BOSTON — For more than a decade, Rachael Cerrotti hunted for details of her grandmother’s rescue from the Holocaust. Now, a podcast based on Cerrotti’s work is being released by USC Shoah Foundation, marking the first time a survivor’s testimony is the focus of a narrative podcast.
Born in Prague, Hana Dubova escaped the Nazi onslaught by virtue of belonging to a Zionist youth group. Dubova left her homeland for Denmark at age 14 on a rescue mission for Czech Jewish youth without their parents. Soon afterwards, her loved ones were incarcerated in the Terezin ghetto outside Prague.
As Dubova made her way through Denmark and later Sweden, her family suffered in the ghetto. Eventually, they were “resettled” in the east, a German euphemism for extermination. The remote death camp Sobibor was the train’s destination, and all of Dubova’s relatives were likely murdered upon arrival.
Cerrotti’s podcast about her grandmother spans seven episodes with roughly four hours of content. The series, released September 29, is called “We Share the Same Sky,” and will conclude in November with the release of curricula materials created by “Echoes & Reflections,” a Holocaust education program.
In an interview with The Times of Israel, Cerrotti spoke about the “restorative” nature of her podcast. Specifically, her grandmother’s wartime recollections were mostly about the people who helped her survive. Additionally, a sense of gratitude ran through Dubova’s life, said Cerrotti, as opposed to anger.
Traveling across Europe on numerous research trips, Cerrotti visited the places and people tied to her grandmother’s flight from Hitler. For example, she located and interviewed the son of a Danish fisherman who brought Dubova’s refugee boat to Swedish shores after being lost on the Baltic Sea.
While researching her grandmother’s life, Cerrotti experienced the sudden loss of her husband in 2016. In that sense, she found herself in her grandmother’s footsteps not only literally, but also as someone coping with loss. The young widow found direction in her grandmother’s story as she was forced to pick up the pieces of her own life and find meaning within them.
“My grandmother’s story helps me understand my own coming of age story,” said Cerrotti of Dubova, who died in 2010. “What I learned of her life was like a guidebook to deal with life and love and loss.”
‘I’ve leaned into it’
Five years ago, Cerrotti moved to Europe to retrace her grandmother’s wartime journey. Although she started the trip “with the perspective of a photojournalist,” Cerrotti’s experiences would immerse her in many forms of storytelling.
As the refugee crisis hit Europe, Cerrotti saw headlines about migrant ships being turned back, corpses washing ashore, and immigrants being demonized. For the first time in her years as a student and teacher of the Holocaust, Cerrotti saw the past converge with current events, she said.
Although her grandmother’s USC Shoah Foundation testimony is the heart of the podcast, Cerrotti said her experiences in Europe are in the foreground.
“I try to tell my grandmother’s story while discussing what it means for today,” said the journalist and educator.
For example, Cerrotti found the house in Sweden where her grandmother stayed during her first night as a refugee in 1943. Upon entering the building, Cerrotti discovered the structure is once again inhabited by young refugees who fled home without their parents — most came from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.
“Some of the same themes were emerging or reemerging,” said Cerrotti of her travels during the height of the European refugee crisis. “People lost at sea and trying to find rescue. You will hear from one of these people in the podcast,” she said.
Halfway through the podcast, Cerrotti visits the grounds of Sobibor, the Nazi death camp where more than 200,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers. Among those victims were Cerrotti’s relatives, including the immediate family of her grandmother.
According to Cerrotti, she never set out to probe her grandmother’s life in depth. Rather, the project has evolved over time in parallel with her personal life.
“I’ve gone overboard on the family history compared to most people,” said Cerrotti. “But it’s not like I ever said, ‘Let me make my entire adult life in the context of my grandmother’s war story.’”
The podcast’s release date is an important one for Cerrotti. As in 1943, this year’s September 29th falls on the eve of Rosh Hashanah. Seventy-six years ago, that was the night during which Jews around Denmark were “tipped off” about the Nazis’ plans to deport them.
More personally for Cerrotti, however, the podcast’s release date is also the third anniversary of her husband’s death.
‘To spend time with people who aren’t here anymore’
Cerrotti met Sergiusz “Sergio” Scheller in 2009 while studying abroad in Israel at Hebrew University. Scheller was from Poland and when Cerrotti relocated to Europe in 2014 to follow her grandmother’s war story, they began dating.
A native of the Polish city Poznan, Scheller brought “a European perspective” to Cerrotti’s work, she said. Family-oriented and intensely curious, he was also warm and humorous. As the two fell in love, the Catholic Scheller family became like her own family.
Early in their relationship, Scheller brought Cerrotti to Auschwitz-Birkenau. He had been there several times before, but it was Cerrotti’s first visit. She was moved by the way he guided her, she said, and by how he reflected on history.
“He understood what I was doing in a way probably I didn’t understand what I was doing,” said Cerrotti. “He took what happened during the war personally.”
When the couple celebrated their wedding, the party took place on a Danish farm tied to the rescue of Cerrotti’s grandmother. In this and other ways, Cerrotti’s memory project and her relationship became intertwined.
In 2016, Scheller died after a sudden heart attack. In a matter of minutes, Cerrotti’s life was changed forever.
“I did not understand grief until Sergio died,” said Cerrotti. “All of my grandmother’s words changed meaning to me after he died. I was able to understand her life in a more real and deep way.”
With Scheller appearing in the podcast, both he and Cerrotti’s grandmother are receiving a post-life “rebirth and renewal, or a way for me to keep experiencing life with them,” she said.
“The nine months of making the podcast have taught me to spend time with people who aren’t here anymore. You go to bed with these voices in your head,” said Cerrotti.
Having taught the Holocaust to high school students for years, Cerrotti believes her role is “to make students feel, as much as to give them information.” She attempts to give students a sense of self-agency and the capacity to become “upstanders” in response to persecution.
“My grandmother was always telling people that a collective community can also save lives,” said Cerrotti. “It was important for her to point to a collective community like the Danish rescuers, in contrast to the better-known German collective community that perpetrated the Holocaust.”