“I WILL never know my mother’s favorite color, my father’s favorite dish, or what kind of music my parents liked. I will never know how they relaxed in the evenings or whether they went to the theater. Did they enjoy reading? What were their political beliefs? Did they adore the ballet as I do? Did they enjoy sports as I do? Did they love art and have a talent for it, as I seem to?”
In her recent book, A Candle in the Heart, Judith Alter Kallman voices these questions that would trouble any children who lost their parents at an early age. Kallman’s loss was not uncommon during her childhood in wartime Slovakia and later in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Her parents and two siblings were among the six million Jews killed in Europe, including hundreds of thousands of young children. Kallman, however, lived to tell her story. The Slovak Spectator spoke to her via e-mail about her book and the message it carries.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): Why was it important for you to write down your story and have it published?
Judith Alter Kallman (JK): As a child survivor of the Holocaust, I wanted my children and descendants to know what happened to our family in Europe so that they could understand where they come from and why it is so important for them to carry on the legacy of remembrance of the Holocaust – as well as appreciating the joys of freedom and building wonderful, meaningful lives for themselves and their children. But this book is not just for my family.
I published the book because I am a young survivor who went through hell as a child, grew up and realized that the lessons of the Holocaust have still not been properly absorbed by humankind. We know this, because since those terrible, hate-filled and murderous days, there have been other genocides, and world governments did very little or nothing to stop them.
The only way we can make people care about others is to tell our own stories in a personal way, hoping to touch a heart and a soul and convince them to act – to speak out against injustice, to vote, to do something, somehow that makes the world a better place and stops the hatred we all have for the strangers or different people in our midst. That is why I think my book is so important. It touches young and old and makes them think about their role in the world.
TSS: You were born in Slovakia, but lived in several countries during your life. Which of those countries do you call home?
JK: I was born in Czechoslovakia, which became Slovakia. Piešťany is the home of my childhood, packed with memories good and bad. It is where my roots were established, but it is also the place that rejected me as a child, ripping me from my parents and siblings, and setting me on a long, arduous journey that shaped my heart and soul. I escaped to Hungary, but the war chased me there in 1944. I am worried that Hungary has forgotten what happened during the war, and I see things happening there that are dangerous, not just for Jews, but for everyone.
Today my home is in the United States, a country that has been kind to me and allowed me the freedom to realise the American Dream. Israel is very close to my heart, offering a safe haven for the Jewish people, who it seems are still hated in many places. This is unfortunate, because my people have brought many great advances in medicine, science, technology, literature and philosophy into the world.
TSS: Have you visited Slovakia since you left Nové Mesto nad Váhom after the war? What are your feelings about travelling to the country and the town where you were born?
JK: Yes, I have. I went back to Piešťany to see where I lived, to see the places I envisioned in my memory in an attempt to make it real. I felt I was coming home to my birthplace, and the memories affected me deeply because I appreciated the happy memories and life that was taken away from me. You can read about my life there in my book, and you will understand the depths of my feelings. I am happy that the new Slovakia is so very different from the old, and is giving me the opportunity to tell the Slovakian people my story.
TSS: The Slovak public is divided in its perception of the wartime Slovak state. Some far-right groups but also several ‘mainstream’ important public figures glorify it, overlooking the fact that its government sent many people to their deaths. But most people simply lack the knowledge about what exactly was happening here during the war – you don’t learn many details at school. What do you think about that?
JK: I hope that my book, which has been vetted by top Holocaust historians before publication, will be read in Slovakian schools, so that students can learn the truth about their country’s past. If they do not learn the important lessons of the Holocaust – which is really not about the Jewish people, but the way governments and people interact to eliminate people they don’t like, history will repeat itself with a new group of “others” that will suffer as political scapegoats.
Politics is personal; when we cast a vote, when we speak out in the face of injustice, when we defend those who are defenceless, we apply the lessons. If we fall into the trap of hatred, the world is doomed. I hope that my book will teach these lessons, in a gentle way, to the children of Slovakia, who will reach out to build bridges to their fellow citizens and people everywhere.
8. Oct 2012 at 0:00 | Michaela Terenzani