Sometimes, even today, people find a World War 2 bomb buried in a suburban back garden. It has lain dormant beneath the flower beds for decades, only to be discovered by accident. Other less dangerous objects, can also lie forgotten, only to be found years later causing seismic emotional waves.
When researching the book about Alice, I went back to re-reading the letters of condolence that were sent to my mother after my father’s death in 1962. One, in particular, contained information that set off a chain of memories. It was from Hedy, my father’s aunt in America. In it, she wrote as follows:
“You have no idea how happy I was that I had the opportunity of seeing you both in ’57 and above all that I sent the little bracelet, where it rightfully belongs.… It is of intrinsic value, but what a lot of sentiment and love goes with it.”
I had forgotten the bracelet, but the moment I re-read those lines, I knew which bracelet she meant. It had been quite unlike any other jewellery I had as a child – a silver circle with Gothic writing. I knew I had had it, but I hadn’t seen it for years. I had known it was important and linked to my father’s family, but I had no other details. I was certain I wouldn’t have given it away, but where was it?
When I read on in the letter, its significance became startlingly clear, Hedy continued:
“I do not know if I told you at the time, that when Erwin’s mother came to America in 1892, my parents gave her that bracelet as a good luck charm, as you know the inscription says “God Protect You”. Then when the family returned to Europe, my sister gave it to me to always remember her, and how happy she would be in the thought that now Erwin’s little beloved child has it..”
I wanted to find that bracelet, to hold in my hands something that had belonged to my grand-mother, the woman who had been so cruelly murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz more than a decade before I was born. I don’t know if I had been told the story before or if in all the grief of my father’s death, the details had been forgotten, but now I not only knew and understood, I had been to Cadca, Ernestine’s home town, had stood in the empty field that had once held the graves of her ancestors, had walked round the long street of Horny Val in Žilina where she and Leopold had lived and worked. And I had visited Auschwitz, stood in the same gas chamber, the only one to survive, the earliest to have been built. That bracelet was no longer a vague connection with family long dead, it was the only object I could ever touch that had belonged to my grand-mother. Where was it?
Months later, when searching for something else, I came across a little leather jewellery box that I had been given as a child. I opened it and there was the bracelet, just as I had remembered it. It was tarnished, but otherwise intact. I put it on my wrist and looked at it. What a journey this little band of silver had made and what terrible loss and grief it represented.
As a girl of 16, Ernestine had left her small town in the Slovak countryside and accompanied her brother Philip half way across the world to New York. Her mother’s gift of the bracelet was a reminder of home and of her family’s love. The parents would travel later with the other siblings, including Hedwig, who would eventually pass the bracelet on to me. She was sixteen years younger than Ernestine, born in the year that Ernestine had left home.
In September 1900 Ernestine married Leopold Kohn, who came from Žilina, a little town not far from hers in Slovakia. Their first and only child, Erwin, was born in July 1901 and in 1910, the family decided to return home to Slovakia. Unlike most emigres, they never fully settled in America and returned to Leopold’s home-town where he still had many relatives. This was when Ernestine gave Hedwig, now eighteen years old, the silver bracelet.
For thirty years Ernestine and Leopold lived in Žilina. Erwin went to the local school and then on to university in Prague and Vienna, returning after his marriage to Alice to work there as a doctor. In 1939, after the Munich Agreement, it became clear that Jews were no longer safe in Slovakia. Despite heartfelt pleas to accompany him and Alice to America, Ernestine and Leopold insisted on staying in their ‘home’. In 1942, along with most of the Jews from Žilina and elsewhere in Slovakia, they were deported to Auschwitz.
Each Jew was allowed a case with 50 kilos of luggage, but on arrival everything was taken from them. Leopold survived a few months in Auschwitz, but Ernestine was sent directly to the gas chamber. Her only possession to survive was the silver bracelet she had given to her sister. This Holocaust Memorial Day, I can place the bracelet on my wrist and remember the young woman who sailed across the ocean to a New World and returned again to the old world that had been, and would always be, her home. I know little of her character -she was a dressmaker, and from Alice’s memoir, I also know that she was rather too forthright in her views for the conventional citizens of Žilina. I like that detail.
I have her photograph as a young woman and can see my younger self in her. My life is so different from hers, but I have inherited not only her features, but her love of home. It breaks my heart to try and imagine how she suffered and I wish I believed that she could see that she did have a grand-child and one for whom it has been possible to have a safe and happy life.
The Nazis may have destroyed a world and a culture, they may have murdered millions, but shards of love and connectedness have survived. This circle of silver is a symbol of that connection and survival. Those who were murdered are not forgotten, they remain a presence in our lives, in our memories, in our sense of who we are and who we might have been.