It’s the summer you turn thirteen when we travel to Prague to visit our ancestors. We have planned an alternative bar mitzvah, one we hope will connect you with your roots.
I have read an article in The Guardian about the importance of doing this for kids, how children who have a strong family narrative are healthier emotionally. Is this still true if the family narrative includes genocide? I wonder.
Just to be clear, the ancestors I’m speaking about are not alive. Most were murdered in the Holocaust. My grandmother, a survivor, who passed away six years ago at the age of 102, wanted to die for as long as I could remember, while my grandfather, who also survived, took his own life when I was four.
We have been talking about the Holocaust with you for a few years now, since you were nine. You’ve read: The Diary of Anne Frank, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Maus and Survival in Auschwitz. You are interested in weapons, in ways prisoners were tortured, in how people died. For a school project, you have written about the suicide of your great-great-grandfather in Theresienstadt, a transit concentration camp-ghetto outside of Prague, and the suicide of your great-grandfather in Vancouver. You ask bone chilling questions that I don’t have answers to, ones that make my stomach twist into knots.
When we first arrive in Prague, we head to Staré Město, Old Town, and cross over the famous Karlův most, Charles Bridge. The three of us hold hands as we snake through the hordes of tourists. We take a selfie with the Pražský hrad, the Prague Castle, in the background, the gothic towers of St. Vitus Cathedral, a beautiful golden sunset cradling our heads. You are smiling, the twilight exposing the glint of your metal braces, which were glued on your teeth earlier this year, your eyebrows bushy, your brown curls tightly coiled, your large grey t-shirt untucked, hangs just below your hips. In another photo, your dad wraps his arms around you, the sky now a shade of violet, the clouds a puffy dream. Although we just arrived, my body feels heavy, my arms like thick tree trunks, knuckles drag, back stoops, neck bent. While couples embrace, while college students drink pivo, Czech beer, while parents push strollers, their kids licking zmrzlina, ice cream dribbling down chins from August heat, I curve inward with the weight of inherited memory.
I squeeze your hand tight because I don’t want to lose you in the chaos. Squished through a maze of people, crowds have always elicited an intense fear. I try to stay away from places jammed with humans. I don’t go to concerts or large events, and if I do, I scan for the exit and position myself next to it. I need a way out, don’t like feeling trapped. You are the same way.
The next day we walk to Josefov, the Jewish quarter, where we visit the Old-New Synagogue. Your grandparents were married here in 1936, three years before Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Your dad takes a photo, your cheeks press against mine, your arms around my shoulders. You are taller than me now, something you like to tease me about. Your feet have outgrown your dad’s two sizes ago.
At the Pinkas synagogue we use the computer to search the names of our ancestors, along with 80,000 names of Bohemian and Moravian Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust. When we find their names on the walls, it’s almost like a victory until we remember the horrific way in which they died.
The next day, we take a tour of Theresienstadt where 140,000 were imprisoned, over thirty-five thousand prisoners died, and ninety thousand Jews were sent east to death camps. The guide tells us she’s half Jewish, that her father had family who died in the Holocaust. You put on your headphones and play on an iPad, while I tell her about our ancestors. I usually don’t like when you tune out, but I’m fine with it now. I know it’s going to be a long day. This isn’t my first visit.
I traveled to Theresienstadt with my family in 1994. It’s my mom’s, your babu’s, first time back since she and her parents escaped communist Czechoslovakia in 1968 and came to Canada as refugees. If she had tried to return prior to the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the fall of communism, she could have been arrested and thrown in jail. I am seventeen years old. I have little patience for my mom’s tears, cannot begin to comprehend how monumental it is for her to reconnect with friends with whom she hasn’t seen or spoken to in almost thirty years. What I do know is that we have no family left to visit. They were killed during the war. I notice a piece of red brick that has fallen off the fortress wall and put it in my pocket. Heart thudding, my insides feel hollow, as if they’ve been chewed up. When I get home, I place it in a box, and bury it deep in my closet.
Two years later, I return to Theresienstadt with my best friend. I am in tears after walking through the collection of children’s drawings from the camp-ghetto. They are beautiful and haunting, scenes depicting the sick and dying but also of expansive skies, birds and trees. Almost all fifteen thousand children deported to Theresienstadt were murdered. This time, I find a stone that shimmers gold and silver, stick it in my pocket, my insides already split open.
When I return nine years later in 2005, it’s with your dad and his parents. I can already feel my heart beating and my stomach lurching leading up to the day we get into our rental car and make the forty-minute drive. After, we go for beers in the town nearby, sit outside at a picnic table in the square. We are quiet, tears stream down my face and splash into my pint.
Fourteen years later, I’m back, but this time I’m with you. When we arrive, the van drops us off in front of a restaurant that is advertising drink specials. I find it strange there are restaurants here. There are also grocery stores and ice cream shops. The sidewalks are clean, and the town is quiet, eerily so. Down one street, a few boys kick a soccer ball. The town feels heavy and depressed. Theresienstadt is inhabited by ghosts. But despite this more people are moving here.
“It’s cheaper than Prague,” our tour guide says. “People like its proximity to the city and they can get a larger apartment for less. A lot of former military people live here now.”
When we enter the Ghetto Museum, we sit down in a small theatre and are shown a film. In it are excerpts from a propaganda film the Nazis used to show the International Red Cross, to fool the world into thinking the Jews and other prisoners were not being mistreated. The film shows images of smiling prisoners, scenes of people in the garden or playing soccer. What the world didn’t see was the death of thousands in Theresienstadt, through starvation, torture and disease. What the world refused to see was the deportations of thousands to death camps.
Halfway through the film, I gasp and squeeze your dad’s leg because I think it’s him. I think I see my uncle Richard, my grandmother’s brother, on the screen. In the film, he’s in the garden, smiling and has his shirt off. He has round spectacles, like I’ve seen in other photos of him, and he’s balding. I am sure it’s him because I have a photo at our house, where he’s chopping wood with an ax, his shirt off, his specs on, his widow’s peak. The photo was taken right before the war. Like all the pictures I have, I am not sure how this one survived, but I am grateful to have it. In that moment, when I think I see my uncle, my insides turn to ice and I have trouble breathing. With each new scene, the narrator tells us about the transports from Theresienstadt to the death camps. On September 6, 1943, my uncle was on Transport Dl, No. 1208 to Auschwitz. He was gassed to death on March 8, 1944. He was twenty-nine years old when he was murdered, the age I was when I gave birth to you. On September 6, 1943, Hana, his wife, was on Transport Dl, No. 1207. She was twenty-three.
After the film, we walk to the gift shop and your dad buys a copy of the DVD. He knows I will need to watch it and re-watch it to make sure the man in the film isn’t Richard. As a member of a family that knows genocide, I am always looking for the living among the dead. When we return home, I find the photo of my uncle, and an old computer with a DVD player, and watch it again and again. I hit pause at six minutes and sixteen seconds so I can stare at the man with the spectacles, the balding head, the naked torso. The man who looks like my uncle. When I finally decide that it isn’t my uncle, I put the DVD away in a large blue plastic box that I keep in my closet with Holocaust books, photos and the rocks from Theresienstadt.
Later after we finish at the museum the tour guide tells us it’s a good time to take a break.
“Is there a place you’d recommend we get a quick bite?” I ask.
Although I’m not hungry, I know I will be. She shakes her head.
“We don’t have much time. There’s a little café downstairs,” she says.
By downstairs, she means in the basement of the Ghetto Museum. We walk down the stairs to a dimly lit cafeteria painted a sickly yellow, with a few round tables and a small fridge. A man who looks like he could have retired twenty years ago, totters out of the kitchen and stands behind the counter. There are neon signs above his head with numbers corresponding to six menu items. I order a burger for you and grab a sandwich from the fridge. It’s the kind of place we know the food is going to be terrible before we order it. When it arrives, the meat (it’s still a mystery) is a shade of grey that looks as old as the Terezin Fortress and is ten times smaller than the bun. You eat a few fries and then bite into the burger.
“I’m not hungry,” you say, pushing it aside.
I sample the cheese sandwich, which has more mayonnaise than either bread or cheese and shove the rest into my backpack. It’s a habit I’ve formed as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. Body memories of starvation, I store food like a squirrel in winter. Even though this sandwich is nothing I ever want to taste again, I am worried that I won’t be able to last without it, that I’ll run out of snacks before we leave this godforsaken place. The food is nauseating, but it isn’t the reason we feel bad. We feel bad because Theresienstadt is a place of death and we are attempting to nourish ourselves here. Eating in Theresienstadt is like eating in Hades. Once Persephone eats there, she is never the same. Part of her remains in the underworld, with the ghosts. Like me.
When we step outside, it feels like we are transported from the underworld into another form of Hell. You are fascinated by the sign that says Krematorium, a yellow Star of David stamped beside it. I don’t remember being here, inside this place where bodies were turned into ash that fell from the sky like snow. The Krematorium is a lifeless, industrial grey brown. We make a donation for a candle and light it together. You place it with the other candles, on the conveyor belt that used to send bodies into the furnace. There are four black incinerators, with an aisle down the middle. Later I learn that part of the job of prisoners, aside from unloading corpses, was picking through the pulverized fragments of bone to find the gold from the mouths of the dead. At the end of one incinerator, there are three small furnace doors, each large enough to fit a body. It looks like a scene out of a horror movie, the machine full of nobs, gears and buttons, with grey bits of ash breaking out of the opening of the three doors.
I watch you stand between two incinerators, dressed in green shorts and a blue t-shirt, your hair a mess of curls, until I can’t see you anymore because my eyes are a blur of tears. I wonder if we’re messing you up by bringing you here, how many countless hours of therapy you will need after this trip. But then I remember how I needed countless hours of therapy and I didn’t know any of this. Nothing was spoken about when I was growing up. My parents and grandparents kept secrets. I didn’t know that my great-grandfather had taken his life here during my first three visits to Theresienstadt. His body probably ended up in one of these incinerators, the ones you are standing next to right now.
We board the van and the tour guide tells us we’re headed to the small Fortress where the Nazis tortured and executed prisoners, many of whom were part of resistance groups. When the van drops us off, we walk down a gravel path, trees lining either side, and you ask me if I can tell you some of the methods the Nazis used to torture prisoners. When I try to speak, nothing comes out, so I try again, but again nothing. I shake my head.
“It’s okay, Mama,” you say, patting me on the back.
Even though I come from a family that knows genocide, I’m often unable to speak of the violence. I watch you run ahead to catch up with your dad, and I know you are asking him the same question.
We enter a courtyard with yellow buildings. There is barbed wire, and below, black lettering above an archway that reads, “ARBEIT MACHT FREI.” I am familiar with this saying, as are you.
“Work makes you free,” you say.
“Do you know what it really means?” I ask. “That prisoners found freedom only in death?”
You nod and sweep your shoes through the gravel.
“You don’t have to tell me, Mom. I know.”
We walk around the barracks, visit solitary confinement, until I can’t take it anymore. I sit on the steps that face a courtyard where people were shot and wait for you to finish.
When we board the van back to Prague, we talk with the tour guide and then we are quiet. You put on your headphones and I stare out the window, my heart splintering over again into a million pieces. The van drops us off in Josefov and we walk slowly back to our hotel. When we pass a bus stop with a garbage can beside it, I stop to throw out the cheese sandwich, the one made in Hades.
“Hug me,” you say.
You wrap your arm around my shoulder, and I grab your waist and we walk like this in silence. I don’t tell you that watching you stand next to the incinerators almost killed me. How after we return home, I push writing this essay out of my mind for months. How going back to this dark place again would haunt my being, which is already inhabited by ghosts. I don’t tell you that my heart feels punched all the way through, about the way my insides twist, the way my jaw tightens so I can stop myself from crying.
The next day we visit the New Jewish Cemetery and we get lost in a maze of headstones. It’s a beautiful cemetery, with tall trees and ivy lining the graves. You have practiced your speech a few times. We find the headstone of Vilém Lebenhart, your great-great grandfather, who died in 1939, two years before the rest of his family was deported to Concentration Camps. Underneath his name, are the names of your great-great grandmother Klára, your great-great uncle and aunt Richard and Hana, all three of them murdered in the death camps.
Your dad and I sit on a bench and you begin to speak about what it’s like being part of the fourth generation, how many of your friends have large families compared to you, and how you feel sad because of this. You talk about anti-Semitism, how safe and privileged you know you are living in Canada, how lucky you feel to be in Prague, surrounded by the love of your ancestors, and as you speak, I can hear them whispering through trees.
When you finish, my eyes are wet, and we are smiling. You stand before us and we give you a gift. You feel the purple velvet pouch with your hands, run your finger over the yellow stitching of the Star of David. You unzip it and long strands of white tumble out like hair.
“It’s my grandfather’s tallis, his prayer shawl,” your dad says. “Your saba. As you know, he was a survivor too.”
“Thank you so much,” you say.
Your dad helps you unwrap the tallis and together we place it on your shoulders. It fits you perfectly, the white silk draping over you, the blue horizontal stripes hang by your torso, the long white strands hover by your knees. You sit down on the bench in your burgundy polo shirt, your kippah on sideways over your mound of curly hair, grinning, eyes shining like mirrors.
Claire Sicherman is the author of Imprint: A Memoir of Trauma in the Third Generation (Caitlin Press 2018). Her writing has appeared in publications including Entropy, The Rumpus, and the anthology Sustenance: Writers from BC and Beyond on the Subject of Food. Claire speaks and writes about her experience as a third-generation Holocaust survivor and facilitates workshops supporting writers in bringing the stories they hold in their bodies out onto the page.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/R Boed
RELATED CONTENT: A Digital Exhibit
While this essay was under consideration with Hippocampus Magazine, the author also had a version of this story added to a digital exhibit at the University of Victoria in British Columbia called Stories of the Holocaust: Local Memory and Transmission.
From the promotional material: “The exhibit centres not only on the actual stories themselves but also on notions of relationship building, storytelling and transmission, as well as memory work, intergenerational trauma, and active remembering.” Enjoy Claire’s exhibit here.