Two women recounted how they discovered their family histories and their ancestors’ different experiences of the Holocaust (one was a Schutzstaffel (S.S.) agent and the other a Holocaust survivor) at a lecture on Monday, Oct. 22 in Usdan International Lounge. Julia Lindahl and Rachel Cerotti gave a talk entitled “The Echoes of the Holocaust: Beyond Sides of History,” facilitated by Anna Ornstein, a psychiatry professor and Auschwitz survivor.
Cerrotti’s grandmother, Hana Dubova, was the only one in her family who survived the Holocaust. Cerrotti decided to find the people who helped her grandmother survive. “She [her grandmother] did not tell me a story of war and genocide. She told me a travel story,” said Cerrotti.
Dubova’s story took over a year to tell; she passed away soon after, but Cerrotti was left with letters, diaries and photographs. This caused Cerrotti to want to retrace her grandmother’s journey, to see the characters and places in the stories for herself.
Dubova was born in 1925 in Czechoslovakia. When Hitler took power, her family realized the seriousness of the situation too late. Dubova was one of the chosen Czech Jewish children who would flee to Denmark and would never see her family again.
Upon arrival she was placed in three foster farms; the third becoming her new home. When Dubova was 17, the Nazis were looking for Jews in the area. She was then smuggled to Sweden by a fisherman. Cerrotti found the grandchildren of her grandmother’s foster parents and, just like her grandmother, lived on their farm.
This project took Cerrotti eight years and changed her life in ways she never anticipated. “It is very interesting that I went out kind of in search of this lost history and following this journey that resulted in my grandmother losing everybody, losing her entire family, and yet I came out of it with more family myself,” Cerrotti said. She started writing a book about her journey in 2015.
Lindahl is the granddaughter of an S.S. officer during World War II who, after feeling years of unexplainable guilt, decided to uncover her family’s secret and find the victims of her grandfather’s cruelty. The S.S. were a military branch of the Nazi party originally serving as Hitler’s personal bodyguards but eventually became an organization responsible for duties including intelligence operations and running concentration camps.
Lindahl went to the German Federal Archives, which is where her journey began. There she found pages of her grandfather’s records, and her grandparents’ application to get married as a couple in the S.S.
Her grandfather oversaw farmers in Poland and was known for his brutality. Lindahl traveled to Poland to meet some of them. “To me some of the most important aspects of this journey were the conversations with eyewitnesses and survivors of my grandfather’s brutalities,” she said.
“The greatest surprise of these years of really consciously heading headfirst into darkness where the meetings with so many strangers who put themselves in my way in moments when I felt like I simply could not continue or did not want to continue and who said you really can do this” because “it is necessary to continue to search for the truth,” Lindahl said.
One day, Cerrotti’s husband heard an interview with Lindahl on the radio. Cerrotti reached out to Lindahl, and in a few weeks they started talking. “My reaction was ‘Oh I really do understand her [Cerrotti]’” said Lindahl.
Even though they worked on opposite sides of the story, they both spent a significant portion of their lives on this. “There is great power in…not being afraid to see what happens when those two narratives touch,” Lindahl said.
When the two were done with their stories, Anna Ornstein offered her thoughts. She emphasized how important it is to understand why Cerrotti and Lindahl feel the way they feel.
The event was sponsored by the Center for German and European Studies and Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit organization that develops educational material on injustices focusing on the Holocaust.