Ellen Handler Spitz, honors college professor of visual arts, spent her winter break traveling to the Czech Republic, for research, and to India, where she gave the first annual alumni lecture to English Alumni Association of Ravenshaw University in Cuttack and the keynote address at the International Seminar on Children’s Literature and Politics.
Spitz shares an account of her journeys and experiences abroad below.
My trip started in the Czech Republic, where I am researching the children’s drawings from Terezin, a Nazi concentration camp. This project started for me years ago when Peter Jelavich, a Weimar period historian who is now at Johns Hopkins University , asked me to work with him on a children’s opera, ‘Brundibar’ by Hans Krasa, which was produced in the camp and performed entirely by children. (This opera was performed last year in Baltimore at the Chizik Amuno Synagogue, where I gave an illustrated introductory talk.) Since first visiting the camp 20 years ago, I have written and lectured on the opera and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the Bauhaus-trained artist who became the children’s art teacher. Over 4,000 drawings survive today, saved and hidden by her before she was taken to the gas chambers of Auschwitz; to write on them is my next project.
Prague, meanwhile, is an exquisite city uniquely preserved with much of its beauty intact. Its castle spires, Charles Bridge, Wenceslas Square, Josefov (Jewish Quarter with its maze-like streets), State Opera House (where I heard ‘Rusalka’ by Antonin Dvorak, the premier Czech composer, with its limpid rippling score, its libretto based on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of ‘The Little Mermaid’), and graceful ubiquitous ‘art nouveau’ style constitute a few of its aesthetic delights. Prague was also the home of Franz Kafka, at least one of whose haunting works we read each spring in my Honors College Great Books II seminar.
From Prague I flew to India, where I had been invited to give the Alumni Lecture to the English department at Ravenshaw University in Cuttack. Cuttack, a 1,000-year-old city, overflows with a teeming population, streets crisscrossed by the unceasing motion of bicycles, rickshaws, motor scooters, pedestrians, cows, trucks and cars tooting constantly, no traffic signals, yet a deep sense of order. I was also invited to give the keynote address in an International Conference on Politics and Children’s Literature. This, my fourth lecturing trip to India, was as stimulating and rewarding as previous ones. My lectures were attended by students, faculty and various dignitaries, including the vice chancellor and a judge on India’s high court.
Four professors invited me back to their homes while I was there, each visit providing me with insights into daily life; I met family members, including a clever son and a charming daughter, as well as husbands, wives, parents, a poet and several artists. I attended a performance by a renowned performer of Oria traditional dance (done with bells at waist and ankles, elaborate finger movements, body isolations, and carefully choreographed facial expressions).
Before the premier social event of the conference, I was dressed by two of the ladies in a shimmering navy sari flecked with gold and given a bindi. The ensemble engendered quite an outburst of when we three arrived for the event! Indian hospitality has long been legendary, and I must pronounce these legends entirely well-deserved. The students truly made me miss their UMBC Honors College counterparts!
Papers at the conference included one by a gifted maker of “livres d’artiste,” Raja Mohanty, who said that poetry springs from our quarrels with ourselves (which I loved), and another by a children’s book publisher from Delhi, who pointed out that, because the Indian government recognizes 20 official languages, while in the schools children use English, the question of original language versus translation arises with a vengeance. Preserving local tongues in the face of globalization offers challenges, but ones well worth meeting.
My final afternoon was spent in nearby Bhubaneswar at a local school, where I spoke to an assemblage of 150 children. This prospect seemed a bit daunting, but it went extremely well, and when it was over, the children, neat in their uniforms, swarmed me begging for my autograph! Completely surprised, I tried drawing tiny flowers and small animals in their notebooks, but the children with their clamoring and pushing soon overwhelmed me. I realized this must be how a rock star feels!
The last day of my stay also included a re-visit to Bakul, an arts foundation established by Sujit Mahapatra four years ago. Sujit, who is young, energetic, dynamic, and original, had invited me to lecture at the project’s initiation, and I wanted to return and see how it had developed. Bakul offers the population a unique free children’s library, where young people can drop in and read to their hearts’ content. Imagine the magical premises: jungle paintings climb the walls; mats nestle on the floor; the doors stand open; shelves burst with colorful books, so that boys and girls can simply enter, take them down and lie on the floor or curl up and get lost in other times and spaces. Everything at Bakul is done by volunteers, and volunteers from all over the world have sent books in many languages. We are seeking a documentary filmmaker to create a visual record of Bakul.