Blog: Through Testimony

The bridge that did not burn: a journey into my grandmother’s war story

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 10:26am -- rob.kuznia

Contributor: Rachael Cerrotti

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 10:26am

I remember as a child, my grandmother taking hold of my hand and circling my palm with her pointer finger. It would tickle, but I let her continue. “Life will give you callouses,” she told me. “But, with each one, your skin will become thicker.”

Growing up, I knew my grandmother’s story. At least a version of it. I knew she was a Holocaust survivor. I knew she lost her whole family in the war. I knew she moved from country to country to country. And, I knew she was strong. She was the most beautifully stubborn person I ever met. She was independent. She made her own decisions. And most of all, she loved life. 

I also knew she was a refugee, but as a kid I didn’t have the language nor the maturity to understand what that meant. I took the history for granted. But that is what grandchildren do — we accept the stories that came before us as normal. 

Today, July 2, 2019, would be my grandmother’s 94th birthday. Her name was Hana Dubova; she was born in Czechoslovakia. 

Ten years ago, I asked her to tell me her story; I told her I wanted to write it all down. She asked me why, but I had no concrete answer. So, I simply told her that I thought it would be special to have her testimony as she would tell it from grandmother to granddaughter.

We began our storytelling sessions that summer in 2009; I was 20 years old and pursuing a career in photojournalism while criss-crossing the world for my own academic and social pursuits. As I moved from one place to another, I became reliant on the stories of her past to keep me anchored in my present.

A year later, on Yom Kippur in 2010, I was the family member responsible for taking her to synagogue. I remember standing next to her as she beat her chest for the Viddui — the prayer of confession. She was a woman who loved words deeply and I imagined her reflecting on the plurality aspect to the prayer. Each line, which confesses a wrong-doing, is said in the context of the collective community, not individual action. Because, as the prayer inspires us to understand, it is all of us who bear the burdens of our collective sins.  

My grandmother’s survival story is quite different than many other Holocaust survivors. She lost everything and everyone at the age of 14. But, she remained one step ahead of the Nazis at every turn. She was saved by strangers. And, that is what she wanted me to take away from her story. She wanted me to understand that the collective community is not only responsible for committing wrong-doing, but also for saving lives.

That Yom Kippur marked the last time we spent an afternoon talking. I remember her lying in bed. Above her hung an oil painting of her mother as a young woman. I was sitting on a chair across from her, looking at the two of them together. My feet were up on her mattress and my computer was on my lap. As had become routine, she talked and I typed.

“You know Rachael,” my grandmother said to me with a whispered certainty. “The difference between your travels and mine is that I had to burn all of my bridges as I moved forward.”

She passed away a few weeks later. 

In the years after my grandmother’s death, I became obsessed with her story. It had all started with the testimony I collected from her, but metamorphosed into something much greater when I discovered the beautifully curated archive of her life that she left behind. There were preserved family photo albums dating back to the 1920s, diaries waiting to be translated, journals, letters sent home, her parent’s deportation papers and her immigration papers. There were repeated stories — one written at 14 and one written at 80. Some of her anecdotes contradicted each other, bringing in the question of memory to our family stories.

She had written about being a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter and a cousin, a friend, a student and a dedicated member of her youth group. She was a strong-willed teen, a refugee and an orphan and wrote about it all. She was a survivor and a victim. A wanderer and someone who dreamed of home. She was a hopeful immigrant and a forced emigrant. She was an urban dweller and a farmer. She was a pioneer and a storyteller. She was a Czech child, a stateless teen and an American wife. She was a traveler, an explorer, a teacher and a student. She spoke six languages. She was a divorcee to one man and a reignited flame for another. And for other men, she was the one who got away. She was a bride, a mother and a grandmother, a young person searching for her future and an elderly person watching her grandchildren search for theirs.

Over the course of the last decade, I have fallen so deeply into my grandmother’s story that it has become the foundation of my own adult life. I spent years sitting on my bedroom floor in Boston, organizing and digitizing her archive. I scanned every photograph and rewrote every diary. I created a travel log of her displacement. As I went through every delicate piece of paper, I took note of how she moved from one place to another and who she was with along the way.

And then, once that felt complete (enough), I followed her to each place. With my camera around my neck, I took the same travel routes she did and nested myself into the places that she once had no choice but to call home. I set out to document the languages, landscapes and lives that narrated her displacement. 

I found the descendants of those who saved her and those with whom she escaped. And in some cases, I moved in with them. I became fascinated by our collective history and how it manifested so differently in each of our own identities.

Her history has become contemporary. I see her experiences being relieved by refugees today and the political discourse repeat that of what came before and during World War II. Something has happened in the course of this decade-long dive into the past — time has stopped being chronological. And, the telling of the family stories has become the history itself. 

This fall, USC Shoah Foundation is releasing We Share The Same Sky, a podcast created by me about how one life saved during the Holocaust has echoed across generations.

It has been an exciting endeavor for everyone involved — individually and collectively — to approach this history with this storytelling platform. And we couldn’t do it without each other.

Over the past decade I have collected a photo archive of over 100,000 images that web together the stories of strangers. I have recorded hundreds of hours of audio and video. I have created lesson plans for classrooms and shared Hana’s story with students from as young as elementary school age to those of my grandmother’s generation.

USC Shoah Foundation has not only collected over 55,000 testimonies from survivors and witnesses of genocide around the world, but has dedicated their efforts to using those stories to educate the next generation. My grandmother is just one of over 1,500 full-life histories of survivors featured on the IWitness website which contributes to bringing human stories to school teachers both in the United States and abroad. (Here is a clip of her testimony.)

In addition, we are working with Echoes & Reflections, a partnership program of ADL, USC Shoah Foundation and Yad Vashem to provide complementary educational resources for classroom teachers. Those will be released in November. Everyone involved is dedicated to supporting educators to improve the quality of Holocaust education in schools so we can keep strengthening the foundation of the bridges that connect our past and present.

In 1991, at the age of 66, my grandmother wrote in one of her diaries, “What does it mean to these young people? What impression do they walk away with? What compassion and understanding do they feel toward an unprecedented event, an incomprehensible black page in history, so long long time ago… What does my life, my experience for that matter, my lost generation mean to them?”

We Share The Same Sky is the answer to her question.

---

We Share The Same Sky will be released this September at USC Shoah Foundation. You can learn more about Rachael’s work at : www.rachaelcerrotti.com or www.followmyfootprints.co. You can find her on Instagram at @rachaelcerrotti and/or @sharethesamesky

 

Posts are contributed by individual authors. The opinions are solely the authors’ and are not necessarily a reflection of the views of USC Shoah Foundation.

About Rachael Cerrotti

Rachael Cerrotti is an award-winning photographer, writer and educator. For a decade, she has been pursuing her long-term project, We Share The Same Sky, that retraces her grandmother's route of displacement during and in the wake of World War II. She transforms her documentary storytelling into curriculums for communities and classrooms worldwide. She uses photographs, video, collected interviews, archival documents, contemporary headlines and personal stories to explore the intergenerational impact of migration and memory. Her work has been published by outlets worldwide including NPR, Public Radio International, WBUR, WGBH, and Images & Voices of Hope.


 

Rachael Cerrotti’s most recent posts