Hana on the Nygaard family farm. 1941.

Hana on the Nygaard family farm. 1941.

“You can not imagine how important is a place, where people live, how much influence it gives, how it is transforming. Here I am walking every day and singing and I do not miss anything. Of course it is not perfect, but when I came here I felt like “home.“ It is so fine like “at home,“ so fine, so trustful and open. I don’t have any other word than “home.””
– Excerpt from a letter from Hana to her Parents, July 19, 1941 (originally written in Czech)

It was in the early afternoon on August 27, 2016 when Sine turned to me and said, “I think our grandmothers are smiling down at us.”

The sky was perfectly blue and unusually still for the Danish countryside. Seventy of Sergiusz and my closest friends and family were nearby, visible from across the flat farmland. They gathered to celebrate us, to witness the coming together of two families from opposite sides of the great big pond. We were here on this farm, on this island, in this country, hosted by this family, because of a war story.

In 1939, my grandmother won a lottery ticket out of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. Everyone used to say, “it could never happen here.” This same mantra is echoed today across democratic, free-thinking societies. But when the time came, Hana’s parents gave her the gift of life and sent her away from danger, to a farm in the Danish Countryside. 

At the start of World War II, Denmark, in collaboration with the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, agreed to take in a set number of Czech Jewish children between the age of 14 and 16, many of whom were active members of the Zionist Youth Movement. They were to be placed on foster farms to learn agricultural skills and dreamed of eventually traveling to Palestine. 

The war broke out early on in Czechoslovakia and the young, liberal government was exiled. Denmark on the other hand, did not become occupied until April 1940. Unlike in Czechoslovakia, the Danish monarchy continued to rule in spite of Nazi Germany's presence; life remained relatively normal until 1943. 

The teens, who referred to themselves as the chaverim (friends in Hebrew), were given six-month long contracts on their foster farms in rural Denmark. Hana’s life went from urban Prague where she rode the street car to school and visited her father’s clothing shop in the Old Town Square to a remote landscape and a foreign language. Her days were spent milking cows, feeding the chickens and making oats for the children. 

The first two farms that Hana was placed on made her miserable. She resided in attics and poorly ventilated, unheated rooms. She was told to eat on her own and was teased by the children. She went from being at the dinner table with her own family to playing servant for another. In a diary entry from August 1940, Hana wrote “I prefer keeping quiet here. When we have visitors, I seldom come into the room, and when they go somewhere, they don’t take me with them. When someone asks why they’ve left me at home, the Old Witch wriggles out of it by saying “I have school” or “that she is away” or “she has too much homework and couldn’t come with us.”

Newlyweds Jensine & Arne Nygaard had fostered a few of the chaverim before Hana was placed in their home. She arrived in the summer of 1941, just weeks before her 16th birthday. For the first time since fleeing Prague at the age of 14, she was treated with respect, with dignity, and with warmth. She was part of a family again, even if just for a short time. The future that followed is proof that our simple action and inactions have ripple effects down generations.

In 2015, I arrived on the doorsteps of Sine’s home, one of Jensine & Arne’s many grandchildren. She lives in Mern, Denmark with her husband, Torsten, and their three children - Liva, Lauge and Silje. 

When I began traveling for this project, my intention was to immerse myself into the languages, landscapes and lives that my grandmother experienced during her years of statelessness. I wanted to read her words and look at her photographs while smelling the air. I wanted to travel the same route, on the same modes of transportation, so I could feel the time pass, accelerated by years of history.

Sine opened the door and smiled. Lauge ran to her side, his socks allowing him to slip across the tiled floor. He extended his hand, “Hello. I am Lauge,” he pronounced in a well-practiced English. And with that, I was welcomed into their home. 

I stayed for a month during that first visit. In the morning, I would help Sine in the barn; I fed the horses and cleaned the cow stalls and watched as she quietly communicated with her animals. In the afternoon, I would mostly spend time with myself. On some days, I would drive the van to the grocery store down the street to do the shopping; it was only two turns, so I felt confident even without a cell phone or gps. And every night, I would cook for the family of five. These were my duties. In exchange, they gave me a bed and a seat at the dinner table. They shared their life, allowing me to document the quiet moments. 

In the years since, Sine and I, along with our extended families, have become entwined in each other’s lives. None of us knew how good it would feel to find the harmony within the shared narratives of our war-torn past. 

I had been engaged for just shy of two weeks when I first arrived at their home; it was February of 2015. Often, Sine and I would share conversation over cups of coffee. We talked about politics, culture and the recent shooting in Copenhagen. These woes feel so long ago considering what was soon to come. The refugee crisis began to flood the Danish and Swedish airwaves and waters at this time. But we were safe on her farm, restoring a broken history from a different war not long before. I would often talk about Sergiusz, my fiance. I told her about how he was from Poland, but we met in Israel and how I hoped that one day we would move to Denmark and maybe we would also have a farm. 

I only took a few pictures in the beginning, but with each passing day, I began to pick up my camera more and more. The kids, whose English was on par with my Danish at the time thought it was fun and funny that this American girl came to their home and began photographing everything. It became our language, our vehicle for conversation. I attended one of Liva's school dances and as I sat and watched the pre-teen girls crimp each others hair to embrace the 80s theme, I documented their smiles and laughter as well as moments of social alienation; we all feel cast away from the crowd at some point. 

I thought about my grandmother often. She hadn't been much older than these carefree children when she arrived in Denmark. Living on the farm gave me purpose and the certainty that each day mattered deeply. The more my relationship developed with Jensine and Arne’s descendants, the richer my identity became.

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And, it was indeed true what Sine said to me, that our grandmother’s were smiling down at us. I believe it in all of my being. 

Sergiusz and I were married in Maine on October 15, 2015 and ten months later we celebrated on Sine’s farm. When I shared with people why we chose here, I would say “Sine is the granddaughter of my grandmother’s foster mother from World War II.” I kept trying to find simpler ways to explain it, but “Sine is my friend” didn’t do it justice and “I have family in Denmark” felt too simple of a summery. My in-laws struggle with the same long-winded answer. We are all family now - the Lutheran Danes, the Catholic Poles, and the American Jews. 

Rachael and Sergiusz (center) with Sine, Torsten, Liva, Lauge and Silje on August 27, 2016. Photo : Tracie Van Aukin

Rachael and Sergiusz (center) with Sine, Torsten, Liva, Lauge and Silje on August 27, 2016. Photo : Tracie Van Aukin

Sergiusz passed away in September 2016, a month after the party. Our wedding celebration was the last time most people saw him. It was the last time we hosted, the last time we danced, the last time we stayed up late until the early hours of the next morning. He had prepared the food for all of us, using local produce, including potatoes from their garden and the meat raised on the farm. A few weeks before, in anticipation of a feast, I had helped gather the sheep to go to the slaughter house; I was a proud vegetarian wife indeed.

Now in 2017, weighed down by a year of politics that has proven our collective history to be cyclical rather than linear, Sine's house feels most like home. It is a place where memories exist and the feeling of being content and loved thrives, where the fear of 'what comes next' subsides for a short while. When Sine and I met, we were just the granddaughters of Jensine and Hana. I was rooted and exploring displacement. Now, I am displaced and exploring my roots.