Women grapple with families’ Holocaust legacies
Facing History and Ourselves, an international nonprofit whose goal is to engage and educate students on racism and anti-Semitism, held a talk last Monday called “Echoes of the Holocaust: Beyond Sides of History” with the University’s Center for German and European Studies. Rachael Cerrotti, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor, and Julie Lindahl, whose grandparents were Nazis, shared their experiences uncovering and documenting their family histories.
Cerrotti said that throughout her childhood, she had heard her grandmother, Hana, tell her life story many times, but it was not until Cerrotti was in college that she decided to write the story down. For the last year and a half of her grandmother’s life, Cerrotti listened to and documented her story, which she shared with the audience on Monday.
Because of World War II, Hana was stateless (meaning that she was not a citizen of any country) for 17 years, according to Cerrotti. Hana was first forced to leave her home in Czechoslovakia when she was 14 years old. She was chosen to go to a foster farm in Denmark, where she worked in exchange for a safe place to stay.
Hana spent the following 17 years traveling across Europe and eventually to America. Cerrotti decided to create and then follow a “travel itinerary of her [grandmother’s] displacement.” On her journey, Cerrotti met and spoke to the descendents of several people whom Cerrotti said saved her grandmother’s life, including a rabbi, a Swedish fisherman and Hana’s foster mother from one of the farms.
In 2015, after a year spent following her grandmother’s journey, Cerrotti returned to the United States, where she started to see parallels between recent refugee crises around the world and her own research about her grandmother’s displacement. “I started to notice that a lot of the headlines in the newspapers were looking eerily similar to the headlines that I was studying,” Cerrotti said.
Next, Lindahl described the shame she had felt from a young age, the anger she saw in her mother and the secrecy she saw in her father, all stemming from a family secret. “My otherwise very gentle and loving American father banned me from asking any questions about what my grandfather had done [during WWII],” Lindahl said. “I actually asked my father, I was 22 years old, ‘Was he … one of the perpetrators?’ My father said, ‘You are forbidden from ever looking into that history.’”
In April 2012, Lindahl visited Berlin to search the Bundesarchiv (the German archives) to uncover the family secret that had “asphyxiated [the] relationships” in her family. Between 2010 and 2015, Lindahl received information from the German archives that told her that her grandparents had been in the Nazi party.
Lindahl read a passage from her latest book, “The Pendulum,” in which she recalled hearing her grandmother deny the existence of the Holocaust. “She raised her head slightly and shook her finger. ‘But the Holocaust, I can assure you, did not happen,’” she read.
Lindahl learned in the course of her research that her grandfather “was responsible for slave labor, for daily torture of people, and was complicit in deportation and murder.” She added, “There is evidence that he was actually involved in the invasion of Poland.”
In searching for the truth in her own family, Lindahl came to a realization about her grandparents: “What drew them to be Hitler’s ardent supporters and implementers of his racial war was a macabre sort of marriage between greed and tribalism in which the first thing to be sacrificed was any idea of truth,” she said. “Once we become unmoored from any idea of truth, our inner freedom dies, and very soon our outer freedom dies.”
Although Lindahl said she found this information troubling, she emphasized the importance of uncovering history: “As difficult as it may be, it is necessary to search for the truth.”
Just one year after Cerrotti’s return to the U.S., Cerrotti’s husband, Sergio, heard an interview with Lindahl on NPR and immediately told Cerrotti about her. Cerrotti then emailed Lindahl about collaborating and awaited her response.
“I knew we were living in breaking times, and so I responded to Rachel,” Lindahl said. “And then I didn’t hear from her for a while.”
That was because just two hours after Cerrotti sent her email, her husband collapsed on the ground. At age 28, Sergio had died of an undiagnosed heart condition.
His death changed how Cerrotti viewed her grandmother’s life story. “For seven years at that point I’d been following my grandmother’s physical journey. … After seeing death myself and going through this trauma, all of a sudden it was her emotional journey that … I started following. I started reading her diaries again, and I would pick up different lines from it, because she had so much grief, and she had so much trauma, and it was not something I could have touched before.”
A few months later, Cerrotti flew to Lindahl’s home in Stockholm to finally meet her in person. Cerrotti emphasized how much it meant to her when Sergio told her about hearing Lindahl on the radio. “One of the last gifts I received from [Sergio] was introducing me to Julie,” Cerrotti said.
Lindahl said that her opportunity to exchange stories with Cerrotti was valuable. “There is great power, actually, in seeking connectedness with people whose stories are quite different to your own, and not being afraid to see what happens when those two narratives touch,” Lindahl said. “I think it’s something that’s missing from our society at the moment.”
The event closed with insights from Dr. Anna Ornstein, a psychiatry professor at Brandeis and survivor of Auschwitz. Sharing our stories, Ornstein said, is crucial to help us learn from our mistakes, and the mistakes of others. “You are creating a new narrative in the hope that people will indeed not repeat the past, and that’s all we have at the moment — the hope.”