“Since my story is unique, since I have not been in a concentration camp, since I have had to struggle, to survive on my own, I talk about relying on oneself, about tenacity, about loneliness, about feeling an outcast, a stranger, about the drive to study, to learn to be somebody without a support either from a group or an individual. All alone. This I feel and think hits much more home for this inner self than talking about hardship.” — Hana Dubova’s Diary / April 23, 1990
In April 1990, my grandmother was asked to speak about her experiences during the Holocaust to high school students at a synagogue near her home outside of Philadelphia. She told her story often, feeling it a responsibility, an act of service of sorts, to teach about what she went through during the war. She sometimes journaled after these school visits and after this particular talk, she wrote:
“As I was introduced last night by the rabbi when I spoke to the 9th, 10th and 11th graders, [he said] “Hana is an eye witness. We want to hear from the eye-witnesses before they die out.” I reacted, ‘Here I’m in the flesh still very much alive.’”
It would be twenty years later that my grandmother passed away. And in those two decades, she retold her story countless times, including in a video testimony to USC Shoah Foundation in 1998. During that particular interview, she sat for over four hours talking about her life before, during and after the war. She was the only survivor in her family; her parents had the foresight and the opportunity to send her out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to safety in Scandinavia. Her story, as she told it, was an “uplifting one.”
Twenty-one-years after recording her testimony with USC Shoah Foundation, I teamed up with the Institute to create a podcast about my own decade-long journey to retrace my grandmother’s war story. It is titled We Share The Same Sky and was the first-ever narrative podcast to be based around survivor testimony and also the first podcast produced for USC Shoah Foundation. After years of research, criss-crossing international borders, living in stranger’s homes, and harmonizing history with the politics of today, I began to sit with her voice. “I always felt very guilty,” she told the interviewer about her survival. "And when I found out what happened to my parents, I did slash my wrists, but not deep enough… I said why, why am I alive? I don’t deserve it.”
Being the descendant of a genocide survivor is often perceived as a burden, like a measurement of pain, longing and belonging. The studies of epigenetics teach us that intergenerational trauma is more than just an emotional inheritance, but a genetic one as well. It is how we engage with the world and perceive ourselves. It is our connection to community. As writer of the book Survivor Café: The Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, Elizabeth Rosner (whose parents, Carl and Frieda Rosner, are both in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive), put it during a talk, “[Being a daughter of Holocaust survivors] has heightened my awareness of the sufferings of others. It has heightened my sensitivity to the wounds that people carry so that I can connect with them in those places of vulnerability, of tenderness, of fragility… We may not have the identical breakage, we may not have the identical history lesson in our bones, in our cells, but what we do have is something that has in a sense cracked us open and cracked us more fully into being awake to each other.”
A phrase often associated with the Holocaust is “Never Again.” This idea, which extends to all peoples, not only the persecution of the Jews, is the cornerstone of our collective memory work. And yet, in USC Shoah Foundation’s archive alone, there are nearly a dozen survivor communities who speak of unfathomable crimes against humanity that have happened since the Holocaust. Individuals who were victims of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda, the Guatemalan Genocide, the ongoing conflict in the Central African Republic, the South Sudan Civil War, the anti-Rohingya violence in Myanmar as well as the violence against Yazidis in Northern Iraq and the violence against the Kurds in Northern Syria, have all given their testimonies like my grandmother did, proving that history doesn’t repeat itself, but rather we repeat history.
It is these voices — the thousands of witnesses and survivors in the Visual History Archive — who have inspired USC Shoah Foundation’s newest podcast, The Memory Generation.
The Memory Generation is a show co-hosted by myself and my friend, oral historian Stephen Smith (who is also the Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of USC Shoah Foundation). Throughout Stephen’s career he has helped collect thousands of testimonies from over a dozen countries. Since Stephen and I first connected on Instagram (yes, Instagram) some years ago, we have found ourselves in lengthy conversations about the complexities and curiosities of what it means to work with the very heavy topic of genocide, and the very vivacious spirit of survivors. He and I are of distinctly different generations. Stephen is in his 50s and I am in my 30s; he comes from a non-Jewish family in England and I was raised as a reform Jew in Boston. He has kids, I don’t. And yet we have found ourselves strikingly similar in the way that we see ourselves being part of a generation who lives inside of memory. In this new podcast, we will explore the Visual History Archive together and ask the question: What does it mean to inherit memory?
When I began chasing my grandmother’s story back in 2009, I was deeply aware that hers was different from other survivors — she never witnessed death. In a landscape of history where evil deeds were so meticulously documented by the murderers, her experience was a bright light in darkness. She was an exception to the rule. To quote Rabbi Bent Melchior, the former Chief Rabbi of Denmark who was smuggled on a fishing boat with my grandmother from Denmark to Sweden during the rescue of the Danish Jews, “It is the survivors that tell history. It is also the survivors that tell about war and say the World War wasn’t so bad because they survived. But if it was one of those who didn’t come back, it would be a different story.”
This is certainly true, and it is also true that there are survivor stories that are so completely different than my grandmother’s. They are stories that shine no light into the darkness, only a nearly incomprehensible account of what a human body can endure. As Stephen said to me recently, “Testimony, the act of telling one’s history, are the stories that teach us about human wonder -- the wonder of survival, of resilience, and the importance of agency in telling one’s own story.”
At the end of my grandmother’s testimony, she is asked why she chose to record her testimony with USC Shoah Foundation. She says, “Well, I really didn’t do it for the Shoah Foundation. I really did it, I think most of us do it, for the kids. Because as the Shoah Foundation [knows]… we are running out of days which are allotted to us. And when I look through [my] picture albums [I say], you know, when I'm gone, nobody will know who these people are, what they are, who they were, how were their lives. So at least they will have that. And if they are not interested, I did it. And if they are not interested in this I would not know.”
I am indebted to my grandmother for leaving behind her story because it wasn’t until she passed away that I began to understand just how important knowing family history would be for me. And, it wasn't until she passed away that I began to figure out what I even wanted to ask.
The Memory Generation will be released monthly starting April 15. Find us in your podcast feeds and here: www.memorygenerationpodcast.com
Rachael’s award winning podcast We Share The Same Sky comes with companion materials for the classroom.