Chapter I Transcript : Don’t make waves
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 : My grandmother once told me -- the difference between her travels and mine was that she had to burn all of her bridges as she moved forward.
HANA DUBOVA : That bridge always burned. Or was destroyed. There was no way to go back again. Once you made another step, you couldn’t step back.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : On September 29, 2014, I moved to Europe. First I went to Poland to see Sergio. He gave me a home base during my travels. Someone to come back to. In the back of my head, it felt unfair. I had support when my grandmother didn’t. I was supposed to be doing this alone.
Then I went to Prague. I moved into the home of a stranger -- a young woman from the Jewish community who was kind enough to let me live in her spare room. If I was going to live the way my grandmother did, I had to rely on people the way she did.
The nightmares came quickly. I dreamt I came home to Boston and my friends looked through me like I was a ghost. One night, I woke up certain that the building was on fire. My body burned. I ripped off the blanket. I curled my legs to my chest and rocked back and forth, like the Orthodox men I’d seen in prayer at the old synagogue earlier that week.
It was just the beginning of my trip, and already the loneliness was so deep. Already I couldn’t exactly explain to anyone what I was doing. Or why. I had no money. I’d given up my home. I’d separated myself from my friends. I felt isolated from everyone -- even Sergio.
It was just me and my grandmother. But I was committed to her. And her story. It felt more important than anything. Even my relationship with Sergio. Even though these two commitments never came into conflict -- I knew.
I’m Rachael Cerrotti. We share the same sky.
September 29th, 1938. It’s a Thursday, and it’s raining in Prague.
Hana’s 13 years old. Her brother’s nine. His name is Petr. They live with their parents in a modest second-floor apartment. It has a wrap around balcony that connects them to their neighbors and the communal toilet. It’s a school day.
Her father sits at the breakfast table, and reads his favorite newspaper. It’s written in German, the most influential liberal-democratic newspaper in Czechoslovakia. The paper hides his face even as the corners fold over. Hana reads the headlines on the other side. It says something about Hitler wanting a part of Czechoslovakia, but she’s distracted by her own thoughts. She can’t stop thinking about a boy. A boy named Dasa.
HISTORICAL TAPE : We were waiting all very happily just now, about 20 minutes ago with a rather threatening sky, but not a particularly bad one. Suddenly rain began to fall and it got harder and harder until the tarmac at the airport is skiddy and everybody is looking very wet.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : When it’s time, Hana gathers her bag and takes the streetcar to school. She and her classmates bow to the teacher as they enter the classroom. Then they take their seats and sit straight with their hands behind their back. It’s the mandatory posture. In history class, she learns about the Great World War, which feels ancient. She’s taught that Czechoslovakia was created in 1918 at the end of that war. She understands that before her country gained independence that it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And, she knows that her father fought in this war. But, it all feels irrelevant. It happened before she was born.
Hana goes directly home after school. She has to finish her homework before she can meet her friends at the gymnasium. And, maybe at the gymnasium she’ll see Dasa. She likes him so much.
At the end of that normal Thursday on September 29, 1938, Hana lies in bed. It’s become common to fall asleep to the sounds of her mother shushing her father as they listen to the radio. They’re listening to a news report. She hears the radio’s static, but can’t make out the words. She closes her eyes. She tells herself stories built from today’s memories. She narrates the stories with the words she keeps hearing from her parents and grandparents. “It could never happen here.”
HISTORICAL TAPE : And now they bring her up. The police are coming forward and The Lord Chamberlain is seen down there. Waiting to greet Mr. Chamberlain. I believe he’ll be the first person to meet him as he steps out of the machine.
(Neville Chamberlain) : “I want to thank the British people for what they have done. Next. And next I want to say that the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved, is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. [cheers].
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana didn’t know it yet, but this is what happened on that September 29th, the Thursday in 1938. There was a conference held in Munich, Germany. Hitler had now been in power for 5 years. It had only taken him the first six months to consolidate power. He turned a democracy into a one-party dictatorship. He drafted emergency legislation that suspended civil liberties. He got rid of habeas corpus. He deputized the storm troopers. He targeted communists, socialists, state delegates, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witness, the mentally disabled, Germans of African descent and Jews. He over filled the jails and then used schools and gymnasiums for his prisoners. And then, when those were over capacity, he built concentration camps. He murdered his opponents. He burned their books. And he amended the German Constitution and gave himself emergency powers. All in 6 months.
HISTORICAL TAPE (Neville Chamberlain) : This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : In 1938, Hitler annexed Austria. Now, he was demanding to take control of a German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia called Sudetenland. He was threatening a European war if he didn’t get what he wanted. So, his fellow Europeans complied.
HISTORICAL TAPE (Neville Chamberlain) : We, the German Führer and Chancellor, and the British Prime Minister, have had a further meeting today and are agreed in recognizing that the question of Anglo-German relations is of the first importance for the two countries and for Europe. We regard the agreement signed last night and the Anglo-German naval agreement as symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again. [cheers].
RACHAEL CERROTTI : The leaders of Great Britain, Italy and France signed what was called the Munich agreement. They agreed to let Germany annex a part of Czechoslovakia. In exchange for Hitler’s pledge of peace, they gave away their neighbor. The Czech government wasn’t even invited to attend the negotiations. Everyone knew what this meant. At least everyone in Czechoslovakia knew what this meant. The Munich Agreement? This loss of land? Getting annexed by Germany? This was a death warrant.
HANA DUBOVA : We were told there was going to be a war and so we were exercising with gas masks and how to crawl under the school desks and so on.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : That’s Hana again. My grandmother.
HANA DUBOVA : Because we were told that either the English are going to gas us or the German are going to gas us. Somebody is going to gas us.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : The Nazis paraded into Prague six months after the Munich Agreement was signed. Czechoslovakia was no more.
HANA DUBOVA : Everybody was trying to get out. Even my parents were trying to get out. Everybody was looking for a relative outside of the German Reich and my grandmother had a step sister in Cincinnati, Ohio.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : So Hana’s father wrote to this relative. He asked them for an affidavit — basically a pledge of financial sponsorship if he could get them to America. This would help them get a visa.
HANA DUBOVA : And they said, it’s not so easy for us. And I knew that they were trying to get out. We all were trying to get out and they told that I should learn, they bought a knitting machine, that I should learn how to knit sweaters on the knitting machine so we could make a living wherever we would immigrate to.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana’s mother was reschooling herself in baking and sewing. Everyone was prioritizing learning a trade.
HANA DUBOVA : And the country which they applied to said no no no. But the one country they said we are going to go to Uganda. Uganda is the country which wants you, which could take you, not wants you, but could take you. And I wrote it down U-g-a, looked at the atlas, couldn’t find the country, no where, find out it’s way out in Africa. But it never came to pass. They never left.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Uganda was just one of many places proposed by the Zionist movement as a homeland for the Jews. Centuries of religious persecution were now enclosed by Hitler’s propaganda and the Jews of Europe were desperate for a solution. The anti-semitism had been subtle before.
HANA DUBOVA : We were always taught not to make waves. We were taught, blend into the woodwork. If somebody calls you some kind of a name, you know Dirty Jew or something, that was about the worst. We never were physically beaten up. We were taught, let it pass. Let it go. I think the parents went through it. The grandparents went through it. They survived. So they felt, you know, don’t answer. Don’t go back. Don’t fight for yourself.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : After the Nazi occupation, Anti-Jewish laws were put in place quickly. Ghettos, ration cards, the freezing of financial assets, restrictions on professions for the parents and education for the kids. The social and financial rights of the Jewish community were stripped.
HANA DUBOVA : The war came to me in coming to school and saying Jewish students are forbidden — not not permitted, but forbidden — to enter these premises. That is how the war came to me. Czechoslovakia didn’t exist anymore. We were the protectorate of the German Reich.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : That was in March. 1939. Hana turned 14 the following July.
HANA DUBOVA : And there was a boy whom I liked, I got kissed the first time, on my 14th birthday, under the table and that was in Prague.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : The story goes that Hana dropped her fork at dinner. When she went to pick it up, her crush, Dasa met her there and kissed her. It was quick.
HANA DUBOVA : And I thought that I never wanted to crawl from under the table. I’m going to bag. Because everyone is going to see that I‘ve been kissed under the table and I really wanted to be with him.
HISTORICAL TAPE (Jan Masaryk) : “No one knows what is going to happen within the next 24 or 48 hours. I don’t think that either Chamberlain or Hitler really know at this minute.”
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Jan Masaryk - The Czech diplomat in London.
HISTORICAL TAPE (Jan Masaryk) : But one thing is very definitely sure. If the war starts, it will be Hitler who is the guilty party.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Everything was changing. Hitler had lied. Sudetenland, the part of Czechoslovakia he got in the Munich Agreement, was just the tip of the iceberg in his quest to conquer Europe. Now there were threats of other countries being occupied.
HISTORICAL TAPE (Jan Masaryk) : We may have war even before I finish this little talk. Or we may have another attempt at negotiations. If there is even a vestige of the Munich spirit left to initiate these negotiations, they are doomed to be a dismal failure. The only possible chance of success without bloodshed is for Hitler to climb down from the Trojan Horse on which he has galloped from Munich to Berlin and then to Vienna, Prague and so forth. And now towards Warsaw. From now on he must walk, even walk backwards a bit. Let me be perfectly frank. I believe I have the right to be so. If Hitler attempts another bloodless victory for vulgar gangsterism and the world, including the United States of America, lets him get away with it, I have no illusions about the future of the European civilization. And whats more, we a;; deserve what is coming to us.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Five days later, Germany invaded Poland from the west. A couple weeks after that, the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the east. The war had begun. It was obvious now. Neither Hana’s family nor Dasa’s family would be able to get out. But, there were some options for the children. Rescue missions were set in motion. The Kindertransport is probably the best known. That was organized by the British and saved about 10,000 Jewish children by bringing them to England.
In America, a senator from my home state in Massachusetts proposed a bill to congress for a similar plan in the United States. But public opinion said no. The wife of the US commissioner of immigration who happened to also be the cousin of President Roosevelt publicly stated about the Jewish kids, quote “20,000 charming children would all too soon grow into 20,000 ugly adults.”
Such racism didn’t feel unique at this time. Walls were being built around borders. In the cases of some countries, like Czechoslovakia, the walls kept people in. And in other places, like America, the walls were built to keep people out. But, Hana was lucky. And so was Dasa. They were members of the Zionist Youth Movement. And that gave them an option to leave.
HANA DUBOVA : Let’s go. Let’s go to Hakshara. Hakshara means preparation to toil the land in Palestine. If the British would allow that.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Zionism was a movement by the Jewish people to find a homeland. During the years of Hitler’s rule, it became an increasingly popular movement even for the most assimilated Jews. Hana and Dasa were both members of their chapter of the youth movement. And, it is because of this involvement that they were able to flee Czechoslovakia. The Zionist movement applied to an organization called the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. And it was because of them that my grandmother’s group of friends was saved.
EVA BERGMANN : I actually know the backstory of this. I found it. Do you know the story behind all this?
RACHAEL CERROTTI : I don’t know. Either way it might be a different story. So I would love to hear your…
EVA BERGMANN : It was so amazing. One time I…
RACHAEL CERROTTI : That’s Eva Bergmann, Dasa’s daughter. Dasa — Hana’s first love. Our families have been friends for four generations, but I only got close with them when I started researching my grandmother’s life. On this day, we are sitting with her brother Michael and his son. We are at Michael’s home in Copenhagen, eating cake and drinking tea while reading the letters and memoirs written by Hana and Dasa. So here’s the story.
EVA BERGMANN : I, I have lived a lot abroad and one time there was a little private library in the place where I was — it was a big place with a lot of people. And, I think someone put it by my door — Female Saints East and West. And then it spoke about all these women who were really amazing women in Christianity and Hinduism and all this stuff. And then there was one little chapter about Judaism. In Judaism there are no saints. It doesn’t exist. But there is one woman, if there should be. And she went with her dad to Palestine like maybe 100 years ago. A little bit earlier than that. And there was no infrastructure. There was a lot of malaria. And it was really really poor. And so she took it upon herself to help people. And so what she did, she went back to the US and raised money to educate some nurses.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : This woman? Henrietta Szold? Was born in Baltimore in 1860. At the age of 49, she began campaigning to establish health and social welfare services for the Arabs and the Jews of Palestine. This was her life’s work. And it extended to protecting the persecuted children in Europe during World War II. As Eva continues the story, you can hear her brother Michael murmuring responses in the background.
EVA BERGMANN : And what happened was when Hitler took over. She realized that she couldn’t save everyone. But she could try to save the children. And at that time the British had a deal with the Ottoman Empire that there could only be this many Jews coming to Palestine a year. So they went to Denmark and from there then would then go to Palestine.
HANA DUBOVA : I was one of the chosen ones. I learned later that you were not just picked to go. The parents paid quite a large sum of money to get their children out. My brother couldn’t go because he was young. Too young.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : My grandmother said it was like receiving a lottery ticket to be allowed to leave.
HANA DUBOVA : We stood in front of the Gestapo for night and days to get exit permits. To leave. The war already was declared. But we did leave. We did go by train through Berlin to Denmark.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana had no idea that this would be the beginning of nearly two decades as a stateless person. It was just the first stop in her refugee story.
HANA DUBOVA : I for one thought that I’m entering a big adventure. I was really sort of, almost happy that I at this age, am going to this adventure, being alone, and going to a strange country and going to make it on my own. I never believed and I don’t think they ever believed, that this is the last time that we see each other.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : In Prague, I spend hours at the train station. I watch the trains come and go and imagine Hana’s departure. I see it in a string of black and white snapshots. Hana’s head peeking out of the train window. Her family on the platform. She waves at them furiously. Her mother wipes her eyes with a handkerchief. Her father stands with one hand on his wife’s waist. The other hand on his son’s shoulder. No one is sure what comes next.
I imagine all of the parents as they stand there. They exchange glances, seeking approval from each other. They need to know that they’re doing the right thing by saying goodbye. They need to believe it’s safer to send their children into the unknown than to have them stay home.
The grief fills the station like a thick fog. The whistle blows. The train jumps forward. It begins to move. First slowly. Then faster. And now to full speed. The still frames of the train become a blur. But Hana’s parents remain frozen. They are the last frame in Prague.
HANA DUBOVA : But, it was exciting in a way. There was some excitement in the air. Some unusual things were happening and sad and exciting at the same time I would say.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana, Dasa, and the other kids traveled by train through Germany. My grandmother told me that when she transferred trains in Berlin, she had to wait as some of the girls were taken into private rooms and stripped by the Nazis. Their bodies were searched to make sure they weren’t smuggling any silver or gold. Hana was spared from the assault. Instead she stayed near Dasa.
Then, they took a boat to Denmark. Once in Denmark, they took a train to Copenhagen and were met by the volunteers from the women’s organization. And from there, each child was put on another train and given directions to their new home.
HANA DUBOVA : I was assigned to one village and I switched with the girl. I says I want to be near Dasa. And I did that. I switched and I got into a farm and I mean I was punished for that because we were way away from the other children. The other children were placed in farms where they could sort of meet each other and we were away from the other ones.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana and Dasa would see each other about every two weeks. Over night, they became refugees. They didn’t speak a word of the Danish language and they knew nothing about farm life.
HANA DUBOVA : I learned that the farmers were told that they are getting either a maid, if it was a female in the house and because the females were responsible for the vegetable gardens and the cow sheds and so on. And, the boys were the farmhands. And, that’s what the farmers were told. Take these children in and they are going to help you in your chores on the farm. I did not know anything about farm chores.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana didn’t even know that milk came from cows. She thought it came from the milkman who delivered it in glass bottles each morning back when she lived in Prague.
HANA DUBOVA : But you learn because there is no other way to get around. And I learned how to milk cows and I learned how to take care of the chicks and I learned even when they came to slaughter the pig to — in Denmark they eat a lot of blood pudding and when the blood flows from the pig, you have to stir the blood so it doesn't coagulate so you have your hand all the way up to here in the bucket of blood. So I learned how to do that. That too. And then do the blood pudding and turn the intestines inside out to make sausages. I learned all that. However we were not no more than October to April and then Denmark was invaded by the German.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Germany invaded Denmark on April 9, 1940.
HANA DUBOVA : So, here we go again. But, we didn’t. We didn’t go again.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : At least not yet. Not until the next September 29th in this story. The one in 1943. But, in the meantime, Hana adapted to life on the farm.
HANA DUBOVA : I was placed in a farm which had no electricity and no running water. So I had to go in the morning and pump the water. But while I was pumping the water, I was learning Hebrew vocabulary. I remember we had a washing machine which you cranked by hand. And I says for every crank I have to know one Hebrew word. One Hebrew word. So it was all preparation for toiling the land and building a homeland for the Jews.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Hana’s diary. July 14, 1940. Age 15. “I could not stand my old place. I resented the people. Their children would beat me. I kept tidying up constantly without any lasting effect. There were a thousand little reasons as well as big ones for me to leave. I’ve broken up with Dasa. It may have been awful for me, but good in a way. One day we were lying next to each other and I am convinced that he too was very happy. He was telling me that he liked me very much and that I’m pretty and have smooth cheeks and all the things that a person in love can say. I was saying nothing, just listening. That was the first month in Denmark. I did like him. I don’t deny that. But I wonder how could I like him if he was the person I know him as now and if he wasn’t, how could he change in that time — half a year.”
War romances, like any love stories, don’t always go the way you plan.
In February of 2015, after I followed Hana to Prague, I followed her to Denmark. I took her train route through Germany and then a boat across the Baltic Sea. I sent Sergio selfies and snapshots along the way. We were both excited for my next step: I would move to a Danish farm, just like Hana.
The night before my trip into the countryside, I sat in a cafe in Copenhagen. I had decided to take myself to dinner at a vegetarian restaurant that had become a favorite of mine. They served big bowls of soup and hearty pieces of bread. I sat there and listened to other people’s conversations. A first date was happening next to me. Between a young British man and a woman who was from America or Canada. I couldn’t quite tell from her accent. They were talking about their grandparents. I smiled to myself. That’s what had brought me to Denmark.
While in Copenhagen, I had stayed with Michael Bergmann, one of Dasa’s sons. The brother of Eva, who you heard from before. Michael treated me like family. He told me I was always welcome at his home. Sitting at the restaurant, I was so calm. So at peace. Until I connected to wifi and my phone began to buzz. Friends from Boston were checking in on me. There had been a shooting in Copenhagen. They wanted to know if I was okay. My heart began to panic. I’d been through this before — just a couple years before with the Boston Marathon Bombings when the city went on lockdown.
Terrorist attacks are so rare in Denmark. I lay in bed all night, watching shadows dance on the ceiling. Helicopters circled above. A manhunt was underway. And a Jewish guard at the Copenhagen synagogue had been shot and killed.
The next morning, Michael took me to the train station. He helped me with my bags and bought a ticket for me. Then he kissed me on the forehead like a father would. He said if I needed anything, to just call.
The station had an eerie quiet that morning. On the train, I squeezed my backpacks in between my legs and watched as police officers and soldiers patrolled the platform. It seemed like everyone was suspect, but no one had asked me for an id. Or for my passport. My complexion blended in and provided me with privilege. I folded my sweatshirt for a pillow and lay my head against the window. The train jumped forward. The color of February was dull brown ground and solid grey sky. I stared out the window at the countryside. It was flat as far as I could see. Farm houses blurred into a long line of wood and white paint. The landscape soothed my anxiety.
As more countries became involved in the war, borders closed and it became increasingly obvious that Hana and her friends wouldn’t be going to Palestine anytime soon. Hana moved from one farm to another. The letters from home began to come less often. Her romance with Dasa faded. Reality set in. This is where she would stay. In her diaries she describes the world she lives in. She screams her words into the paper. She scribbles her frustrations and the moments of feeling invisible. And forgotten. That is, until she meets Jensine.
In 1941, Jensine was 21 years old — just a little older than Hana, who had just turned 16. Jensine was married to a farmer named Arne and the two of them had a newborn baby. Hana moved onto their farm. Right away, something felt different to Hana. She and Jensine talked for hours. Hana had been in Denmark for almost two years, but on this farm, for the first time, she felt like she belonged. She wrote to her parents, quote “Here I am walking every day and singing and I do not miss anything. Of course it’s not perfect, but when I came here I felt like “home.” It’s so fine so trustful and open. I don’t have any other word than “home.”
I needed to find out what this life was like. So I did.
I followed Hana’s footprints to a farm called Møllebakkegård. All the way to Jensine -- and her family.
SINE CHRISTIANSEN : This is just so wild. Jensine really have been thinking a lot about Hana. So, she was always talking about, oh what happened to her and we never knew.
RACHAEL CERROTTI : Next time, on We Share The Same Sky.
RACHAEL CERROTTI (outro) : We Share The Same Sky is produced by Erika Lantz and me. You can find the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Play and other podcast apps. Please subscribe and leave a review. We’re also on Instagram and Facebook at Share The Same Sky.
Every episode comes with photographs, videos, and a curriculum that you can use in the classroom. Learn more at sharethesamesky.com.
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.
I’m Rachael Cerrotti. Thanks for listening.
*This episode includes music by Lee Rosevere and Blue Dot Sessions*