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And the sisters don’t want to share how it felt to live with the depressive, deeply traumatized man. All they say is that it took time to get used to each other. “I was so ready to love him, but I wasn’t able to do it,” Helga says about the first few years after the war. Then she changes topics. She tells me how her mother became an active member of the Jewish Socialist League in Vienna and organized summer camps for Jewish children. Helga caught up on her high school graduation in a year and a half, and started studying medicine. When she graduated, she was 23 years old, and one of the very few women in the program. She met my grandfather, who was the only one in his immediate family to survive the Holocaust; he hid in the Vienna apartment of a non-Jewish doctor, who later adopted him. My grandfather later converted the apartment into a doctor’s practice. Today, it is run by my aunt.
My great-aunt Liese studied dance, and became part of the ballet ensemble of the Vienna Volksoper at age 19. Her eyes glow as she tells me about that fun-filled time, during which she played chess and knitted in the cafeteria while she waited to perform, and went out with the dancers after the show. Both sisters found distraction from their past, and disappointment at what they had longed for when they were in Theresienstadt: their father, now fragile and depressed, and Vienna, the beautiful hometown now largely destroyed by the Allied bombardment.
The day in Terezin is exhausting, so we take a break in the cafe of the memorial site. As she unwraps a dry sandwich we purchased there, Liese jokes that she’d never had such good food here before. But then she grows serious: “Truth is, this is a town of murderers.” Helga’s face shows no reaction. She only slightly lifts her shoulders and says, “Those aren’t the same people.” She sounds tired, and weary of that discussion. Perhaps she has had it with herself many times before. But Liese doesn’t give up: “The Czech guards were the most unfriendly ones.”
“Some were, some weren’t,” Helga replies. As usual, she has the last word. As I watch the conversation unfold, it suddenly clicks. Like a film on fast-forward, I see the people they’ve told me about before my eyes. The lady with the oranges, the mother of the school friend, the fashion designer, the enamellist, the head of the camp’s agricultural division The clarity in my imagination is uncanny. After all, Helga and Liese have described them to me with such detail that I often rolled my eyes because there didn’t seem to be an end to the flow of seemingly insignificant details.
But now I understand why those details were so important to them: They believe that they owe their lives to the people who helped and protected them, who showed them that it was worth it to keep on living. Luck and chance played their part in determining the sisters’ fates, but they know from their own past the power of acting here and now. When many felt powerless in facing the murderous regime of the Nazis, the sisters found people who tore holes into the system, holes that saved their lives. Someone who believes that their own survival happened because of the courage of others has no choice but to help a man in Terezin who asks for spare change.
There is one last question I need to ask my grandmother: How about people like the lady who slapped her in the face because she was Jewish, and those who failed to help or actively participated in the murderous system of the Nazis? “Do you remember more good or bad experiences with other people?” I ask her.
“Look,” says my grandmother, “it depends on what you remember.”
Anna Goldenberg is the Forward’s arts and culture intern. A German version of this article first appeared in Die Zeit’s ZEITmagazin No.51 in December 2013.