Finding the Family in Kolín

Since I reached the age of reason, I was told over and over again, by my parents and grandparents and other relatives: “Don’t ever do anything to shame the family.” 
The family, the family. Who is the family? What do I know about this family? Only that I love them because they are and know that I am loved by them all and feel secure. 
Their lives are a mystery to me. I see them as they are now. I cannot imagine what and who they were before, where they came from, and what they were like at my young age. I see them only as grown up adults who have authority over me and who are to be respected and obeyed. As the saying went then “Children are to be seen and not heard.” Every time the adults had something to discuss we were sent out of the room. It was a heroic and adventurous (and dangerous) undertaking to sit on top of the steps and eavesdrop. 
Both sets of my grandparents lived in Kolin, where they and I myself were born. It is only 100 km from Prague. When I was less than one year old, we moved to Prague, where my father opened a store of children’s clothing. We visited often by train, less than an hour train ride.
– An excerpt from “Family,” written by Hana Dubova, 2004

If she could not define, nevertheless imagine, their personalities and their passions, then how can I even attempt to begin to understand who they were as people?

This fact is one that lingers in the back of my head every time I visit Kolín, the small town east of Central-Bohemia. I can learn the history, walk through the streets, and have educated discussions regarding the important presence of the Jewish population that resided there until being wiped out by the Holocaust, but I am limited to only the stories that my grandmother could recall when thinking about what life was like for the family. I can pinpoint on a map where the house was that she frequently visited, where the store was that my great great grandfather owned and where the Synagogue sits. I have stood in front of all of them, desperate to talk to anyone who may have an interest in the fact that I, some random American tourist, has a connection to this place.

I have known about Kolín for the entirety of my adult life, which according to Jewish tradition, started for me at the age of 12 when I had my Bat Mitzvah. During this important coming-of-age ceremony, the young person, usually aged 12 or 13, reads from the Torah in front of a congregation full of family and friends. It was at this point that I learned how much my parents cared about my roots and my lineage. Through the grapevine, my mom had learned that some of the Torahs from Kolin had survived the war, and over time, had found homes in various Jewish communities around the world. With this knowledge in mind, she began to search the internet and quickly found that one resided at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, just a few towns over from our Boston home. She reached out to the rabbi, explained our family story and our connection to the historic old scroll and they agreed to let us borrow it for the special occasion. At this point in my life, I understood the significance, but it took me many years to fully grasp how much value would come from reading the ancient Hebrew letters off of the delicate parchment.

I visited Kolín for my first time in April when my mom and I had the chance to travel to the Czech Republic. Together, we walked through the cemetery where my great great grandfather has a grave. He was the only one of his generation to have a dignified death and a proper burial. We ate, we sipped wine, and we talked at length about how differently we process and have internalized the history of our family, both sensitive to the facts. My mother is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and I am the granddaughter. She grew up without extended family and the heavy burden of the reality for why that was. I grew up surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles, people who I love and miss on a daily basis. That difference is monumental.

I returned to Kolín once again a couple of weeks ago with no more than a book to keep me company. The quick train ride took me from the life I had just began adapting to in Prague, to a smaller, quieter, town that holds a deep series of invisible memories.

Upon arriving in Kolín, I became overwhelmed with exhaustion, unclear whether it was physical or emotional. It could have been the weather which had become cold. The sky remained a sheet of grey no matter the hour, releasing little droplets of hydration every so often. It was just enough of a drizzle to keep you on edge, looking up, nervous that all of nature’s tears will come pouring down. Or it could have been the fear of my own tears that made me want to remain in the comfort of my cozy, but lonely hotel bed. I had been sensing that they were building up and desperate for a release. I hadn’t quite realized just how tiring it would be to be alone with my thoughts for such an extended amount of time.

I spent two nights in Kolín and did my best to not give into my desperate desire to nap all day. I walked around the small town for hours, on occasion being inspired to take a photograph. For the most part I was just storing thoughts and ideas that I eventually blurted onto a piece of paper as soon as I found a cafe. I visited the Kolín Synagogue and spent some time photographing the interior before taking a moment to sit in the empty pews. There is something very eerie about being alone in a large, cold and quiet house of prayer. I thought about the Torah that I read from and imagined it being taken out of the ark for my great grandfather’s bar mitzvah. It saddened me that there is no longer a Jewish community in Kolín and in that moment I realized that I still can’t comprehend how an entire community of people can be so easily eradicated from a town in which they had once lived so comfortably.

I had the chance to meet with Mayor Vít Rakušan who I had been introduced to in April. He is a surprisingly young man, handsome and charismatic. We went for lunch at his favorite restaurant and over a bowl of homemade soup and a generous serving of pasta and chicken, we talked at length. We discussed my project after he reminded me that when he met me for the first time seven months before, it had just been an idea. He asked me about the challenges of traveling alone and was curious to hear my impression of the Czech people. We then talked about the lack of knowledge among Kolín’s population of the history of the Jewish people and he explained to me that during the time of communism, only a soft whisper was spoken about their recent demise. He is now serving his second term as mayor and has supported many efforts and exhibits to foster education about the Jewish families who are now no more than a supplement to the history books. Not having a Jewish background himself, I admire his dedication to remembering the lost ones and not removing their presence from the fabric of pre-war Czechoslovakia.

As I prepared to leave Kolín, eager to take a step off of the wet platform and onto the dry train, I thought about the words that my grandmother wrote for me on that precious October day in 2001:

Dearest Rachael : 
You did me and all of us proud. And you can be proud of yourself. You know who you are and where you came from. Your roots are certainly deep, which you proved reading from the Kolín Torah. Maybe my father (your great grandfather), read from it on his bar mitzvah. It is a kovet, an honor to me that Janet, your mother, my daughter, went to so much trouble and so much insight and so much love to find a Kolín Torah from Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic). I am so honored and happy to be part of this truly momentous celebration.