Know Thy History and Love Thy Neighbor

“My mother came out of 5 children and 1 son. There were six of them. The son was the youngest. When I was a young girl, grandfather said that after the son was born, they closed the shop. But, I could never understand what he meant because his store was always open. 
My mother was very much in love with my father, but during that time siblings had to get married in chronological order. They married off Ella, my mother’s older sister and made a shiduch (arranged marriage). Today they do that on computers. They matched her up. A year later, my mother married my father. She was 19. He was 26. I was born on her 20th birthday at home.”
– Hana Dubova, 2009, The First Fact of her Oral Narrative

When I began exploring the story of Hana Dubova, my maternal grandmother, I had no immediate intention of what I would do with her narrative. My biggest motivation was to take the time to establish a deeper relationship with the matriarch of our family, recognizing that she was in the final years of her life.

 Hana & Rachael / 2009

Hana & Rachael / 2009

I was 20 years old at the time and in the midst of making some big life decisions which mostly revolved around my newly found desire for wanderlust.

In my opinion, there are two ways to travel – one requires boarding a magnificent, metal flying machine that takes you around the world, dropping you in an unfamiliar landscape that will hopefully expand your perspective and challenge our adaptable egos. The other way to travel is through a story. Hearing the experiences, struggles, lingering questions, and imagery of others can bring you to an alternative time and place, usually one that is inaccessible in real time.

My grandmother was the first person to take me away through spirit and reflection and I never even had to leave her bedside. She shared with me the details of her perfectly normal childhood in Prague and quickly taught me a lesson about how rapidly life changes when she lost her right to education under the Nazi-occupation. She talked at length about how the first time she fled – a train trip from Czechoslovakia to Denmark – it felt like the ultimate adventure, a fleeting feeling as the reality of her new life set in. She described living on a farm, learning how to milk cows and feed pigs, focusing on comparing tasks at home in rural Denmark to that of the urban atmosphere she had been accustomed to. She admitted that she always had on her a little bottle of poison, a gift from her father in 1939 (and a common asset to those in war time), only to be used in case of an emergency. There were only a few moments when she considered swallowing the toxic liquid. She shared the frustrations with her social life, vented about typical teenage problems, and the challenge of finding comfort within a foster home. This was immediately followed by the sigh of relief in reminiscing on the moment she found Jensine and Arne Nyggard, her third and final foster family who treated her with warmth and respect. At this time, I never could have imagined that I would one day live with and document the lives of their descendants.

Hana swept me away with her stories, making sure to bring in my role as her granddaughter and remind me that I was a piece of this narrative. She instilled in me a desire not to just see these places, but to live them and understand them.

As of June 10, 2015, I will have spent 264 days living in Europe. I have spent 145 days establishing a home base in Poland, 35 days in the Czech Republic (formerly Czechoslovakia), Hana’s country of origin, 39 days in Denmark, 20 days in Italy (all family vacation days treated to me by my future in-laws), 13 days in Sweden, 8 days in Germany and 4 days in Austria.

To be frank, my decision to be based in Poland was fueled by a wonderful man who I will marry in October. However, at the time of making this decision, I was plagued with the same staunchly independent nature as my grandmother; I was to do this on my own. How naive I was at this moment. Being based in Poland gave me a European identity that surpassed the feeling of just being a traveler with local family roots. Poland has repeatedly found itself on the losing side of history and has only been truly growing as a free, democratic society for a short 26 years. It is a necessary history to know for anyone studying the topic of World War II. Living and learning the Polish culture and structure of society offered me a more substantial layer of observation as I made my way from one country to another. It gave me another layer of longing. It gave me another layer of home.

I have spent this year bouncing from one neighboring country to another, crossing international borders a total of 33 times in the past nine months.

The thing about experiencing life in neighboring countries is that you are regularly reminded that people usually have the strongest opinions about those closest to them. The Czechs and the Poles both laugh about how funny one language sounds to the other as do the Swedes and the Danes. But, the most important distinction that I found, and the one I am most interested in, is how much the historical narratives differ. Often times it is those we are closest to that are the hardest to understand as the competing depiction of flexible facts becomes personal. When you travel across the world, you expect that everything will be different, but to drive two hours away and all of a sudden be handed an entirely different version of recent history can cause angst, anxiety and a genuine distrust in one’s neighbor.

I live by the belief that there is no right or wrong way to interpret and experience history. There is only the need for open-mindedness and respect while exchanging these emotionally-driven, highly-personal reports.

There are countless stories of wartime that exhibit the nasty side of human kind. There are the traitors, the thieves, and the murderers. There are those who ignored the weak, hungry and lost, turning their heads away and shielding their eyes from the discomfort of those less fortunate. But, for each story of betrayal, there are stories of survival and examples of true selfless acts of love. I feel lucky to have focused on those stories as they have brought a bright light to the years coated with a cruel and unforgiving darkness. The people I have met offer hope in a scary world and are a reminder of what one small act of kindness can do. The altruism that Hana received is the reason that her three children, seven grandchildren, and one great grandchild exist today.

I will hold tight to the history that I have been surrounded by for the past 9 months as I embark on the final leg of my year-long journey. It was in America that Hana met her husband and where they would give birth to and raise a strong woman who would one day become my mother. This history doesn’t only exist across the big blue pond where memorials, symbolic cobblestones, and former Nazi-occupied structures splatter the landscape. History lives long and it lives deep in the offspring who hopefully appreciate the privilege to live in a free and open society.

I recently learned a Polish saying that resonated with me : “Our grandfathers were soldiers so our parents could be engineers so we could be artists.” For those of us who live in the identity of that third generation, the artists and the dreamers, we must appreciate and understand what the generations before us experienced and persevered through. Their adversity allowed for us to create and interpret with freedom.

I am returning to the States with a story of my own, new friends, and a new family, all relationships that I will nourish. I am returning with an understanding and a deep admiration for all whose history involves a thick web of tragedy, resilience, and survival. I am also returning with an aching curiosity to continue unraveling the challenges and the long-term effects of displacement.

The examples of unwavering generosity and compassion in order to save a stranger in need are what allows this story and my presence in this world to exist and for that I will always be indebted to not just those who helped my grandmother, but to anyone who gives up a small bit of their own comfort to aid a fellow human being.