Chapter I Transcript : Like An Oak Tree
Note: We Share The Same Sky is produced to be heard and not read. We encourage you to listen to the audio which includes emotion, accents, laughter, music, pauses, and emphasis that can not be transcribed to this page.
BENT MELCHIOR : When the Second World War ended, I mean, we were extremely optimistic. That was still even before we heard terrible things that happened in the camps. But we thought that mankind had suffered so much that they would understand that war was not the answer.
We had lived to see miracles happen on the sea. And you know, you were with me, when I am standing there at the beach, looking at that water, I see myself on the bottom of that sea. And I think of these thousands of people who have tried to come over the Mediterranean today and who are at the bottom of the sea. And it is a shame upon our time that we let this catastrophe happen. I don’t know how that should be forgiven.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : In most ways, my grandmother lived an ordinary life. She had three kids. Divorced once. Married twice. She was a custodian, then a nurse, then a teacher. When her kids graduated high school, she rented out their rooms for extra income. She swam in any water she could, no matter how cold. And she ate fire. She’d do this magic trick where she’d take a match or a birthday candle, light it, and then stick the flame in her mouth to put it out.
As a grandmother, she’d let all us grandchildren make her these disgusting concoctions that she would promise to drink. Turkey fat, milk, hot sauce, orange juice, juice of herring. We’d pour it all in. Then we’d run over to her, drop a little garnish on top and, in front of all of our parents, present her with our “cocktail.” She’d take the glass and chug it -- the whole thing. Then hand it back. Anything to make us laugh.
Her face looked like mine, but older.
In 2010, she died. In her bed, at home, surrounded by her family. It felt like a normal life. A good life. But there was something different about her. In the back of her head, she knew that she shouldn’t be here. She could be in a ditch. In a grave. Shot in the woods. Buried in an unmarked plot of land. She could have sunk to the bottom of the sea. She could have poisoned herself. There were countless ways she would never have stepped foot in the home she died in. The idea haunted her. Especially as she lay on her deathbed.
She shouldn’t be here at all.
USC SHOAH FOUNDATION INTERVIEWER : Today’s date is March 25th, 1998. We are in Lafayette Hill, Pennsylvania in the United States and the language of the interview is English. Please tell us your name, your date of birth and your place of birth.
HANA DUBOVA : My name is Hana Seckel-Drucker. My maiden name was Dubova. The male get ‘Dub’, the female get ‘ova’ at the end. I was born July 2nd, Nineteen hundred 25 in Kolin, at that time Czechoslovakia.
USC SHOAH FOUNDATION INTERVIEWER : Can you spell the name of the town that you were born?
HANA DUBOVA : Kolin.
USC SHOAH FOUNDATION INTERVIEWER : And where is this located?
HANA DUBOVA : It’s like 50 kilometers east of Prague. It takes like one hour by train.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : My grandmother sat down to tape this video when she was 73 years old -- more than 20 years ago. She’s sitting in front of the camera. It’s zoomed in on her, like a headshot. Her bookshelf is in the background. The interviewer is off screen. The video is a recorded testimony and it sits in an archive of thousands upon thousands of testimonies of Holocaust survivors. It’s four-hours long.
I knew a version of her story as a kid. I knew she survived the Holocaust. That she was the only one in her family alive at the end of the war. That she escaped over and over again. I knew her home was covered in paintings and photographs of Prague. Masks and paperweights and postcards from different places. Pictures of family she lost and those who came after.
Every piece of art in her house had a story. Sometimes we would break her stories. Sometimes at holiday meals we'd knock over the precious stemware. The sharp edges of the thick, red glass would cover the floor. The disposable pieces of her childhood memories laid out in front of her descendants.
I took her stories for granted at the time. But that’s the role of the grandchild. To accept what came before as normal.
My grandmother was stateless for 17 years. And the last time she saw her family was when she was 14. I was 21 when she died, but in a way I've spent more time with her after her death than I did when she was alive. Her history has become a delicate spider web, woven together by the thin threads of family stories. Passed from one generation to the next.
In these stories, time isn’t chronological. The retelling of family memories has become the history itself. And, I want to invite you to come with me. Into the homes of strangers. To the places where people saved her life. Where a story of war is experienced by the next generation.
But first, I want to introduce you to my grandmother -- Hana Dubova. Dubova means Oak Tree in Czech. My grandmother was strong like an oak tree. She knew that too.
HANA DUBOVA : I am extremely independent. I make my own decisions. I take my own consequences. When my grandchildren says, you know this isn’t fair, life isn’t fair. I says nobody told you life is fair. Life is not fair, but you have to deal with it.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I grew up far from my grandmother. In Boston. But I went to college in Philadelphia, and it was during these years that my grandmother and I became close. She lived in the suburbs right outside of the city. I had asked her one day if she would tell me her story. She asked me why I cared. She told me I’d heard it before. I told I wanted to write it all down. Not the shorthand version, which she put like this.
HANA DUBOVA : Somehow for the good or for the bad, somehow it always worked out for me. Not always pleasantly, but it worked out. Everything works out if you live long enough.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I wanted the whole story. So that’s what we did together. We told stories. She’d lie in bed. Underneath an oil painting of her mother as a young woman. I sat in a chair next to her. Looking at the two of them together. She talked. I wrote.
I thought that that was the closest we’d ever be. During those fragile years at the end of her life. But then she died. And that’s when our lives became entwined.
Hana died in 2010. In the years after her death, I uncovered an incredible archive of her life. She’d left behind boxes upon boxes of letters and photographs and diaries. There were preserved albums dating back to the 1920s and letters she’d sent to lovers. There were report cards and deportation papers and love notes from her parents censored by Nazis.
Then, amidst all of these papers, I found a plain manila folder. It had a note on it, written in red ink in her shaky cursive handwriting. She’d written my name. The note read, “For Rachael, so you’ll know a little about my life when I was your age.”
That’s how it started. After that, I spent hours on my bedroom floor reading her journals. Hours turned into days. Into weeks. Then years. I organized everything she left behind. I copied every word from every page. I rewrote every diary. I scanned every photograph. I became the curator of my own museum. I was captivated by her story. I don’t know why. Maybe it was the journalist in me.
For years I did this. During this time, I moved back to Boston and was working as a photojournalist. I was living in a three bedroom apartment with two girlfriends and traveled a lot for work. I’ve always had trouble staying in one place for too long.
All of my friends were making bold decisions for themselves, but not the kind of decisions like kids and marriage. We weren’t there yet. Some of them were moving to different countries and cities to follow their careers. Others were following romance. Some settled into more conventional jobs. You know, the kind that provides security and a steady paycheck. We were all just figuring it out. Barack Obama was president and change was happening. Life was moving and love was flowing. And, my life was on the edge of exciting.
So, that’s when I made a decision. It was 2014, four years since my grandmother died. I’d spent too many years buried in her story to not let it take me somewhere. So, I decided to literally follow in her footprints. I decided, I’d sublet my apartment, pack a backpack, and go live in every country she lived in. I would travel the way she did. I’d try to live life as closely as I could to the way she did. And I would track down all the characters from her journals, all the names listed in her letters and documents. I would try to find the people who saved her life.
In her diary, my grandmother called the Holocaust an indescribable black page of history. This podcast is about what happens when you turn the page.
I’m Rachael Cerrotti. We share the same sky.
[[ SCENE : Rachael and Sergiusz in a restaurant in Prague ]]
RACHAEL CERROTTI : How do you feel about this food Sergiusz?
SERGIUSZ SCHELLER : Are you making a video? Are you serious right now?
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Mmhmm. I want you to open the last one and tell me about how you feel about more of the fried cheese.
SERGIUSZ SCHELLER : I feel morbid.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : You feel morbid?
SERGIUSZ SCHELLER : Yeah.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Why do you keep eating it?
SERGIUSZ SCHELLER : Because it is so bad, but it is so good. I mean it’s not good.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : So there’s this guy. This guy’s name is Sergiusz. Sergiusz and I met in August in 2009. In Israel. It was just a month after my grandmother and I started our storytelling sessions, the year before she died. Sergio and I were both studying abroad at Hebrew University. It was one of the first nights at school and we were sitting on this playground by the student dorms in East Jerusalem. We were searching for free internet because we hadn’t set that up yet in our apartments. And it was that time of the school year where everybody is becoming friends with everybody else, but you don’t quite know who will last. And we just hit it off right away. He was this quick-witted Polish guy. When we met he was wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that had a cartoon of a clown vomiting a rainbow.
We had a funny flirtation in the beginning of the year. We hung out a lot. And on occasion we would watch a movie and snuggle. Kiss. But we never talked about it. And then sometimes we’d be walking in a crowd of people and be in the back and like by mistake, but not really by mistake, we would hold each other’s hand for like 10 seconds and then walk away. We developed this big group of close friends. We all came from different countries and spoke different languages. Some of us, like me, were Jewish. Others of us, like Sergiusz, were not.
I think we were very much in love then. But we just weren’t at that place in our lives. He was 21 and I was 20. We both had a lot of the world to see. But, we always stayed close. Fast forward a few years to 2014, I told Sergiusz I was going to move to Europe to work on this documentary project. I told him I was going to retrace my grandmother’s refugee story. I’d start in Prague to research the early years of her life. He was living in Poland then and he immediately said he’d come see me while I was there.
We began talking every day. We sent songs back and forth. The first song he sent me was Disclosure’s Latch. I listened to it all the time.
I was in Boston, he was in Poland. He didn’t care about the six hour time difference. He would stay up until like two in the morning so he could Skype with me while I ate dinner. And, within an hour of seeing each other in Prague, he said to me, “Fuck it, I think I’m in love with you.” I said to him, “I think I love you, too.”
And it was decided. We were partners. That’s what we called it. Not boyfriend or girlfriend. Partners. We told each other one day we’d have the same passport.
The first night of our new relationship, we wandered Prague with some random Czech guys and drank homemade slivovitz. I remember sitting on the grass of a steep hill. In the distance we could see the Old Town Square and the river. I whispered to Sergiusz, “Isn’t it wild that this is where my grandmother is from.”
On that trip to Prague, I visited synagogues and cemeteries. Every corner was a landmark. In museums and concentration camps, I found my family’s name on the list of the murdered. I visited all of these places in the weeks after Sergiusz and I started dating. It felt like an obligation. Like the first step on my journey. I had to acquaint myself with the darkness. I had to acquaint myself with my grandmother’s loss. I felt guilty though. Because as I toured each of these places and took pictures, Sergiusz texted me. I smiled everywhere I went. I blushed in the face of death because I felt loved.
The Holocaust is the most well documented genocide. From both the side of the perpetrators and the victims. Maybe that’s why so many of us find it so fascinating. There are so many stories to study.
HANA DUBOVA : I knew it was bad. But you know, nobody ever ever ever ever in the wildest dream thought about what we know today. About concentration camp. You know horror movies existed, Frankenstein existed, but nobody would ever ever ever imagine anything like this. Ever. It was beyond. It was beyond understanding. Beyond comprehension.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : In this story, Hana never sees her family again. They are deported to extermination camps. I’ll take you there, to this desolate plot of land at the end of the world. Her parents are murdered. So is her younger brother. And so were her grandparents. And her aunts. Her uncles. Her cousins. Her neighbors. Her classmates. But, Hana lives. She remains one step ahead of the Nazis at each turn. She is never deported. She is saved by the kindness of strangers.
I became obsessed with this notion. Who are these strangers? What stories do they tell? What do they remember?
Sometimes it felt like a puzzle. My grandmother did have a thing for patterns. And dates.
We’ve always said that she would have gotten a kick out of the date of her funeral -- October 10, 2010.
10. 10. 10.
She had a thing for letters and for words and for languages. She spoke over six of them. In each country she lived in, she changed the spelling of her name. In Europe Hana was spelled H - A - N - A. In America it was spelled H - A - N - N - A. And she didn’t care when someone spelled it H - A - N - N - A - H. She always appreciated a good palindrome.
I’ve been researching the story of this podcast for the past 10 years. There are a lot of patterns. A lot of recurring dates and places. There’s one date in particular that haunts me. September 29th. This date changes my grandmother's life in 1938. And then again in 1943. And it changes my life in 2014. And then again in 2016. I didn’t notice it at first. To be honest, it only became clear when it was all over. Maybe this date it is just a coincidence. Maybe it’s something more. Sometimes I don’t think about it at all. Sometimes it’s all consuming.
On September 29th, 2014, I packed a backpack of clothes and a suitcase of camera gear and moved to Europe. I went on a pursuit of my grandmother’s memory. At the time, I didn’t recognize the significance of this date. I didn’t intentionally continue the pattern. And I certainly didn’t think that on another September 29th. One yet to come, one that seemed so far in the future. September 29th, 2016. That I, myself, would meet death.
[[ MONTAGE of voices ]]
It was not an everyday thing.
We were all screaming. We all know that never never no matter what, never can survive this.
Why shouldn’t you take it personal? We talk about human beings, for god’s sake. We talk about how life as it is, with all its realities.
What happened to her? Is she still alive? You don’t know what’s going on inside a girl like that.
I don’t want you to feel what I feel.
I was afraid what was going to happen to you. Everybody was.
I for one thought that I’m entering a big adventure.
This is just so wild . . .
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Coming up, on We Share the Same Sky.
RACHAEL CERROTTI (outro) : We Share The Same Sky is the story of my decade-long journey to retrace my grandmother’s war story. Please take a moment to subscribe. You can find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and other podcast apps. We’re on Facebook and Instagram at Share The Same Sky.
Thank you to USC Shoah Foundation for making this podcast possible. My grandmother’s story is one of nearly 55,000 testimonies in their archive from survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust and other genocides. This podcast is also supported by Echoes & Reflections, a program for Holocaust education throughout the United States.
My co-producer is Erika Lantz. I’m Rachael Cerrotti. Thanks for listening.
*This episode includes music by Lee Rosevere and Blue Dot Sessions*