My mother died in 1987 when I was 14. She wrote me this letter. I got it a few months ago.
* * *
R. had traveled in blood. She made her first journey in the second year after her birth. It took her by train from Prague to Terezín.
Journeys can have different purposes. One can go on a holiday, a business trip, to family or friends. If you go on holiday it is an adventure with an unknown goal. But only the first time. The next trip is less exciting and finally it just a welcome change for which one has to make some preparations. A secretary could go on a business trip. Travelling to visit family can be fun, even though there is some tension. To a friend one travels with great expectations that will never be met. But what about journeys where at the end death awaits? What if you return from that journey because you didn’t reach the destination?
There is such a journey to death and, if a person is lucky, a return to life. Our R. made this journey. Not that she wanted to. She began on her first journey when she was only two years old. Who can expect from a two year old that she decides by herself to pack up and leave? She didn’t remember being asked.
Because she was at the age where memories remain like fragments of a short movie, which has no ending or beginning, such an important journey remained lost to her. There was only Terezín where she knew she had lived in a ghetto, in a Kinderheim. From there, only traces of memories remained.
A different journey and what happened before it, was remembered with more clarity. There was much excitement, both among children and adults. It was the first time she heard it was war. Or actually, the end of the war: Liberation. She went through many hands, everybody looked at her. She was most impressed by the people in white coats who examined her. She once considered this of utmost importance. Then there was the lorry where they put her with some other children and the persons who were called mami’s. They were mostly cheerful.
R. sat frowning and distraught in the truck, while the roof cover fluttered in the wind. A mami hugged her and told her she should also laugh. R. didn’t understand why her mami and her best friend Dasha weren’t in the truck. The gate of Terezín disappeared and R. was sad.
The lorry stopped in front of the garden fence and in the middle of the garden was a white house. It wasn’t called Kinderheim anymore but “children’s house”. To R. it was the white castle with the soft bed. In the large, spacious dining hall was a very high table and then there was that garden with a porch. Mami’s were no longer mami’s but aunties who worried a lot about accommodations for the house. They promised the little ones, like R., that they would order tables and chairs for them. For the porch, they would even order them in red and blue colors.
In the dining hall there were two photographs. One was of the president (Beneš) and on the other stood the liberator General Stalin. R. looked with pride at her liberator, who had sent so many soldiers that she may live in such a beautiful castle.
Now just that garden. Only together with the other girls, hand in hand, did she dare enter it. Carefully they walked away from the villa. R. started to feel more at ease and even stood in the middle of the garden without holding any hands. Then she looked around to see how far she had come. The tension had left her and relieved she looked back at the house.
There she saw a truck with a soldier who held a big pot in his hand. At first R. couldn’t move. When that passed a flash went through her body, from her feet to her mouth which screamed. Only after a while she noticed the caring hands and the comforting voices which told her the pan was for soup. And that the soldier was a good one, who would not take the children away in the truck.
Forty years liberation. Forty years peace in Europe on both sides, west and east. A tense peace, but peace nevertheless. The holiday we have to celebrate, the round number which is suitable for memories, a history for an essay. Meanwhile at least two generations grew up who did not experience the war and who are ready to listen to stories about what happened. There were times I also was keen to listen. Today my youngest son writes me and asks me what I went through, how I defended myself against the Germans. He knows the stories from his father about the resistance, the fake documents, the hiding places, the refugees. He’s going to be 12 and is proud he is among the ones who know most about the second world war. It is possible he is the only one who knows so much. His father tells him about it, even goes to schools to teach other children.
Now the mother has to do her part. She was in Terezín, a place where some things also happened. The place of death. Thousands did not survive their stay, but I did. What did I do that I am still here?
He wants to be proud of me, like he is proud of his father. I took him to visit Terezín. The teacher and his father were outraged. The boy supposedly is too young for such a confrontation. They say it was irresponsible. The boy was 10.
The small fortress has become a museum, nicely arranged, a monument for the dead. The small fortress was for political prisoners, but I was in the ghetto, in the Kinderheim and that was in the city. All traces from the ghetto have disappeared from the city. I recognized nothing, only the blocks.
I am an orphan. My father, who is not my father, called himself an orphan. My mother, who was not my mother, was also an orphan. Terezín was my cradle and fear my milk. How I survived I don’t remember. Those who know, remember but don’t speak. I am an orphan and I don’t remember my family. I only know I looked for my mami among the people who lay on the floor with their mouths open. I remembered that my mami also slept once like that. That’s memory number one. I can count my memories on the fingers of one hand. They have no beginning or end.
I survived Terezín, that’s all I know. Once there were lots of children there. Then I was again among adults. They felt sorry for me that I had nobody to play with. But when I wanted to return to the children, they told me they were all dead. That’s memory number two.
Then there was that gentleman with a chef’s hat and a potato on a fork. That’s the third.
The dirty room full of screaming people, myself included, with lice on the floor and one woman in the middle with a white blanket where there was light and no lice. I wanted to go there, which I managed to do by crying for a long time and I slept as if in heaven. That’s four.
A walk on the walls of the fortress, the late return and the fear of our mami’s that the Germans would find out. The kind hearted cook who allowed us to crawl back in through the window. The German songs she taught us, which we sang for her birthday. My pride that it was me who dared to sing. That’s my fifth memory.
Five memories from the third year of my stay at Terezín. Which was not a place to stay. It was deportation, a war. More I don’t remember, the rest has faded. Sure, in the beginning there was more. The Kinderheim had a number, the mami’s had a name, like the children who were murdered. What remained is the journey, a labyrinth which I became after the liberation. My dreams which I need in order not to become totally lost.
Close to the end of the war typhoid broke out in Terezín. After the liberation the first worry of the Red Army was to get the children who weren’t sick away from the camp. And this is how I found myself in that truck under that cover which fluttered in the wind on my way to the new children’s home. Rutinka sat next to mami who was trying to put on a headscarf. It was getting dark. She put her arm around her and yelled, “Don’t be sad child, be glad. We are leaving, we are free. We are never going back Terezín.” Rutinka tried her best to be happy. She tried more than her best, she tried so hard she had to cry. Her friend Dasha stayed behind with her mami.
Rutinka also had a mami, mami Eliska but she left without her to Prague. The truck took her away from the people she loved most. Already they were nowhere to be seen. But she went to a new children’s home, where she was so busy she forgot the time. There was so much to admire. The white villa in the middle of the garden, the quiet beds, the large dining room and the pictures on the wall of the president and Marshall Stalin. How her liberators brightened her mood! Every day she went to the dining room and could not stop telling everyone how Marshall Stalin had given his soldiers orders to liberate her.
The table in the dining hall was large and high. Rutinka tried to sit close to the adults. Mami’s were no longer mami’s, but aunties who wore the uniform of male nurses. She listened to their conversations which pleased her a great deal, because they were all about how to improve the children’s home and make it a pleasant place for the children.
It was a perfect happiness when they discovered the table was too high for her and small chairs and tables had to be ordered for the children. But not just for the dining hall. Also for the porch and they had to be in colors, red and blue. Like a flag, only white was missing. But that’s why the beds were so white. They looked magnificent, only sleeping in them was not so easy.
One day an elegant woman and a man in uniform stood among the children. They smiled as they handed out toys. Finally they turned around to look at her and asked her if she would like them to be her parents. Ruth looked at the uniform in awe and she was assigned to them as their foster daughter.
They gave her a little bag of bonbons and the promise that they would soon come for her. They put the bonbons on her bedside table, with her whole body she experienced the sweetness, the happiness that they were for her. This is why she was so angry when one of the aunties started handing out the bonbons to the other children. These were her bonbons, she resisted with all her power but the auntie did not relent. Yes, these were her bonbons but she had to share them with the other children. When Ruth had calmed down she knew the auntie was right. But the sense of injustice did not leave her. And so it came to pass that when auntie handed out her bonbons every night, she could not omit reminding everyone what their origin was.
Waiting for her parents who would take her home seemed to last an eternity. She imagined they would have an enormous bag of bonbons with them. Every day and just for her. Nobody would force her to share her bonbons with anyone else. This idea reconciled her with losing all that sweet bliss. Eventually she even looked forward to sharing her bonbons with the other children so that they could enjoy them together.
The stay at the children’s home was short. From May to Juli, the best part of the year. Rutka does not remember that it rained during that time. In her memory of these days it was always sunny and the garden was always green.
The siege or the food did not interest her. Only when she got her first real meal in Terezín, as the others assured her it was. For breakfast there was white corn coffee and yellow curls on a flat pot. Butter, the other children explained. There was rice and something very exciting: Yellow pudding which vibrated on the rhythm of the cannons that slowly ebbed away in the distance. Nothing would ever taste like that again, because nothing shook like that.
Last night at the children’s home. Auntie Olga announced there would be a celebration. Tomorrow Rutinka would go to her parents. It was a great happiness for Rutinka that she would get parents. May God give the other children also a home. But this evening belongs to Rutinka, because it is her last one with us. We will give her the most beautiful clothes we have here, so that her mother will love her. Ruth was proud that such an evening was staged for her. She was happy she didn’t have to wait anymore. But she didn’t want to say goodbye to everybody. She asked her most beloved auntie and friends if they could wait with saying goodbye until the morning. She pictured the next day in her imagination. Her father in uniform and an elegant mother who would reach their hands out to her. How she would beam of happiness. But first the party. She imagined how she would visit her friends, tell stories about her parents and see how the children’s house was being furnished.
* * *
Now she sat in the train and for the first time felt there would be no next time. She was tired, she had difficulty breathing. Her heart beat irregularly. Soon as I get home, I’ll go to the hospital. But first I have to unpack, bring some things to the dry cleaner, check the mail, and most of all calculate how much this trip had cost me. She had been there for three weeks, but started to feel unwell. The tiredness did not leave her. She felt a heaviness in her legs, she felt she was getting older. Helena never stopped reminding her that she should take care of herself, eat well and not worry about Kytka. If you live wisely, you can live to a hundred years. She would like to believe her, tried listening to her but by now knew it was too late. She felt dizzy, went through border control in a haze and didn’t know how she would get home.
When she entered her home the tiredness left her for a moment. She immediately unpacked, put things in their place and got the things ready for the dry cleaner. Then she called her neighbor to tell her she had returned and didn’t feel well. With a final effort she managed to open the door for her neighbor, whom she no longer perceived.
She felt herself in a different room without walls or sounds. I am dead, flashed through her mind. But she knew it wasn’t the same. Curiously she looked around. Who will wait for me, who shall I see first, who will greet me? Karel, her brother, who died two years ago or Zdenek. My dear husband, not Zoezka. Certainly it will be Zoezka my only child. It has to be her, she must know how I missed her all summer. How would she look? Would Hansi be with her? They say they went together into the gas. Certainly he would be with her.
She could see how the room filled up with figures. She couldn’t distinguish faces. All the time she remembered new names. Maybe I’ll see mama, or just the ones killed by the gas. Will I see only those I want to see, or will they come alone? If Hansi comes, then certainly his sister Renata will come and her parents. If Karel comes, he’ll bring his son Jiri and his older brother Victor. We will be complete again. What did Zoezka say about Kytka. What if mamma comes and asks. She wanted to stretch out her hands, to hug her, but suddenly she wasn’t so sure anymore if she wanted to connect. The sweet feeling that everything is possible had left her. She had lost sight of Zoezka.
The figures started to fade, receding into the background until they disappeared. She knew her time had not yet come. A nurse bent over her, held her hand and comforted her with a smile.
“Relax, the worst is behind you.”
“What happened, nurse where am I?”
“You were in surgery, dear, you just went through a major operation. Your heart wanted to call it quits. We gave you a stimulator and now you must sleep.”
Ruth Sirotkova 1940-1987