On a holiday in Prague – my late father’s home town – I made an unexpected discovery, finding the names of relatives I never knew existed written on the wall of a memorial for murdered Holocaust victims in the Pinkas Synagogue. It totally flawed me. Who were these people and why hadn’t I heard about them before?
As a child I had always longed for relatives and here I had found some but they had been murdered. I always had a niggling feeling there was something in my dad’s family history that didn’t add up. I knew he had fled Prague at the age of eight, a little boy arriving in England all alone, which was an extraordinary story in itself. I knew that his mum and dad had been sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp which miraculously they survived.
As I got older, I questioned how that could happen, how were they not killed along with the six million other Jews slaughtered in the Holocaust and the answers I was given were never wholly satisfactory. So, I started to assume that there was a dark secret, that probably they had collaborated to save their skin. Perhaps they were members of the “Judenraat”, the group of Jewish elders in the camp who had the horrible task of choosing those sent on the transports “East”. I thought this was why no one talked about it.
As it turned out I was right, there were secrets but they were darker than I could ever have imagined. I found two huge families …and then I found out what had happened to them all. It was a massacre. At first, I wondered if my dad knew, then as my research kicked in I discovered yes he knew, and he locked the pain away in his head. I spent hundreds of hours piecing together the research and was given access to archives all over the world. I journeyed to Eastern Europe to the memorials at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt and to the UK and what I discovered was deeply shocking.
I also explored my father’s experiences as a Jewish refugee in England and while his life was saved, it wasn’t without conditions.Dad escaped Prague a week before Hitler marched through the streets. His saviour was a Christian mission called the Barbican Mission to the Jews. He was one of 68 Czech Jewish children airlifted out in the nick of time by the Mission. They were then raised in a children’s home in the south of England. But there was a proviso. In order to be granted a place on the evacuation, these Jewish parents had to agree to their children being converted to Christianity and as I dug into the Mission’s archives, the zeal for that conversion took my breath away.
I won’t reveal any more – it’s all in the book. But despite the traumatic discoveries I made, the pleasure in writing this book has been that it has allowed me to reconnect with the father I loved so dearly and to understand the depth of his courage and selflessness in the face of extreme cruelty.
The Carousel would like to thank Juliet Rieden for sharing her story.
Journalist and author Juliet Rieden has spent the past two years on a heartbreaking journey to uncover a personal Holocaust tragedy. Here she reveals the story behind her book The Writing on the Wall. The Writing on the Wall by Juliet Rieden with a foreword by Magda Szubanski is published by Pan Macmillan. On sale now in all good bookstores and from amazon.com.au.