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About a year ago, when I was attending Columbia Journalism School, I presented a condensed version of my grandmother’s story at a radio workshop. My classmates wanted to know how my grandmother remained content, and never seemed to get lost in her dark past. I didn’t have an answer. Post-traumatic stress disorders, symptoms of which include feelings of guilt, fear of relationships, insomnia and depression, are common among Holocaust survivors. Some are only faced with trauma and painful memories late in life, as they grow older and the pace of life decreases, which means that they have more time to think. Artist Tosia Reich-Ranicki, who died in 2011, suffered from severe depression and famed author Primo Levi took his life at the age of 67.
Helga and Liese are different. They regularly confront their past when they give talks, but nevertheless appear to be full of joie de vivre. I could never really figure out why. Seventy years after Helga and Liese first embarked on the 250-mile train ride from Vienna to Theresienstadt, I asked them to take the journey again. I wanted to come along.
Finding time proved to be the main hurdle for the trip. When I called Helga last July, she agreed immediately, but asked for dates that wouldn’t clash with her patients’ schedules. She generously offered to skip one of her aerobic lessons to make coordinating with her sister easier. After sending her a Facebook message, my great-aunt called me back the next day. She, too, was up for it without any hesitation, but had to arrange some interviews she was working on, first, and also find someone to look after her husband while she was away for the two-day trip.
A few days later, my cousin Laura asked if she could join us. We’d been on all the rides to and from primary school together, so this seemed to be a natural next step. Helga and Liese seemed elated: another family trip!
On the day before our departure I asked my grandmother if she thought that she was the same person after the war. “No,” was her immediate reply. She felt more grown up than many of her peers, she said. Before she was deported, she was just a kid going through a tough time like many others, too. Until the age of 12, Helga attended school. Then Jewish children were barred. At that point, her father was already separated from his family. Trying to escape to Shanghai, he had travelled to the Italian port Genoa, only to discover that the ticket for the passage was fake. He ended up in the Italian detention camp Urbisaglia near Perugia.
Helga worked to support her sister and mother. For a while, she drew sketches for a fashion designer. One day, the family was informed of a roundup in their cramped, Jewish-only living quarters in Vienna. Helga’s employer hid them for two days. “She gave us food,” Helga said. “When we returned to the apartment, it was empty.”
My grandmother often says that she could have dealt with the hardship had it not involved being treated as a second-class human. One day, walking on the street in Vienna, the yellow star on her coat, a woman approached her, slapped her face, and called her a “Dirty Jew.” Another time, she was on the very same street, when a different woman gave her three oranges, a luxury. “Those stories go together,” she says.