Janet Seckel-Cerrotti: addressing a legacy of displacement

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Hana Dubová was a Jewish girl from the town of Kolín living a normal, happy life surrounded by family and friends. She was just 14 when this carefree existence was brought to an abrupt end by the Nazi occupation. Hana was put on a train to Denmark, escaping with her bare life, never to see her friends and family again and unaware of the fact that she would move alone from place to place for eleven long years before she found a new home. Her American daughter Janet and granddaughter Rachael recently visited Europe to trace Hana’s footsteps and reconnect with their roots. Janet visited Radio Prague’s studio to talk about how her mother’s fate affected the lives of three generations.


“I always knew that I didn’t have family the way that other people had family and I always wanted to know more. I imagined a lot of things and although my mother did not speak about it all the time I knew that my mother had a brother and I didn’t have an uncle anymore and I didn’t have grandparents…When I was 14, which was the age at which she had to leave her family, say goodbye to her parents, never to see them again, I thought about it a lot, imagining that this might be my last day and what it would be like if this was the last time you saw your family.”

Did she ever talk to you about that –or did she just keep it to herself because it was too painful?

“She talked more about some of the facts than about her feelings. My mother passed away four years ago. I have her journal, which I had translated, and I am going to have translated some more of her writings – she wrote a lot – which gives me more insight into her feelings than what she shared when she was living. She felt it was important to move on in life, to enjoy her life and her children which she felt was an answer to why she survived. Sometime in my teens I had this idea that I wanted to go back with my mother and see where she lived and what was that life that I’m imagining and be with her here, so in in 1983 when I was in my 20s I had the wonderful opportunity to come with her to Prague and visit Kolín, see where she had lived and where her father had had a store….and then we went to Denmark to see the places where she escaped to.”

How long was she displaced for –eleven years?

“Yes, she left here when she was 14 and stayed in Denmark until she was 17 and then she escaped from Denmark to Sweden, on one of the last fishing boats that went out, when the Nazis came to Denmark. After the war she came back to Czechoslovakia to see what was left. She knew that her parents and brother had died, but she wanted to see who was left and what was left of her former life. She thought she might stay here, but after the communist take-over she left again and eventually made her way to America in 1950.”

What about your daughter Rachael – how is she involved –and in what way is this legacy important for her?

“She is a photojournalist and she always had a close connection with me and with my mother and so she has started a project called Follow My Footprints. She wants to look at the story from that third generation point of view, look at what displacement means and follow in her grandmother’s footsteps – start in Kolín, go to Denmark and travel on the same modes of transportation as her grandmother did–if she went by train, she’ll go by train, if she took a bus, she’ll take a bus - and she wants to work on a farm in Denmark as my mother did, travel to Sweden by boat, interview people, take photographs and do some comparisons, to ask herself what it would have been like to live through this, to better understand displacement. There are many people who are displaced in the world and she wants to look at how displacement changes your life – being on the move, needing to learn new languages. getting used to living in a new place -how does that change your perspective….

And have you gained insight into what displacement means?

“I have by being here as an adult. When I came here with my mother in 1983 I came here as a daughter. I am now the parent of two wonderful young people who are in their 20s and I look at things from the perspective of a parent and that’s a different way of looking at the world. But to your question –one of the things that my mother told my daughter is that every time she left a place she had to burn her bridges and knew she could never go back. You need to find a way to survive and to move on, learn a language and build a new life. And my mother was all alone after Denmark. In Denmark she was with others and under some protection, but after she left Denmark and escaped to Sweden for the next ten years she was by herself –learning new languages, finding jobs, finding a new way of life. And it made her a strong woman. I think this experience can embitter some people, but it can strengthen others.”

She was pulled from her roots, from her environment. She found a new life far away, eventually. But what about you –have you been able to reconnect with your legacy, find your roots?

“Yes, at this point in my life I have gained many wonderful connections and people in my life who make me feel like I am part of a bigger world –whether it is here or in Denmark or in other places. Just on this trip I met a few of my mother’s cousins – the few that survived – and one that has children –so it has been very special.”

Has it changed the way you live your life – the fact that this has touched you? Does it affect the decisions you make or how you live? Does it make you feel more grateful for what you have?

“It makes me feel less alone. I always felt a little bit more lonely inside and finding these connections makes me feel that I do have family that I feel more connected to now than ever before. And I think that I also chose the work that I did based on my mother’s experiences – I am always interested in finding ways to bring people together and helping different faith groups and cultural groups to understand one another. It’s a deep interest of mine, because I do not want so see something like the Holocaust happen again –for myself, my children or other people.”

Do you feel that this is an important message to spread in today’s world? Some people might think that this is no longer a danger.

“It’s a danger. We see it all over the world, happening to different people, and I think it continues to be a danger for people of the Jewish faith. You see people who have no experience with Jews and who have embraced this stereotype. When my mother lived in Czechoslovakia, in Kolín, she never thought of herself as different from anybody else but somebody else decided that she was and just by virtue of the religion that she was born into or that she practiced people made judgments about her and decided that her life was not worth living. That’s very dangerous. I think we need to understand the messages and the psychology behind this – the practice of scapegoating people, whomever they may be – and to better understand each other. There’s a musical that says “you have to be taught to hate and fear” and I think people are taught to hate and fear but I think what we really need to do is to be taught to be critical thinkers and learn to understand rather than to hate.”

Do you think people are listening?

“I don’t know. I hope so. I think some people are listening and so it is our obligation to continue to speak out, for people to tell their stories and to learn how to tell them in a way that will make others listen. For enough good people to try and make a difference in the world –if enough good people do the right thing, then maybe the world will be a little bit different, that’s our hope. “

Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
Added: 22.05.2014

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