It was strange hearing my grandma’s voice again after two decades. I had been asked to do a presentation, with my 14 year old daughter, about my grandma’s story for Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance. My grandma was born Henrike Auerbach in 1920 in Vienna. The first thing I needed to do was find the DVD that had been made in 1998, an interviewed testimony for the Steven Spielberg Shoah Foundation. In 1998 I was 26, wrapped up in my own life – career and recent marriage. I don’t remember even listening to it at the time.
23 years later I started volunteering at Holocaust Centre North and was asked if I would like to do transcribing. I said I would but that I’d like to transcribe my grandma’s testimony as the first one, to help me prepare for the presentation. Having had the training and been given a guide to transcription, I began. The responsibility weighed heavy. I was doing this first and foremost so that my children, mum, uncle and cousins could all have a physical history to pass down through the generations. I was doing this so that Holocaust Centre North would have an accurate transcription for their archive, my grandma being a refugee who settled in the North of England, in Leeds. It was also a test run for any other transcription I would be asked to do.
Hearing my grandma’s voice, hearing her talking about her life in Vienna, her happy childhood and family, was like a portal to the past. I was 29 when she died. During the years she was alive we never had that conversation, she never talked about her life before Leeds. It had been instilled in us that grandma never spoke German, and that it was frowned upon to buy any German products. Our only glimpse of her past was the slight accent she carried.
I knew she had travelled from Vienna by train at nearly 18 years old, to live with relatives in Leeds. I also knew that she never saw her parents again. Hearing her talk about the day the Nazis marched into Vienna, how her life changed from that day, being told by the teachers that she couldn’t go back to school as she was Jewish, made history personal. Hearing her describe that journey on the train, the fear when the Nazis boarded at the German border, brought to light the horrors of what was, and what could have been.
It was an emotional listen. There was so much I didn’t know. She describes how she could never bring herself to go back to Vienna. When she eventually did, she walked to her old apartment building and into the gates of her Primary school and then she broke down. This was difficult to hear. She had kept everything inside her, away from us all, until that moment. At the end of the interview she is asked if she has a message for her family. She replied, her voice breaking, “Yes, to stay together, because if it wasn’t for my family holding together I wouldn’t be here today”.
I knew then how I was going to turn our grandma’s history into a story that would be relevant for the audience as well as for my family. The legacy of her parents’ brave decision was that their child, had 2 children, 4 grandchildren and 9 great-grandchildren. One of those grandchildren and one of those great-grandchildren were, all those years later stood on that stage, telling her story and reminding the audience about the importance of family.
Elissa Winston – April 2023