9780805210156 I Never Saw Another Butterfly, a collection of drawings and poems made by the children held at the Terezin Concentration Camp from 1942 to 1944, is one of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) selections for their Social Justice Book List. Katherine Bassett, the CEO and President of NNSTOY and 2000 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year, writes on her own experience of sharing the book with her middle school students:

As a librarian I have long been struck by the power of books. Books can fill us with joy, bring us to tears, move us to action. Some books change the way we look at the world.

A book that profoundly changed me and many of my students is I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children’s Drawings and Poems from the Terezin Concentration Camp, 1942-1944, edited by Hana Volavkova. The contents of the book were written at the Theresienstadt camp in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, initially established as a model camp. Its population consisted of some of the brightest and most creative of the Jewish community in Europe—poets, musicians, actors—and children. Here the Jews would govern themselves. But it was not to be as conditions quickly deteriorated. According to the book’s forward by Chaim Potok, residents had little food, water, or medical supplies. At least 33,456 of the 141,000 plus Jews incarcerated at Theresienstadt through 1945 died. Another 88,202 were transported to camps like Auschwitz. Of the 15,000 children sent to Auschwitz alone, only 100 survived the war. None of the survivors was under fourteen years old.

The power of I Never Saw Another Butterfly does not, however, lie in these grim statistics. Other camps were far worse. The book details the stories of the children of Theresienstadt through their own words and drawings. Through their art and poems, we see from the children themselves what daily life was like.

When I opened this book for the first time, I read it cover to cover—I simply could not put it down. The book later served as a touchstone for a project in 1999 at the middle school in which I taught. We had a tradition each year to “read our way around our building” from March 1 until National Library Day in April. Our theme that year was the Holocaust. As students read books on the theme, they filled out paper cutouts shaped like a butterfly with the title of their book, their name, and the name of a person in whose honor the book was read. We hung the butterflies outside our classroom doors until we had read our way around the building.

Each of us had a small card that identified the name and country of the person for whom we would read. We worked with Yad Vashem to obtain lists of children who had died during the Holocaust and researched names of survivors and rescuers. Each included dates of birth and, if they were a victim, the date of death.

The experience of reading in honor of these people for one and a half months changed us all. I had expected pushback; I did not get it. Our younger students read in honor of survivors or rescuers, our older students in honor of victims. We paired this book with others: Patricia Polacco’s The Butterfly and Forging Freedom by Hudson Talbot are two.

On National Library Day, the author of Forging Freedom and the subject of his book, rescuer Jan Penraat, visited our school and spoke with our younger students. Hanna Pick-Gosler, the subject of the book Memories of Anne Frank, which we also read, came to speak to our older students.

What made all the difference though was the concept of the butterfly.  Brightly colored butterflies filled our hallways and our minds, I believe, forever. A group of our students filmed the butterflies and interviewed other students talking about what they were able to find out about the person for whom they read.

I Never Saw Another Butterfly is the title of a poem in the book, written in 1942 by a young man, Pavel Friedmann, who would die two years later in Auschwitz. A portion of his poem reads:

The last, the very last,
So richly, brightly, dazzlingly yellow,
Perhaps if the sun’s tears would sing against a white stone. . . .
. . . For seven weeks I’ve lived in here,
Penned up inside this ghetto.
But I have found what I love here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut branches in the court.
Only I never saw another butterfly.
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live here, in the ghetto.

In honor of Pavel, and so many others, whose powerful spirits overcame their circumstances and the brutal inhumanity of their fellow human beings, we filled our school with butterflies.


Katherine Bassett

This is the power of what a book can do.

Katherine Bassett is the CEO and President of the National Network of State Teachers of the Year (NNSTOY) and 2000 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year. She is a member of the Board of Directors of NASDTEC. The book I Never Saw Another Butterfly was named to the Social Justice Book List released recently by NNSTOY.