Chapter 3 Transcript : This house has memories
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.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana’s Diary. November 19, 1940. “It feels so cold and uninviting and damp when the rain soaks through the walls all the way to my bed. But on Saturday, when I wash the doorstep, mop the floor and tidy everything up, I think that even a king has not such a beautiful bedroom. Next to the window on the left is my bed and trunk. The table has one compartment with books, newspapers, my journal and a comb. Then a suitcase covered with an old blanket on which I sit no matter what I am doing. Next to the trunk is a little table with a framed family photograph and a chair, then a cupboard on which there’s a sewing kit, ointments, a flashlight and various knickknacks. On the wall hangs my magendavid - the Star of David... This is my room. My world where I rule. The world I trust and confide in… The window? That’s the most beautiful part. Leaning out of it or sitting on the floor... Watching the stars. I can’t see the moon... but the stars, those I can see. Is it true that people’s destiny is written in the stars? What do they say about me? I don’t know. But I’m not afraid! Even if it's no good, I have to face it. Sometimes I don’t think this way and there are no stars outside. Then I turn back to the light of my room. My cozy room that contains me and comforts. I know that you won’t disclose anything about me, my dear world. My impossible desires, my hot tears, my strange thoughts, my writings and letters torn into pieces. I know I can trust you. I can be safe with you… This is why I sometimes all too happily put myself in bed and know that you won’t allow anything bad to happen to me.“
I’m Rachael Cerrotti. We share the same sky.
[[ music break ]]
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : Oooh, I’ve heard the story a lot of times.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : In every family, there’s one person who holds tight to the family history. And in this family, it’s Knud Arne.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : My name is Knud Arne Nygaard. I am 66 years old. My father’s name was Arne, and my mother’s name was Jensine.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Knud Arne grew up on a farm in Denmark, and as a kid, he latched onto a story he heard from his mother -- a story about a Jewish girl from Czechoslovakia who lived on their farm years before -- before he was even born. It was back when Jensine had just given birth to her first child.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : My mother was only 21. So that’s very young.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Jensine and this girl became close, and a family story was born. The girl’s short-lived presence on their farm, and the unknowns that surrounded her departure, were passed down from parent to child to grandchild.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : It’s been with me all the time. When you as a kid have that kind of story several times, it grows in you and becomes an important part of the stories you get when you grow up.
Often when we talked about her younger days, she brought the story up. And every time she’d wonder what happened to her. Where in the world is she now. And is she still alive? How did she manage? She wondered a lot about that.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : The story ended with a question mark until Knud Arne read an article in his local newspaper.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : 6, 7, 8 years ago.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : The journalist had written about a young group of Jews who had been in Denmark during the war.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : And I thought, woah, that must be this Hana’s story. Could be related to that one.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : So Knud Arne looked up the journalist.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : Wrote her, and said could there be a Hana Dubova amongst these kids you are writing about. She wrote back and yes she was. Unfortunately she died a couple years ago, but there was a daughter in the Boston area.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : And that’s how I connected with Jensine’s family. I wish I could say I found them myself, but the truth is that it was Knud Arne’s curiosity that brought him to me.
Knud Arne emailed my mom. They began writing each other.
JANET CERROTTI : I remember just for months my adrenaline was running. You know and I didn't need as much sleep as I normally do. It was just everyday, what's the email going to bring? What's the next mystery? What's the next secret I'm going to find out?
RACHAEL CERROTTI : This is my mom, Janet. Hana’s daughter. My mom and I have spent a lot of time talking about Hana’s story. I remember the first time she and I went back to the Czech Republic, to the town where Hana was born. Journalists were interviewing us -- asking us what it felt like to return. Our answers were so different. I didn’t carry the pain she did. I remember feeling scared she would judge me - for feeling more fascination than loss.
JANET CERROTTI : You were a little younger then, but you thought I was upset. And I’m like, no. I don’t want you to feel what I feel. It’s good to have some of the knowledge, but I don’t want you to feel all those feelings.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : My mother grew up without extended family and the trauma of why that was. I grew up surrounded by cousins, aunts and uncles. What a difference a generation makes.
My parents flew to Denmark to meet Jensine even before I did. Jensine was 93 now with five children and 14 grandchildren. Knud Arne picked my parents them up and drove them to his home. Jensine was inside.
JANET CERROTTI : I walked through the door. It was kind of like walking through a threshold of incredible love and gratitude. That I was walking to meet somebody who had been part of my mother's life. And part of the reason that I was still living. Mostly I wanted to tell Jensine thank you.
I also feel that because I didn't have a lot of family, uh, sometimes people who have been with your family in that way feel like family in a way that I actually never had or never knew.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : Meeting Janet was a very big thing for my mother. My mother could see a lot of Hana in Janet. Just as it was Hana herself. They kissed each other and hugged. And yeah. She was very moved by it. I could see she was really, really moved.
JANET CERROTTI : I think that many of us live with a certain loneliness, and loss. You couldn't walk around every day being in touch with all of your feelings. But I think there are times when you get in touch with the depths of your own soul. And maybe there's an emptiness there that you didn't even realize, and all of a sudden it's being filled.
[[ SCENE : Looking at photos with Jensine’s Descendants ]]
Knud Arne : That’s Hana. [Inge-Margrethe: Yeah Yeah] and Mogens.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : When I met Jensine and her children, they showed me their family photo albums. I found pictures of my grandmother inside.
Rachael : That’s my grandmother.
Inge-Margrethe : Have you seen this? [fading under].....
Knud Arne : That is your grandmother?
Inge-Margrethe : You seen this? [fading under].....
Rachael : Yeah
Knud Arne : That’s Hana?
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Knud Arne also gave me with letters Hana had sent to Jensine just after the war ended. Jensine had saved them for the nearly seventy years since. Knud Arne translated them for me and answered any questions I had.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : The 4-legged Hitler.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : Yeah. My parents had a horse, a white horse, I think it was. And it had lost sight in one eye, so they called it Hitler.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I love the dark humor here.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : You know, in countryside, they dig their own wells for drinking water and this wasn’t covered well enough probably, so, Hitler fell into a well. The horse fell in. With his back legs and they couldn’t get him up.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : They had to call for help. It was a whole big thing.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : The authorities came with a crane and pulled Hitler up the well
RACHAEL CERROTTI : This is a hilarious story.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : It was an exciting moment in a normal day life. You know, at last something happened out of the normal thing.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : From my perspective, as Hana’s granddaughter, nothing about this feels normal. Hana’s a refugee escaping the Nazis in a foreign country. She’s 16. She should be in school. She should be with her family. Her letters shouldn’t be censored. Sentences shouldn’t be blacked out. Envelopes shouldn’t be stamped with a swastika. But, I guess you can get used to anything. Because all of this did become normal. Even when her parents’ letters came less and less. Even when they stopped coming at all.
Hana lived with Jensine for about a year. Then she moved on to work for other families. She remained safe in Denmark. It had become a point of pride in Danish society to not discriminate against any neighbor. And that conviction became even stronger under the Nazi occupation. It didn’t matter whether you were a Danish Jew or a Jewish refugee living in Denmark. Everyone was protected.
That is, until September 29th, 1943.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : One night, around October 43’, she called my mother and said, this is Hana can I come. And my mother said of course, just come. And she came. The last thing she said before she went to bed was that, I might not be here in the morning when you wake up. And she wasn’t, she was gone.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : September 29th. Again, that date would change Hana’s life. And we’ll get there. When I started traveling, I reached out to Knud Arne. I wanted to come to Denmark and live on a farm like Hana did. And I wondered if any of his relatives would host me.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : You know, finding a farm like beginning of the 40s won’t happen. But then I think I talked to my eldest brother. Then his wife said, what about Sine?
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : My name is Sine and I live here in Denmark on a farm [[laughter]] and I am granddaughter of Jensine.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Sine is Knud Arne’s niece. One of Jensine’s 14 grandchildren.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : And of course, I’m named Sine after Jensine.
My uncles, they called me and said, oh Sine, we have this American photographer and she wanna see how life is when Hana was in Denmark, and so it’s much better that she stay with you. And I just, okay, it’s no problem. Maybe I can get some help.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : And that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I told Sine I’d help with the animals and do whatever I could around the house. Just like Hana had done. And in exchange I wanted to photograph my time with her family. It was the closest I’d be able to get to documenting my grandmother’s life. So, in February of 2015 I moved in with Sine. I moved in with the granddaughter of my grandmother’s foster mother from World War II.
Sine had just turned 40 when we met. She’s married to a man named Torsten. They got together when they were like 18. Now they have three kids. Part of the deal was that I would help Sine in the barn each morning.
[[ SCENE : In the barn ]]
Sine : Okay So I will open the door and the horse will run in. And Seli will come this way.
Rachael : Okay
[[ Barn door opens ]]
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : You were really a city girl. But really trying hard with your big big camera. Hanging here all the time. But you, scooped poop from the horses, and what do you call it, when you clean the floor.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Always with a camera around my neck?
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : Yes, always with the camera. And tried to take the horse, oooh, a big thing.
[[ sounds of birds on Sine’s farm in Denmark ]]
[[ montage of Sine’s children’s voices in Denmark ]]
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I saw the farm through my camera lens. I photographed Sine at work. I’d take pictures of the kids and show them. We’d laugh and smile. That’s how we talked since we didn’t speak the same language. The kids were young then. Liva, the eldest, was 11. Lauge, the only boy, was 9. And Silje was 4. She was known as the queen of the household. I hung out with them a lot. Sometimes we’d cook dinner together. Sometimes we’d visit the animals. Sometimes we’d watch tv or jump on the trampoline. On a few occasions I went with them to school. I taught in their classes and photographed their school dance.
Knud Arne had warned me before I went to the farm that it was really in the middle of nowhere. But every night, I was sitting with a family for dinner. I’d never been so calm.
I arrived at Sine’s farm as a professional observer. With all my camera gear and my grandmother’s diaries. But a mutual exchange took place very quickly. It wasn’t so much photographer and subject. It was us two granddaughters trying to become a little bit closer to our family histories by becoming closer to each other. She witnessed my life unfold. We talked about everything.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : In the beginning, it was you know, simple things, but also how to save the planet. Save the planet and politics. And I think all your thoughts about getting married. We talked about that a lot because you were just got engaged.
[[ montage of Rachael & Sergiusz’s video messages to each other ]]
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Sergiusz and I were still long-distance.
Sergiusz: Hey babe. Love you.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : We’d send video messages back and forth.
Rachael: Sit down. ... Sit..[dog panting] Stay...
Sergiusz: Let me show you my room.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I’d see him between my work trips.
Sergiusz: It’s pretty fancy, gotta say.
Rachael: Stay ... Okay! [dog pants and runs]
Sergiusz: Wish you were here with me.
Rachael: This monster is attacking me. Say, “Hi, Sergiusz! I miss you!”
RACHAEL CERROTTI : By the time I followed Hana’s story to Denmark, he was filing paperwork to immigrate to the United States. He’d move to Boston with me when I finished traveling.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : And you thought, can I live with that person together in the same apartment? And married. And married forever, and oooh, everything was so new to you.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : It’s true. I was nervous. Excited and nervous. Concerned and confident. Life is full of these emotional contradictions.
I tagged along with Sine wherever she went. The first place off the farm she took me to was a slaughter house. I’ve always given her a hard time for this.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : I am a horrible, horrible person. You are a vegetarian and then I took you to the slaughter house.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : And we knew each other for like four days. And I was like, oh this is going to be fine, this is going to be a great relationship.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Maybe this sounds morbid, but you could say we bonded over death. Death is unavoidable on a farm.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : I still cry sometimes when I load the sheeps and look at them and oooh you looking so beautiful and you are young and fresh, but you are all boys so I can’t have you. I always said that if I get too used to death on a farm, I am not supposed to be a farmer anymore.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I witnessed a lot of death on the farm. Kittens caught in the spokes of wheels. Sheep dying from the flu. Chickens and ducks eaten by foxes. And our grandmothers? In a way it was their deaths that had brought Sine and me together.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : We also talked so many times about this connection that it’s strange because we are not related or anything. I dunno. It’s not blood, but it is another connection which is very important. You know, Jensine was taking care of Hana, it’s always that Hana learned a lot about, of Jensine, because she learned about farming life, but I think a lot the other way also. I think they learned a lot about life from each other.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Before I left Europe, I brought Sergiusz to the farm in Denmark. I wanted him to meet Sine’s family.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : We loved him right away. And he actually knew a lot about farming. He knew a lot about vegetable, vegetables, oh now I don’t want to say the word.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Vegetables
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : Thank you
[[ Sine & Rachael laughter ]]
RACHAEL CERROTTI : When he came to visit, he could hardly contain himself. He’d been researching sustainable agriculture and biodynamic this and that. It made him want to become a farmer, and when we moved to Boston, he got a job on a local farm. Every day, he came home in cargo pants with fingernails caked with dirt.
RACHAEL CERROTTI (to Sine) : You know, not to sound too like cliche, but like you and Torsten like changed Sergiusz and my life. Because I mean, he became a farmer because of you guys. I mean, he was supposed to be a diplomat. His parents weren’t thrilled. They were like, wait, you got your masters degree and like you are planning on diplomacy and you are going to be a farmer? You are going to move to America and be a farmer? And we were like, well if Sine and Torsten can do that
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : I am so sorry about that Danuta.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : We decided that when we‘d host a wedding celebration, about a year after we were officially married, the party would be in Denmark - on Sine and Torsten’s farm.
[[ SCENE : musician singing at Rachael & Sergiusz’s wedding celebration in Denmark ]]
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : It was life, because you were so many young people. We talked about that because we felt a little old sitting in the garden with all you young. And it was such a nice time to just watch you and your friends from all over the world together in our garden. It was perfect.
[[ cheering & clapping, sounds from the wedding celebration ]]
It makes me a little emotional because it puts the whole history in another perspective.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I remember you saying our grandmothers are smiling down on us.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : Yes. Of course. Ya. And I’m sure they did. I’m sure they did.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : As children, our parents read us stories with happy endings. The famous Danish author Hans Christian Anderson is known for writing some of the most iconic of our childhood stories -- The Little Mermaid, The Ugly Duckling, The Emperor's New Clothes. The childhood versions are hopeful. The adult versions, the originals, those often are dark at the end.
In his lesser-known story, The Thorny Path, Hans Christian Anderson writes “The fairy tale and reality are not far apart, but the fairy tale is in harmony: earthly and time-bound. Reality has harmony too, but it can only be found in the boundless time of eternity.”
My reality takes us to September 29th, 2016. Just one month after the wedding celebration in Denmark. Sergio and I were back in Boston now.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : It was a normal morning and I was about to take the kids to school and there was this number, long distance call I could see, but I couldn’t see that it was Rachael. So I took the phone and I just said, I couldn’t hear you. I think you were crying. And you said something, and I just, ah I can’t hear you. I can’t hear you. What are you saying? You fell out. And then you called again. And you said, it’s Rachael. And I said, oh it’s you Rachael. And ahh. And I could hear in your voice that something happened. And then you said Sergio was dead and nobody knew why.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I’d been sitting in our apartment. Editing photos of the farm. Listening to a podcast. I don’t remember which one. I heard a thump. Like a chair that fell over. I called Sergiusz’s name. He didn’t answer.
I pushed out my chair. I stepped over the wires and hard drives and I called his name again. No answer.
I walked across the hall. To the bedroom. The door was already open. He was on the floor. His glasses were on the floor next to him. They were broken. I thought he was breathing. I called his name again. I touch his body. It was warm. I tried CPR. I yelled at him. I told him to wake up. I called 911. They came. They put him in the ambulance. I tried to get in the back with him. They wouldn’t let me. They put me in the front next to the driver. I don’t know why I pulled out my phone. It was like autopilot. To disassociate. To protect myself. I did what my grandmother’s story trained me to do. I pressed record.
[[ SCENE : Rachael in ambulance / sounds of siren & driving ]]
Rachael : Why isn’t the siren — why isn’t it —
Ambulance Driver : What’s that?
Rachael : I always see ambulance with the siren going.
Ambulance Driver : Relax. I’m in control of the vehicle. If I’m driving too fast I can’t keep control of the ambulance.
Rachael : I understand. I understand.
Ambulance Driver : I know you’re upset.
Rachael : He was breathing when I gave him CPR. He could feel me.
Ambulance Driver : Okay. Was he gasping?
Rachael : Yes!
Ambulance Driver : Okay. That — okay.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Sergiusz was pronounced dead at 7:34pm. September 29, 2016. He died from an undiagnosed heart disease.
I remember sitting there in the hospital. I held his hand. It got colder and colder. I asked the nurse to take off his wedding ring for me cause I was too scared to hurt his body. I have no idea if I cried. It sounds so messed up to say this, but for some reason, while I sat there, my brain kept going to my grandmother. It felt so incredibly inappropriate. But we don’t get to decide where our thoughts go.
All I could do was think about Hana. I had spent so many years telling people that her story was uplifting. Because she survived. Because people like Jensine saved her. My grandmother’s Holocaust story was different than other survivors. She never witnessed death. And all I could think is what a fraud I was. How could I have thought I could be the narrator of a story I knew nothing about?
[[ sounds of birds on Sine’s farm in Denmark ]]
Denmark was the only place that made sense to me after Sergio died. There was so much life on the farm, even in the winter. The animals, the children. The short days and the long nights. So I went back.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : I was afraid what was going to happen to you. Everybody was of course. And I thought you can’t stay here because of all the memories.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : But that’s where I wanted to be. I returned to my apartment on Sine’s farm, the place where I’d celebrated my wedding just a few months before. I lay on the couch wrapped in blankets, snuggled up with my grandmother’s diaries. Each of her words read differently now. And the stories that Sine and Knud Arne and the rest of their family told me felt different now. History had changed.
KNUD ARNE NYGAARD : I tried to ask my mother how did Hana react when Hana got a letter from Prague, Czechoslovakia that her father and mother and brother were gassed in the concentration camp. And Hana was going to her room and you know, kept it for herself mainly. I don’t think, it wasn’t because that my mother wouldn’t talk to her about it, but I think Hana kept it inside. And tried to deal with it on her own. She was saying, you know, you don’t know what is going on inside of a girl like that.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I’ll never know what went on inside of her either. I have stopped trying to understand. But I know that her words help me. If nothing else, what happened in the past has given me tools for the present. I don’t care if that sounds cliche.
When my grandmother was 80-years-old, she took a writing class called “Memories and Memoirs.” It is beautiful, to read her reflections, hauntingly so. To witness her scribe her history at an old age when I have so many of the same stories written in real time during World War II is nothing short of hopeful. There are so many pieces of writing that I claim to love the most. But I remember one sticking out to me more than others in my early days of grief. It was titled, “Vulnerability.” And it goes like this:
“It is wise and best not to think about our vulnerability too much. It could lead to despair. It is far better to think about our strengths. Pretend we are wearing a soft tailor-made suit of armor. Nothing can pierce it as we go forth like one of King Arthur’s knights. It’s hard to do that. You have to put up a good front, a stiff upper lip. If our armor is made right, we can bend a little. Stoop down to pet a dog or pick a flower. It’s hard to cook in it, or do housework. But it is best to keep it on at all times, especially at special occasion times like Christmas and birthdays, so you don’t start thinking sad thoughts of the past. And, it’s good to have it on at wakes and funerals, and other sad times. Because you know every living person on the planet, and all animals too, are so very vulnerable to just about every horrible, awful, scary, terrifying, wonderful, loving, happy, pleasurable thing on mother earth, and that there is very little you can do to dodge it except plow right through and hope to avoid the bad and enjoy the good…” - Hana Dubova, 2004
[[ long music break ]]
SERGIUSZ SCHELLER : Rachael. The Birds are singing. It’s 4am in the morning. I just wanted to say hi. This is my neighborhood. It’s so pretty over here! I want you over here. I love you. I love you more than anything.
*This episode includes music by Daniel Birch, Chad Crouch, Lee Rosevere, Chris Zabriskie and Blue Dot Sessions*