Here I am: the triumph of survival
On a sunny morning in Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter, Juliet Rieden stumbles across a cluster of names on a wall. All share her own unusual surname.
The list is inscribed on a memorial to Czechs murdered in the Holocaust: Emil Rieden, Berta Rieden, Felix Rieden, Otto Rieden.
She stares, confused. Who are these people?
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Growing up, Rieden had long believed her family tree to be bare – no twigs, no branches, leafless.
Both her parents were only children. Her father Hanus, born in Prague in 1930, was the son of a decorated Jewish former soldier and doctor, Rudolf, and his wife, Helena. He had escaped on a charity flight to England in March 1939, age eight, just days before Hitler’s troops marched into the city.
She had only a few clues to the past: a sepia photo of a solemn Hanus boarding a KLM flight holding a little cloth knapsack; the presence of a mysterious network of elderly Eastern European family friends, a shadowy grandmother locked away behind the Iron Curtain who emerges just once, in a brief visit to London in 1965, like something out of a Brothers Grimm fairytale bearing gifts of woollen jumpers and scary handcrafted string puppets.
The young Rieden is only dimly aware that a few distant relatives had died in the Holocaust. They are phantoms: no detail, no identities.
But on this sunny day in September 2016, age 52, she comes face-to-face with names and numbers and dates of death.
She does a quick Google search. Emil, she finds, is her great-grandfather, Berta and Felix her great-aunt and great-uncle, siblings of her grandfather, Dr Rudolf Rieden.
All had been murdered, along with scores of other relatives on both sides of her father’s family.
Rieden’s shock reverberates throughout The Writing on The Wall, a powerful, moving memoir of her 18-month search for living kin.
Starting her hunt in Sydney, she trawls through archives in the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, Israel, Germany, the US and Britain and it yields a rich trove of detail. So too does oral testimony: she speaks to filmmakers, archivists, elderly Holocaust survivors. All the way, however, through the pretty holiday towns of Poland and the Czech Republic, at police stations, on rail journeys where she has her own brief brush with anti-Semitism in an ugly encounter with two train guards, she is nagged by doubt. Her father died in 2006, taking his childhood memories to his grave. Would he have been angered by her refusal to let sleeping dogs lie?
She is stalked, too, by a far more troubling question.
Her grandparents had been interned in Theresienstadt. Why did they survive, unlike so many of the 155,000 Jews who passed through?
Rieden finds herself plagued by uneasy questions about complicity, collaboration.
Was her grandfather a member of the infamous Altestenrat, the Jewish council of Elders that ran the camp? This, to me, is a particularly interesting tributary in Rieden’s narrative: her parsing of guilt, the moral ambiguity in all our decisions. The spectrum of collaboration is infinitely nuanced, after all: it finds space for the actively complicit, to those who co-operated with the Nazis out of fear of mass reprisal, to those who chose to save loved ones, or themselves.
Did her grandfather belong to any of these camps?
And if he did, Rieden asks herself, so what? Who knows what any of us would do to save our loved ones, indeed ourselves?
Little matter. There is no choice but to go on, not just for her family but for the last generation of Holocaust survivors, now aged in their 80s and 90s.
There has never been a greater urgency to tell their stories, she knows, to be reminded of how toxic ideologies can consume nations.
Rieden sets out to chart her story with a journalist’s rigour: facts, timelines, archival material. She does it brilliantly. But it is the small, powerful resonant moments within a harrowing arc that bring her story alive: her account of 40,000-strong, banal, boring suburban Oswiecim, or Auschwitz, with its dusty bars and furniture stores; of being on a bus with laughing young German holiday-makers on a trip to Lidice, site of a Nazi massacre; her visceral reaction to the “tainted, grisly feel” of Holocaust tourism generally; the pitfalls of tribalism, how not identifying as Jewish can be a powerful camouflage against hate.
All roads in her story lead to Auschwitz; you feel its inexorable, awful pull.
Before this, Rieden goes to Theresienstadt. Here, she finds an unexpected relief. Her grandfather was no collaborator after all. He had been spared, in one of the many punishing ironies of her family’s fate, because of his former military service to the Austrian empire.
There is no such silver lining at Auschwitz-II Birkenau. As Rieden wanders around this enormous death camp, set, like Theresienstadt, in incongruously pretty, pastoral countryside, she despairs. Even stripped to its bones, there is a sense of malignancy. Can places harbour vestigial evil?
She wears white to symbolise hope. A tiny figure beckons: Vera, age three, the youngest relative Rieden had found in her search, deported to Auschwitz-II Birkenau on December 18, 1943 along with her mother, Iliska.
Did little Vera, like Hanus, slip through a crack into freedom?
But there is no fairytale ending.
Here, in the camp’s Book of Names, she finds her answers. There is no one left. Vera was gassed in her mother’s arms in Auschwitz probably a few months before liberation. Swallowed up in the maw of history, they live on only in the writing on various walls, in these pages of the Nazi dead, in tombs and memorials.
For months, Rieden is a husk of shock and grief.
Then comes rage: not just at Nazi evil, or the rise of Neo-Nazism across Eastern Europe today – proof if any were needed that we are condemned to repeat the past – but at the way the supposedly civilised West treats people fleeing brutality across the world, from Yemen to Myanmar to Sri Lanka.
To her, it mirrors the same callous disregard with which her own homeland, the UK, treated Jews fleeing Hitler in the 1940s. Above all, there is rage for her father, for the many injustices visited on this gentle man and his family.
Eventually the tempest ebbs.
She finds distant relatives by marriage living in Israel. They may not share her DNA but they share her story and legacy and welcome her with open arms, a wonderful feeling for “the complaining little girl who longed to have relatives”.
There is another profound triumph, she will realise. Like her father, who wiggled out of Hitler’s grasp and into a new life, Rieden, has lived on to tell his story, against all odds.
Survival is its own triumph.
As she writes, “nearly six million Jews were annihilated in the Holocaust, 78,150 from the Nazi Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – which had been Czechoslovakia before the Nazis invaded. Today there are only around 3900 Jews in the Czech Republic and around 2600 in Slovakia. In many ways it worked. Except here I am.”
Sharon Verghis is a journalist and critic.
Writing on the Wall: How One Boy, My Father, Survived the Holocaust
By Juliet Rieden. Foreword by Magda Szubanski. Macmillan, 288pp, $32.99