our rights as human beings and the value of life itself.’

OLD WISDOM

One of Ben Franklin’s famous almanacs

 

 

 

The humble proverb is a form of traditional wisdom and practical advice that has been around for centuries. Often described as ‘the wisdom of many’, proverbs are shared solutions to problems that beset most people most of the time which probably explains why cultures thousands of miles and thousands of years apart have developed remarkably similar proverbial wisdom about many of the same matters.
 ‘The root of all evil’ has not surprisingly, attracted many aphorisms and adages. Many of these counsel caution in financial dealings. The familiar ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’ is complemented by the Italian ‘Better give a penny than lend twenty’. Other money proverbs expound the wisdom that ‘Money is not everything’.
In fact, money is far from everything in many traditional philosophies, including the Persian, where it is said that ‘The larger a man’s roof the more snow it collects’. An old Greek proverb goes ‘A miser is ever in want’. The Japanese have a saying that indicates the virtues of poverty – ‘The poor sleep soundly’.
The need for caution and shrewdness in everyday life is the subject of much proverbial wisdom around the world. ‘Look before you leap’ is a venerable old saying known to many. Yet the same warning is echoed in the Nigerian saying ‘When the mouse laughs at the cat there is a hole nearby’. Many other societies have similar advice. ‘Do not rejoice at one who goes before you see the one who comes’, say the Japanese, while the Russians point out that ‘If you put your nose into the water you will also wet your cheeks’ (Russian).
‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, goes the well-worn advice of the English proverb. The difficulty of getting agreement with more than one person and the likely consequences of this are also treated in the Turkish proverb ‘Two captains will sink the ship’. In Japan, the saying is even more concise – ‘Ten men, ten minds’.
Perhaps the largest number of international proverbs deal with the universal desire for contentment. The Spanish say ‘If you have a good harvest do not begrudge a few thistles’. The Chinese saying ‘A bird can perch on only one branch, a mouse can drink only its fill from the river’ has equivalents in many languages. In English there is the familiar ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ and the lesser-known ‘a feather in the hand is better than a bird in the air’. The Greeks say ‘Nothing will content him who is not content with a little’.
The meaning of these proverbs of contentment is that it is better to have less of something that is certain than to have only the promise of something more. This is a powerful reminder that we should be satisfied with what we have now.
That ‘thief of time’, procrastination, is also a popular subject for proverbial pronouncement in many countries. ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ is the message of the Yiddish ‘Tomorrow your horse may be lame’, of the Arabic ‘Today it may be fire, tomorrow it may be ashes’ and of the dryly perceptive French saying, ‘Life is made up of tomorrows’.
The ‘better part of valour’, discretion, is not exclusive to English-language proverbs like ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’. Indians say ‘Be first at the feast and last at the fight’ while the Japanese wisely advise us ‘not to rejoice at one who goes before you see the one who comes’. The Greeks have many proverbs on discretion and caution, including ‘Add not fire to fire’ and ‘A word out of season may mar a whole lifetime.’
Most universal and profound of all emotions – and so the source of innumerable problems – is love. ‘Never love with all your heart, it will only end by breaking’ runs one true saying. The course of love never runs smooth in anyone’s language, but there are proverbs in many to ease the pain a little. ‘Try to reason about love and you will lose your reason’, say the French. In Spain ‘love is like war – begin when you like and finish when you can’.
Other cultures have even more down-to-earth advice for the lovelorn. In Sweden they suggest you ‘Choose your bedfellow while it is daylight’ , while ‘Love is sweet but tastes best with bread’, according to the Yiddish proverb. Given their reputation for ‘amour’, we should let the French have the last word on this subject: Love’s pleasure lasts a moment, love’s pain lasts a lifetime.’
There are not too many aspects of human life and frailty that have not been treated in proverbs somewhere, sometime. There is much to be gained from the traditional wisdom of different lands. ‘Anger without power is folly’, say the Germans. ‘Never cut what can be untied’ warn the Portuguese. ‘An indispensable thing never has much value’, according to Russian tradition. ‘Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms’ say the French of good intentions.
Are they simply a form of folk consolation for the inequities of all political and social systems and the impact of bad luck? Probably. But the message of proverbs is an affirming one for those without the power to change things:
·      the secrets of a happy life are simple
·      keep business and personal affairs in proportion
·      be moderate in fulfilling needs and desires
·      treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself
·      Above all, be content with what you have if that is enough for your essential needs.
As the great American philosopher and purveyor of the proverb, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), put it: ‘If you desire many things, many things will seem but a few’.