When I Met the Family Who Rescued My Mother

It was my own Schindler’s List moment — no one who has seen the movie can forget the final scene where those saved by Schindler and their descendants walk past his grave, pause and gently lay a stone.  My Schindler’s List moment happened a few days ago in Bratislava as members of the family who saved my mother and grandmother received a Righteous Among the Nations award from the Embassy of the State of Israel in the Slovak Republic.

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on the 27th January, the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, nine Slovak families are being honored for rescuing Jews during the Holocaust. The room is full of the descendants of these rescued Jews, but instead of stones on a grave, there are warm embraces and pensive stares of wonder.

Each family has its own story, but within each intimate retelling, there is the epic novel of the Jewish people.

My story started with an email in March, 2014.

My name is Pavol Krásny. I read your story on the site. http://www.furststory.com/English/YaldutBlum.html.  Very impressed me. My mother told me a story about a Jewish family that hid during the war in our house. (Scherer street 39 in Piestany). It was Mr. Arpad Weis and two women. One lady died during the war. They were very harsh times. On the street marching German soldiers. Hiding in the house of a Jewish family was very dangerous. After the war, our friends went to Australia.

 Well, there are those times behind us. We believe that the suffering we will not have to experience.  

I am glad that I managed to get your contact.  I wish you good luck in life.

Pavol Krásny

 P.S. Sorry for my English

My grandmother was one of those women, and her twin sister was the ‘lady died during the war.’   The email was sent to Naftali Furst, my grandmother’s nephew, the author of the website mentioned and whose life was documented in the film Kinderblock 66.

Clearing out his elderly mother’s home, Pavol  found a photo of a young girl he did not recognise. He attached the photo to his email, explaining that his mother told him about the family that her parents hid and that she remembered the little girl. That girl was Eva, my mother. Born in 1937, she had already been separated from her mother and hidden in several places before she was brought to their home in 1944.

Shortly after that email,  Naftali and I met in Bratislava and travelled to Piestany to meet Pavol and Emilia, his 92 year old mother, the keeper of our memory. Many tears were shed that afternoon at Scherer Street as Emilia recalled our family: Janka Blum, the matriarch and her four children – Margit [Naftali’s mother] Lily [my grandmother] and her twin sister, Anna who was married to Arpad Weis, and a brother Michi.  And after the tears, came the secret hiding spot, a small underground cellar accessible via a trap door, through which Emilia or her parents provided food.

Determined to ensure that Emilia’s parents, Peter and Anna Brezovsky would be recognised by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations, Naftali started to collate the requisite proof.  The basic conditions for granting the title include saving a Jew from the threat of death or deportation to the death camps, risking one’s own life to do so without reward and personal testimony or documentation confirming evidence of their actions.

The Brezovsky family met all the criteria, and now, nearly five years later, we are in Bratislava again.  The nine family groups are seated in clusters – the rescued, the rescuers and their respective descendants.  Unfortunately, Emilia has died, but Pavol brings his wife and children. Sadly. my mother has died, but I have come with one of my children. A mini-documentary is shown about each family’s war time experience using old footage, archival materials and where possible, interviews with the ageing rescuers and rescued. Each story involves the basics of survival – food and shelter – offered at great personal risk.  A family representative comes on stage to receive the award, and if there is a living survivor, he or she is invited to the stage to address the audience. I cannot stop thinking that I am alive because a woman made a dangerous choice to hide my mother.  I have proof that I would not have had such daring; I have not taken in a vulnerable refugee who has recently landed on British shores during peacetime.

In 1992, I spent a few days in a facilitated group encounter between the children of Holocaust survivors and the children of Nazis. My over-riding memory is that most of the Jews felt sorry for the Germans, offering comfort and reassurance that they were ‘good’ Germans who bore no responsibility for their parents’ or grandparents’ actions.  Burdened by shame and guilt, it was as if these Germans needed to prove to themselves, and to others, that they had not inherited the corrupted DNA that drove their parents to do unspeakable acts. However, the premise was absurd – I could no more absolve them, than they could take responsibility for their forebears’ actions.

The idea of ‘inherited trauma’ has been used to explain the psychological difficulties experienced by some children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Their very proximity to the suffering and trauma of the older generation is simply unbearable and can express itself as severe anxiety, depression and stress. For me, it’s merely the matter of my worth – for what purpose was I born when so many others could not be? Finding an answer is what keeps me awake when I should be asleep.

Scanning the room of the rescuers’ descendants, I wondered, could they too be harbouring inherited trauma?   Knowing of the bravery, risks and sacrifices made by their parents and grandparents, are the next generation at risk of self-doubt and insecurity? Are they paralysed by fear? Are they prone to existential doubt about their mission in this world?

Could the burden to be good be too heavy to bear?

Or rather, have they inherited the genome of kindness and altruism that will ensure their actions are all ethical and moral, no matter the circumstances.

The ceremony draws to a close and we are invited to the reception area. Family groups cling to each other, but the words diminish with the generations. Those rescuers who are still alive can still converse with those they saved. They share a language – not only of sounds, but also of memories. But the descendants? We are speechless. We smile. We pose for photos that mask the trauma of our respective families.  We create an image that to the untrained eye suggests closure, that lulls the viewer into believing that there’s been a happy ending.

But the photos we create of the present also reveal the absent: those who did not survive, and their children who were not born.

In my family’s story, there is much sadness for these unknown losses, but there is also gratitude. Margit and her husband took their sons, Naftali and Shmuel to Israel and Michi established a family in America. Both now have scores of descendants. Anna died while she was hidden and was buried in Piestany.  Lily’s husband died in the Ilava concentration camp on some unknown date.  Arpad Weis, who was married to Anna, then married Lily and together with Lily’s daughter, my mother, came to Australia in 1949 where they built a life together amongst a community of Holocaust survivors.

Struggling to think of an appropriate gift to bring Poval, I decided that a few photos of my family might be appreciated; a snapshot of Lily and Arpad on a Melbourne beach, a posed photo of my parents’ wedding and a picture from my brother’s bar-mitzvah.  Pavol smiles.

His children look on as I point to a photo of five vibrant young women, each pursing their own passions.  They are, I gesture, the five wonderful grand-daughters of the little girl that Pavol’s grandparents hid in their cellar.

They are the future that no one dared to imagine.

About the Author
Sally Berkovic is the author of Under My Hat, short-listed for the Jewish Quarterly prize, which reflects on raising her daughters while straddling the tensions between Orthodoxy and modernity.
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