Anne Spirn,
author of The Language of Landscape "Original and astonishing."

Sitelines Spring 2007 Reuben Rainey

This study of a neglected dimension of garden history lives up to its provocative title. Part engaging chronicle, part probing meditation on human nature, it both depresses and inspires. It depresses with its detailed accounts of the horrific cruelty of humans to one another through warfare, genocide, and incarceration. It inspires through its powerful narrative of the efforts of the victims of that cruelty to maintain their physical survival, morale, and dignity through the creation of gardens in the most unlikely circumstances and in the most unexpected places. By addressing this little known subject, Helphand has produced one of those rare works that pioneers significant new territory in its discipline—in this instance, landscape studies.

We often view gardens as the products of politically stable circumstance. Bountiful cottage gardens of Victorian England, the serene Buddhist meditation gardens of Tokugawa Japan, and the quiet suburban residential gardens of late twentieth-century America come to mind. However, we do not tend to associate gardens with the needs of the oppressed, being more familiar as creations of the prosperous and the powerful—kings, cardinals, shoguns, industrial magnates, and the like. The Versailles of Louis XIV or the Villa Lante of Cardinal Giovan Francesco Gambara bear witness to this fact, as do a plethora of other examples from Europe, North Africa, North and South America, the Middle East, and Asia.

At the opposite pole contextually are in Helphand's terms "defiant gardens." Such gardens are "those created in extreme or difficult environmental, social, political, economic, or cultural conditions." They exist not in harmony with their settings but stand in opposition to them, calling attention to their existence and "almost demanding response from their human visitors." They are catalysts that empower humans to survive by subverting and defying dehumanizing situations, such as imprisonment, humiliation, execution, or the threat of immanent death in battle.

While there are many types of defiant gardens, Helphand focuses primarily on four types created during wartime. These include gardens constructed by soldiers on and behind the battle lines of the Western front in World War I, gardens created in the Warsaw and other ghettos during Nazi occupation, gardens produced by prisoners of war during both world wars, and gardens built by Japanese Americans incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. In a manner analogous to the study of extreme states of human consciousness in order to understand the dynamics of the human psyche, Helphand affirms that the examination of defiant gardens created in such dire circumstances "provides the illumination of contrast, allowing the background to bring the central image and concept of the garden into brilliant relief." As certain kinds of seeds require the searing power of fire to germinate, so do defiant gardens emerge from the inferno of war and reveal the inherent nature of all gardens.

What are the precise characteristics of that brilliant relief? Wartime gardens, according to Helphand, reveal with extraordinary clarity five attributes inherent in all gardens: life, home, work, hope, and beauty. Manifesting life, gardens are a means by which humans experience an innate affinity for the natural world. As such, gardens provide food not just for bodily sustenance but also for psychic health. To buttress this argument, Helphand draws upon sociobiologist E. O. Wilson's concept of "biophilia," Jay Appleton's study of human habitat preferences, and Roger Ulrich's investigations of the restorative power of nature in the context of healthcare facilities. As embodiments of home, a broad category that encompasses living quarters, region, and nation, gardens help to establish a sense of place or to recall home when one is far away. As locales of work requiring both physical and mental labor, gardens provide the sense of identity and fulfillment that results from manual pursuits. The quality of hope is found in the temporal dimension of gardens, which involves the belief that one's labor will come to fruition, that seeds will germinate, and the harvest will be bountiful. Hope is inherent in the act of gardening itself and inspires those enmeshed in the horror of war. It nourishes the faith that they will survive, preserve their dignity, and experience a meaningful future. Finally, beauty, whether manifest in gardens or other artifacts, is necessary to human well-being and is "rooted in our instinctual response to certain conditions." Beauty is no frill, and its creation and appreciation is a profound expression of the depths of our humanity. It encompasses the memories, associations, shared history, and culture that unite communities and societies. It also defines our delight in form, craft, and material. For Helphand gardens satisfy our basic needs at every level, "from physical survival to the highest levels of art and cultural achievement."

The wartime gardens that Helphand examines are difficult to study. All have disappeared, leaving almost no physical traces, and photographic and written evidence is scarce. His research is exemplary, employing a wide range of archival sources in France, England, Israel, Poland, and the United States. Much of his primary source material is in Polish, German, Hebrew, and Yiddish. Helphand structures his narrative around first-person accounts in the journals and diaries of those who created and experienced these gardens. He also interviewed a number of individuals still alive who could recall such gardens. This imparts a particular vividness to his account that, coupled with well chosen illustrations, gives the book the flavor of a well paced documentary film.

Helphand frames each garden type with a succinct and informative analysis of its historical context, supplemented by his own visits to many of the sites. His chapters on ghetto gardens in Poland and internment camps for Japanese Americans are particularly poignant, as is his account of his visit to the site of the Warsaw ghetto. The result of this meticulous scholarship is profoundly moving and a testament to the capacity of humans to endure and prevail in the most abject circumstances. To Helphand's credit, he avoids moralistic homilies and does not spike his prose with the sensational or the maudlin. This sensitive restraint renders his account all the more affecting.

The study is not without minor flaws, the first being redundancy. The conclusion repeats to an unnecessary extent many of the points discussed in the first chapter, such as the therapeutic value of work, the nature of biophilia, and the power of defiant gardens to transform a new place into a home or a recollection of a faraway home.

These shortcomings, however, cast only small shadows on this extraordinary book. Helphand, like a wise rabbinical scholar, illustrates many key points with stories. The one concluding the book mirrors the deep spirituality that infuses its contents. During the dark days of the Nazi regime, members of the CIAM (Congrès International d'Architecture Moderne) raised the question, "How can we think about roses when the forests are burning?" and answered it, "How can you not plant roses when the forests are burning?" Helphand so aptly concludes, "Gardens always ask us this most elementary question, for the forests are always burning, and we always both need and want to plant roses."