16th December

The Jewish Quarter

The best of miniWORDS '96

When I think about what sparks my writing and what sparks other people’s, it’s astonishing how diverse the influences are.  I often find that there are so many triggers that I end up with more ideas and notes in notepads and scribbled on to random bits of paper, than time to explore them.  I’m sure a lot of writers find this and I suspect this is the reason for so many unfinished projects – I bet we all have some of those!  I have a tabbed notepad full of ideas.  It even has IDEAS on the front (just in case I forget what it’s for!) but the ideas often stay as ideas, without the time to be developed.  This is one of the reasons I enjoy writing poetry.  Poems are like photographs to me.  They capture a moment, a memory, an experience.  You can get the initial ideas down in just a few minutes (am I selling this to you?)  Admittedly, perfecting a poem can take a lot longer – hours, weeks, months, even years – oh yes, I still go back to poems written ten or fifteen years ago and re-write them.

But the other interesting thing about poems, is that they can fuel a much larger piece of work later on, even though that intention may not have been there initially.  The first piece of writing I ever had published was called ‘The Jewish Quarter’.  It appeared in a publication called ‘The best of Miniwords’ as a result of a poetry competition.  It wasn’t anything grand, but it’s amazing how much encouragement being published gave me – to see your words in print – it’s a wonderful feeling and often comes when you least expect it, as was the case with this piece of writing.

‘The Jewish Quarter’ was inspired by a visit I made to Prague around eighteen years ago.

The Old Jewish Cemetery

One of the most memorable places I visited was the oldest Jewish Cemetry still in existence, which lies in the Jewish Quarter of Prague.  There is a museum there, commissioned by Hitler, exhibiting pictures drawn by children while they were in concentration camps, one of which inspired part of the poem.  To say that it was a moving experience is an understatement.  I wrote the much longer poem, ‘Prague Spring’, as a result of my impressions of the city, and turned a section of this into ‘The Jewish Quarter’ for the Miniwords competition, which stipulated a maximum of 100 words (I think!) per poem.

The Jewish Quarter

I saw Don Giovanni with puppets in Prague and sat bewitched by
Mozart’s ‘Requiem’, walked the Jewish Quarter, greyer and poorer, and
visited the cemetery where Kafka lies, and remembrances lay weighted
down with pebbles on faded headstones beneath ancient leaning trees.
Children’s war-time drawings of mummy, daddy and home, paper the
museum walls, and underneath a name, ‘Katrine, aged 9, died 1942.’

Ageing buildings shiver with light from the moon, and beneath the
towering black spires of Tyn, the first McDonald’s has opened its doors.

Tumbling gravestones

I found I had to write about this.  It wasn’t one of those experiences that could be kept in, and I felt I should write about it too.  Headstones are crammed together, almost tripping over each other.  People write notes, fold them into neat rectangles, and leave them on the headstones under pebbles.  Seeing them there was so incredibly poignant, and something about this action peirced my heart.  The pictures were like any other child’s drawing until you read the name and details underneath.  The name, age and date of death of the child featured in the the poem are all real – so incredibly sad.

What is particularly interesting now, from a writer’s viewpoint, is that I seem to be going full circle again with this piece of writing.  My longer ‘Prague Spring’ poem was disected and compressed to this shorter piece of writing.  And now, it has unwittingly arisen again, as part of a new project – a much, much longer one.

Sometimes an idea, an impression, or a heartfelt memory just doesn’t go away, does it?

For more information on the Old Jewish Cemetery, click here.  If you would like to read the full length poem, ‘Prague Spring’, click here.

Has an idea ever niggled away at you so much that you write about it again and again?

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About Abi Burlingham

I write children's books and paint pictures inspired by nature, animals, trees etc, mostly in acrylics. I am a crisp addict.
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22 Responses to 16th December

  1. Jo Carroll says:

    When I was last in Cambodia I met a man who had survived the horrors of the Khmer Rouge; he told me his story and I scribbled it down and promised to tell it when I came home.

    But writing it as a story was just too difficult – it felt as though I couldn’t hold all that terribleness together in a way I could bear to think about it. But a poem – that gave me boundaries. It meant that I couldn’t get everything in, but I could give his story a shape and a reality, and it was contained. Nothing can really do justice to everything he went through, but at least this way it is bearable to think about.

  2. Jo, you are so right. Sometimes the things that need to be said are best said in a few words, and certainly, when you’re on the outside looking in, it is more manageable this way isn’t it? I love this about poetry, that it conveys so much in so few words. But they have to be the right words, and that’s the challenge for us as writers I guess. I’d love to see your poem… future blog post maybe?

  3. Denise says:

    What a great post, Abi. Prague obviously left a lasting impression on you. The idea of a museum displaying the drawings of dead children is somehow horrific and poignant at the same time …

    I assume the building of the museum was commissioned by Hitler, not the decision to show the children’s drawings?

    • Thanks Denise, yes, the sentiments are mixed and that’s what really got me to the core. I don’t actually know how to put this into words, but the desire to display the remnants, if you like, of the race he intended to destroy, shows such evil intent that there really are no words.

  4. Oh, Abi, you’ve nearly got me blubbing into me tea here. Very poignant, as Denise has said. I’m not a great fan of poetry but I like yours and can see why it won the competition. I wrote a short story earlier this year for a Daily Telegraph competition for ghost stories. It was about the secret trafficking of Jewish refugees to England via Holland during the Second World War. It’s still a fascinating subject today.
    A great post!

    • Ah, Marnie, I’m glad it hit the spot. Thanks so much for reading my poem, especially as your not a lover of poetry. I’d love to say ‘The Jewish Quarter’ won, but it was a runner-up – I was still delighted though! Your story sounds fascinating – I’d love to see it. Could you put it on your site maybe? This is clearly a topic that resonates with a lot of people.

  5. I love this post…. although my Jewish ancestors were not from Prague, I can feel much of the same sentiment I heard from my grandmother who escaped from Russia. What a beautiful poem and a beautiful post. And I too have ideas that niggle away so I must write about them again and again and again. (p.s. And I wish I was so organized with my ideas as you are — mine are way too scattered everywhere and organizing them is one of my new years’ resolutions!)

  6. Hi Julia, glad you liked it – knowing about your Jewish ancestors, I thought you might! Your grandmother’s story sounds fascinating. These stories need keeping alive don’t they? Good luck with your Julia Gets Organized programme in the new year – I shall keep nudging you into action in case you forget 😀

  7. Emma Pass says:

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking post, Abi. The poem is so touching and sad. And the idea of a museum commissioned by Hitler that displays the drawings of dead children just sends shivers down my spine.

  8. Thanks Emma. Yes, I know, too horrifying for words isn’t it?

  9. What a beautiful and poignant poem Abi. I think that’s why so many people wrote poems about World War One and Two – there just are no words for such horrible things and poetry is sort of about the things not said

  10. Do you know, you’re so right. I hadn’t really thought of it like that. Poetry does seem to be the only way to talk about some things. Although I have read three novels that deal with this subject spectacularly – ‘The Drowned and the Saved’ by Primo Levi, ‘The Book Thief’ by Marcus Zusak, and ‘The Boy in the striped Pyjamas’ by John Boyne – all amazing books and well worth a read. Thanks for reading and commenting Nicola.

    • You’re welcome 🙂 Yes I’ve read The Book Thief and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas – both good books although I still felt like there was something missing somehow. I have read so much war poetry and novels while studying literature! I do think ‘Birdsong’ by Sebastian Faulks and ‘A Farewell to Arms’ by Hemingway deal with the subject really well.

  11. I haven’t read the Hemingway book, but Birdsong is lovely. The Primo Levi book really hits home hard, so for raw truth and impact you might like this.

  12. Jenny Alexander says:

    I feel the urge to write a poem about once every couple of years, but when that happens, nothing else will do. It’s mostly about stuff I’m processing in my own life, and doesn’t tend to develop into prose projects at all. But those stories that stay with you, yes – my first book, ‘Miss Fischer’s Jewels,’ was about a Jewish refugee, and it came from a story a friend told me about how her parents fled from Germany with nothing except a few items of jewellery, because their bank account was frozen and they could only take with them what they could carry. She had no extended family at all, because everyone except her parents died in the camps, and all her life she felt it was important to possess something of value that you could take with you if you should ever need to flee. I was privileged to have this story, and I wanted children to understand and feel what the story meant as well.

    • What a poignant story, Jenny. There are so many of these tales and it’s so hard to imagine how awful people’s lives can be. But I guess that by writing about them, we are trying to understand and trying to help other people understand too. In fact, you’ve made me wonder – maybe that is what we aim for – empathy and understanding in others. Even if not obvious, I think there are hidden messages in everything we write. Thanks for sharing this Jenny.

  13. Oh my, Abi… this post was beautiful. I can understand why you were so moved and just had to write about it. And I think it only fitting that this memory has once again come back to you, and that you are working on a longer work that covers the same topic. If it’s as lovely and haunting as your poem, it is sure to be another award-winner. I have been overcome in the same way at various historic US sites; I was at Ground Zero one month after the Twin Towers fell. The photos, cards, flowers, stuffed animals in the makeshift memorial simply overcame me. I wasn’t prepared for that emotion – which was the same emotion I felt at Pearl Harbor, and that I know I would feel if I visited this cemetery in Prague. In fact, your post brought tears to my eyes.

    • Hi Melissa, thank you so much for your beautiful comment, which was equally moving. The thought of that awful day when the Twin Towers fell and how I felt watching it on tv, still sends shivers down my spine. I can only imagine how moving it must have been to see it so soon afterwards. Yes, these historical and tragic places hold so many stories of bravery and loss, and maybe this is why we feel compelled to write about them again and again. Thanks again for sharing your stories.

  14. This was an amazing post, and I had to get my box of tissues. God rest the souls of the dead, and I hope the atrocities committed during WWII never have a chance to happen again. It was all senseless and unnecessary.

    • Thanks so much Amber, such a thoughtful response. Unfortunately, as Rwanda, and some other countries have shown over recent years, people are still being persecuted for senseless reasons and governments continue to let this happen. I, like you, hope that somehow there can be an end to all of this.

  15. I missed this post when I visited earlier. I agree that poems can spark ideas for longer pieces of writing and I love your 100 word piece, It’s very moving. I too have been to Prague and found the Jewish Quarter almost too painful to visit.

  16. Thank you Rosalind. It was a very hard visit and hung over me for a long time after. We hear these stories don’t we, but getting a piece of the reality really takes our understanding to a new level, I think. Thanks again for reading and commenting.

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