F O L L O W M Y F O O T P R I N T S
In the final years of her life, I asked my grandmother if she would tell me her story. She questioned my question. "You have heard it before", she said to me. And she was right. Of course I had. We all had, as did hundreds of students across Philadelphia. But, it wasn’t the details of her escape from the Holocaust that I wanted to hear. The memories were woven into my own Jewish identity from the very beginning, so much so that, quite frankly, I found myself numb to the narrative.
I expressed to her that I wanted to hear about the gift that she called life.
So we started chatting. It was the end of summer in 2009 and I was in the midst of figuring out what to do with myself during those confusing college years. We sat on her porch, overlooking the concrete parking lot of her generic apartment complex. Placed on the plastic picnic table between us were a few plants, an ashtray for the cigarettes that she secretly smoked and two small glasses of wine that had been poured out of a box. I sat there next to her, furiously typing away every word that she said to me. I wasn’t sure why I was writing it all down, but I knew that one day I would want to have it.
We barely made it through the stories of her grandparent’s home in Kolin on that first afternoon. We hadn’t delved into her school life or her childhood in Prague and we were not anywhere close to the first time she had to run for her life. So, we agreed for it to be continued. And we held each other to that.
Over the next few years, Hana (who everyone, including my friends, called Mutti), told me her story. As the years went on, and her body began to become frail, we would have to move our conversations into her bedroom, of course still sipping wine.
Her stories took me from pre-war Czechoslovakia, which at that time was a freshly established democratic country and a culture, where the idea of war was unimaginable. We traveled by memory through her terrifying, yet adventurous train ride through Germany and the boat that took her to the safety of Denmark. She told me about her life on the farm, how it felt to be part of a pioneering movement with friends, in the shelter of Scandinavia. And then, as if her life was a hollywood action-movie, she took me across the Baltic Waters on an unexpected 19-hour boat ride into the unknown. As she said, that was the second time her life was saved by unsung heroes. She made a life from nothing to something in Sweden and upon the ending of the war, realized that she now had to find an identity. She was stateless, without family. She was simply on her own.
Her journey continued and soon life led her to America - the land of freedom and opportunity, as well as the land of racism and intolerance.
She told me her story with detail and enthusiasm until the day her first child was born in a hospital in Queens, New York City. At that point she said to me, "Rachael, you know the rest."
Perhaps I did, or at least I could turn to my parents, aunts, uncles, brother and cousins to share with me more details.
Hana passed away on October 11, 2010. She left behind pages upon pages of reflections, as well as diaries, documents and hundreds of pictures; with intention, as I like to believe, she left behind the puzzle pieces of her life.
So with that it all began - my search to understand where she once was. I spent four years sitting on my bedroom floor, sifting through boxes upon boxes of unorganized material. I looked through family photo albums, preserved from as early as the 1920s and read diaries that dated back to the late 1930s. I pieced together her journey, paying special attention to the names, dates and places of the world she witnessed during her search for safety. Some information contradicted itself and some stories were left unfinished, as real life often times distracts documentation. And therefore, I recognize that the puzzle that is her life will forever remain incomplete. As a journalist, this feeling is exhausting, but as a granddaughter and as a person who has her own story, I recognize that there is never any full understanding of someone else’s narrative.
But, I had to get as close as I could.