JBD

 

Feb 2002 Journal

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'Closure': Returning to Prague as a stranger

You know what it feels like. The place you once called home no longer exists. The streets which saw the Nazis and the Communists come and go are changed beyond recognition. Apartment blocks built in the 1950s and scathingly referred to as rabbit hutches keep pace with ambitious edifices of the new democracy. The city is cleaned up, beautiful, but after a few days you sense its coldness. The shops provide little indigenous culture apart from garnet jewellery, glassware and the tourist tat of any Western metropolis. Dwarfed by the buildings, confused by the cobbled, pedestrianised streets, the old world is a strange place.

This was the world we encountered when I recently accompanied my Czech-born mother Gina back to Prague on a journey of rediscovery. My daughter Daliah joined us to make a documentary film of the entire experience.

Memory and memorial

Gina had not seen Prague since she left the city in March 1939. Hours after she waved her mother, Irma, goodbye at the airport, Hitler marched in and mother and daughter were destined never to meet again. Gina had answered an ad in Scotland for a German teacher, which certainly saved her life; no such opportunity could save her mother's.

And so the girl who would never return made the trip back to the Czech Republic to place a memorial plaque for her mother in Terezin, the transit camp from which she was sent to her final destination, Riga. Like the rest of the victims, Irma has no known grave. Her name, like theirs, date of birth and presumed date of death on 15 January 1942, papers the walls of the Pincus Synagogue in Prague, almost illegible in red and blue. Irma Kien appears at the top of the ceiling and you have to squint to spot it. There is no trace of Irma's life apart from that still vivid in her daughter's memory. After so many years she seemed to belong here, alienated from us by the terrible events which overtook her.

Terezin

Irma's plaque will be placed in a special site in the Terezin crematorium dedicated to the memory of Holocaust victims. It was supposed to contain their ashes, which were actually consigned to the river by the retreating Nazis. In Terezin Gina was shown the leather case which had contained the prints and drawings of her artist cousin, Petr Kien. Magically we opened his photo album, which revealed pictures of herself as a child and young girl.

My mother is, of course, not alone in retracing the steps of her traumatised history. Many survivors and refugees like her make such trips with great misgivings and even greater courage, out of some need to come to terms with their own past. Contemporary psychospeak calls it 'closure'. But as we traipsed in search of the familiar, which seemed to have gone into hiding, I had as many misgivings about my mother's return as she had.

On a visit to Varnsdorf, a small town bordering Germany north of Prague where Gina had spent her childhood, we found her parents' house. It proved shockingly dilapidated inside. The luxurious apartment she grew up in now had only rusting iron banisters and tarnished wooden doors. After the war, the Czechs drove out the Sudeten Germans and pillaged their property. This, plus the neglect and impoverishment of the Communist era, told the whole story.

A restoration

But a moment of affirmation came when we visited her father's grave at the nearby town of Liberec. Expecting to navigate through broken, mildewed gravestones and high grass, we found this cemetery had been tenderly restored since 1992 by a Jewish community sensitive to its symbolism. Here beautifully preserved stone obelisks record the dates of those who died, all before l939, mercifully freed from bitter knowledge of the Nazis, the destruction of their communities and a cruel, anonymous death. As we had done for Irma in the old Prague graveyard, Daliah and I recited Kaddish for Edmund Kien, who died in 1928 and whose farewell to his daughter then aged eight, just across the road from her school, remains one of Gina's most painful memories.

As for Prague, its synagogues, like those of Budapest, are mainly museums dedicated by Hitler to dead communities. Israeli tourists, as everywhere, roam its streets, marvel at the old square, and gather at the Charles V Bridge. Here a statue of Christ is covered with the gold-leaf Hebrew inscription 'Kadosh, Kadosh, Kadosh', paid for by a seventeenth-century local Jew convicted of blasphemy. Suddenly it seemed as though it had happened yesterday.
Gloria Tessler

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