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Original story by Anne Zahalka
Written by Charlotte Wood
An Untold Story from the Holocaust
A ten-minute read

In 2016, the Australian artist Anne Zahalka begins the melancholy task of sorting her mother Hedy’s belongings after her death. Among them she finds a pile of letters she’s never seen before. She’s mystified – but as she reads on, she starts to understand.

The letters are from Anne’s grandmother – Margarete Back. As she reads, Anne traces her finger over the time and place where they begin: March 1938, Vienna. Fifty-five-year-old Margarete and her teenage daughters, Lore and Hedy, are living together in a comfortable apartment when Hitler’s army marches into the city.

Like many other Jewish citizens, the three women flee, heading first to regional Czechoslovakia. Lore and Hedy later escape to Britain while Margarete is forced to remain with extended family.

As Margarete longs desperately to reunite with her daughters, she writes to them daily, signing off always with kisses and extravagant declarations of love.

Most of the letters are lost.

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In her imagination, Anne begins writing back.

Sydney
30 May 2016, Monday


Dearest Margarete,

Today I found your letters to my mother. I was confused at first, but then I recognised the handwriting from the cookbook you gave her. The one she took with her on the Kindertransport. She kept that book her whole life. I have it now. I want you to know your darling Hedy lived to be an elegant 95-year-old-woman – that she was happy in her life. She loved my father, loved her two daughters.

I have always known that the Holocaust took you, but no details. My mother could not talk about anything to do with that time. She never saw herself as a survivor. When she came to Australia, she said this country was ‘like an open book’. She loved its enormous skies.

She never showed me your letters, nor even told me they existed. She spoke of you with love, but what happened was too painful for her to contemplate. Yet she kept many of your letters her whole life. And now here they are, in my hands. They feel like something that has been left for me. A way to find you, your voice, and who you were. A gift.

I think you would like to know that my mother expressed her love to me with the same words you used to her. She would say, ‘Nobody loves you more than me.’

I kiss you as best I can,

Your granddaughter

Anne

VIENNA, AUSTRIA, MARCH 1938

Life in the city grows increasingly hostile for Margarete and her girls. Formerly cordial neighbours now wear swastikas; Nazi flags hang in their street. New laws revoke Jews’ citizenship and strip away their freedoms and assets.

They are abused and harassed wherever they go.

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Margarete is among the Jewish women and men who are forced on their hands and knees to scrub streets and clean toilets while crowds of jeering Nazi supporters look on.

In November, violent mobs attack Jewish homes and businesses. Dozens of Jews are murdered and thousands more are rounded up and sent to Dachau concentration camp. Synagogues are burnt to the ground.

Those who can flee Vienna do so, leaving behind all of their property. Some who cannot leave commit suicide.

As minors, Lore and Hedy are able to go to Czechoslovakia in the care of aunts and uncles, but Margarete cannot get exit papers. Eventually her brothers arrange a fake passport and she can join her daughters. In 1939, Lore and Hedy escape to Britain, where they must learn to work as domestic servants. Margarete is left alone.

The separation is unbearable for Margarete. For the next two years after the Nazis take control of Czechoslovakia, she is shunted between relatives’ homes, camping in corners of their living rooms, bathing at neighbours’ houses. There’s no privacy; she can’t sleep. She grows scruffy, loses weight. She worries endlessly about her girls, writing to them daily and often sending gifts. Desperate to find a way out, she passes the time embroidering, knitting, waiting for news.

Every day Margarete writes to her beloved daughters.

My dear children,

I write to you every day because I assume that you are worried about me.

Remember that there is one person in the world who loves you with all their heart and that person is me.

Margarete tells her daughters of the terrifying home ‘visits’ by Nazi authorities, who ransack rooms and belongings.

The visitors were here since ten o’clock... It went on until five o’clock in the afternoon. I was actually calm; I had to show them all my letters and they read them all. They made a record of my pitiful jewellery and my money.

Her world feels smaller. There are new restrictions on what she can do. Jews are banned from entering shops and cafes. Their bank accounts are frozen. They are forced to wear a yellow six-pointed star bearing the word ‘Jew’.

We are no longer able to go to the Kaffeehaus any more in the afternoons. Signs have been hung up everywhere. Parks are still open to us for the time being.

There is growing uncertainty. It’s miserably cold. We have no idea how it will all end. Everyone is waiting to see what happens.

I kiss you tenderly.

Mummy.

The crowding and the stress put unbearable pressure on family relations. Unable to stand the strain any longer, Margarete moves to Prague, alone.

At the end of 1941, her letters stop.

In 2017, Anne begins a quest.

Vienna
2 July 2017, Sunday


Dearest Margarete,

Today I found your home, the old apartment where you all lived together so happily. Before my mother and aunt were forced to move. Before you were able to join them. I tried to look through the front door – to reach you, in some way – but I couldn’t make out what was inside. The glass just reflected my own image, and beyond that the street and the buildings. I thought of Nazi flags flying there, from your neighbours’ homes.

I began photographing the letter boxes outside your apartment. Perhaps some part of me was searching for a way to send you a letter. As I was down on my knees with my camera, a family came along and asked in German, ‘Are you making art?’ Sort of, I said. I told them my grandmother and her daughters had lived here, that they were Jewish and they had to leave in ’38. I asked if they could let me into the foyer. They did, then left me alone.

As I photographed, a question hid inside me: what am I looking for?

I liked the quality of the soft light in there... I had a sense, one I would feel again before too long, that somebody unseen had just passed this way.

There was unease, too, about the people who let me in. Did someone in their family’s past simply take your home, after you were forced to leave?

I stood in that echoing space and I thought of you farewelling your girls, all of you weeping.

Then it became about the objects you might have touched – the wooden stair-rail, the decorative ribbons of terracotta floor tiles. I could put my fingers to the surfaces that held your touch... but still, there is only absence. Too many hands have passed over the railing since yours.

I look for you.

I send you a thousand kisses,

Your granddaughter

Anne

Prague
19 July 2017, Wednesday

My dearest Margarete,

Today with my own teenaged daughter I visited your modern apartment in Prague. The streetscape is unchanged from the time you lived here; the red and white trams still slide by. We stood outside, looking up at the second floor where you lived. I called out to some young people at a window, and they let me in. I entered alone to take pictures, once more in the foyer.

The surfaces here were reflective, slippery, the bright light pouring through the frosted glass door. I could hear the echo of your footsteps on the concrete stairs.

It was here you received the notice to report to the Radiomarkt assembly point on 23 October 1941. Before you were transported to the ghetto.

In this peppermint light I thought of you, making your way down the stairs, carrying your belongings. Which of the letters did you take? What went through your mind, crossing the black-and-white tiles for the last time? Did you take a tram to the station?

There in your foyer I had the sense again – I could almost see it in the corner of my vision – of something, someone, passing by. But there was nothing there.

I stood and I thought how different our lives were; how fortunate I have been.

I saw a document today too: your deportation file card. The cards – thousands and thousands of them – are kept in little creamy filing cabinets in an office at the Jewish Town Hall.

There was an identification certificate, with the photograph I know so well – this time you’ve signed it, across your body, in your elegant script. And next to the image, your fingerprint. It’s small, smudged, a little sideways on the page. I looked at this mark for a long time.

Then there was another card, dull pink, mottled with age. I held it in my hands, and I read your name, your date of birth, your address in Prague. I read the date of your departure, the words Transport C, and then a stamp in crimson ink. A single word, in capitals, your destination: LODZ.

It is as if you left something of yourself here; something of your body.

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I cannot describe my emotions; they are too large and too small. The facts are too wrong, that your life is held here in a tiny filing cabinet drawer, on a few mouldering bits of paper. Each time I find something, I feel it should bring me closer to you. But it is not enough.

I kiss you,

Your granddaughter, who is always, always thinking of you.

Anne

Lodz, Poland 1940

In February, all Jews in Lodz, Poland, are ordered to pack, abandon their homes and move into a tiny section of the city. More than a third of the city’s population, around 160,000 people, is forced into an area of just over four square kilometres. From now on they must live three and four people to a room.

Lodz Ghetto is fenced off by barbed wire, armed soldiers guarding the perimeter. It is the second largest ghetto after Warsaw.

The Nazis appoint a Jewish businessman, Chaim Rumkowski, head of the ghetto. He decrees industry offers the only hope for survival, and forces people to work twelve-hour days manufacturing German military supplies. Captive inside the ghetto, they are entirely dependent on Nazi food rations. Despite hard manual labour, each person is provided only 600-700 calories per day – about half what’s needed for survival. They live on potato peelings in water, tiny amounts of bread, a few beans. With no running water in the ghetto, dysentery, tuberculosis and typhus spread.

Many thousands of Jews and Roma people from elsewhere are soon forced to join the already starving ghetto populace. The people burn their furniture and possessions, fences, even parts of their buildings, for warmth in the harsh winters and to cook their scraps of food.

Photographer Henryk Ross is employed to take identity photographs and promotional pictures for the Nazis.

He secretly saves film and uses it to document life in the ghetto. Later, he buries the pictures in a box.

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Margarete survives here for almost three years.

Nothing certain is known about her time in Lodz, except her address.

Lodz
22 September 2017, Friday


My dear Margarete,

Today I found the building in Mühlgasse Street, where you lived. It’s on a corner, a four storey building, simple and solid. A tram track passes by.

People live here again now. There is no sign it was once part of the ghetto.

I stood with my Polish guide at the entrance; she pressed every buzzer button until someone answered, then insisted we be let inside.

Once more, I stood in your lobby. The dark stone stairs are softly worn in the centre. As I looked up I saw the stairs exposed underside, a ghostly Escher staircase to nowhere, hanging in the gloom.

My mother was told by survivors that you married someone in the ghetto, but he was taken away before you. Another devastating loss. How long did you have together? Was he here with you? How many people shared your crowded rooms?

I searched in the ghetto archives but couldn’t learn who else lived here. I looked closely at all the wedding photographs, but none were yours. I keep searching the Ross collection for an image of your face.

You lasted almost three years in that place, an incredible feat of survival. I see women sewing mattresses: did you work alongside them, with the tough thread, the rusting needles? You arrived as the brutal Polish winter began. You were always so worried about your girls being cold. I hope you worked in a kitchen, near the heat of the stoves. I hope you had a warm coat.

There is a small museum in Lodz, with a model of the ghetto. The Radegast train station is now a memorial, with images and names of people who were taken. There’s a cattle truck, the kind in which I now know you were transported. On the walls are lists of names and transports, but yours is not among them.

There are few Jewish people now in Lodz. The city is being revitalised; many who live there know nothing of the ghetto’s existence.

I kiss you,

Your granddaughter,

Anne

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In January 1942, the deportations begin. The Jews are told they are being sent to work on Polish farms, but instead are taken in cattle trains from Radegast station to the Chelmno extermination camp. Their clothes, some with blood and bullet holes, are returned to the ghetto for ‘processing’. In September, families are forced to surrender those unable to work. They lose 13,000 children under the age of ten and 11,000 vulnerable old people.

Many people commit suicide. They jump from windows, slit their wrists or throats, hang themselves. Others succumb to disease; thousands more starve to death. Many die within days or weeks of arrival. Surviving day to day in Lodz Ghetto is an extraordinary feat of luck, of physical and psychological strength.

In 1944, orders come for the ghetto to be liquidated. In August, the final transports of 74,000 Jews take place – no longer to Chelmno, but the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Auschwitz
25 September 2017, Wednesday


My dearest Margarete,

It’s believed you were taken in 1944. A woman transported out of the ghetto with you miraculously lived; she passed on your story. She said you were on the last transport from Lodz to Auschwitz.

You almost survived.

There was blue sky today as I came into this place, where the sun itself is wrong.

In a corridor to the one remaining gas chamber are lines of portraits; some of the women have shaven heads, some don’t. The pictures each have the date of arrival, occupation, the date of death. Perhaps some were your friends.

There are piles of things. Shoes, shaving brushes. Suitcases. A mountain of hair.

I imagine you here, Margarete, sitting naked with the others, waiting for the shower you were told would come next. Did you know? I want to believe you didn’t. I want to believe it was swift, that you died quickly once the gas beads fell.

Outside is a memorial tablet, which reads:

‘For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews from various countries of Europe. Auschwitz-Birkenau 1940 – 1945.’

I think of Lodz, which feels so forgotten now. Forever let that place, too, be a cry, a warning.

I kiss you as best I can,

Your granddaughter

Anne

Sydney

8 October 2017, Monday

My dear Margarete,

I have asked myself, why am I making this search?

But in Auschwitz, I understood: it was not to find you, but to follow you. To place you in the places you loved, come with you to the places you were forced to go. To imagine as much of your life as I could imagine, to breathe the air you breathed, feel your footsteps beneath mine.

Margarete, I’m trying to preserve. To show that your life was important, that you had two daughters, that they had children, grandchildren. That many things have been passed down. That in spite of everything, you endure. And in my heart, in my life, you matter.

At the end of our day looking for you in Prague we took a taxi, my daughter and I. We found a lake with pebbles for sand, and a pontoon, and long, soft grasses. It was a summer evening. We swam, in the water and the gorgeous, mellow light.

I am your daughter’s daughter. I make this journey to honour you.

I kiss you tenderly,

Your granddaughter,

Anne

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Anne Zahalka in her Sydney studio
Credit: Nick Cubbin.

Nobody Loves You More Than Me:

Finding Margarete

Commissioned & Produced by SBS

Original story
Anne Zahalka
Written by
Charlotte Wood
Embroidery by
MaricorMaricar / Jacky Winter
Commissioning Editor Online Documentaries, SBS
Kylie Boltin
DCL Creative Director, SBS
Matt Smith
Producer Online Documentaries, SBS
Ella Rubeli
Design and build by
Canvas Group
Research
Debra Shulkes
Czech translation by
Barbara Blasi
German translation by
Rosamund Ziegert

Title artworks by Anne Zahalka using artefacts from her personal archive

Chapter 1 title image: Early photograph of Margarete with her daughters Hedy and Lore, 1926; Chapter 2 title image: Photomontage by Anne Zahalka of Nazis in Uhersky Ostroh, 1940; Chapter 3 title image: Photograph taken of Hedy by Lore Back in Bayerisch Gmain, Bavaria 1950.

Archive

Anne Zahalka personal archive; DPA picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo; Holocaust Research Project; Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo; World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo; Jewish Museum in Prague; Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo; Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo; National Archives Czech Republic; Henryk Ross / Art Gallery of Ontario.

Acknowledgement

This story could not have been told without the memoir, View from a Distance, written by Anne Zahalka's aunt, Lore Lisbeth Waller (nee Back) and the photographic portraits she made.