• Juliet Rieden's grandmother Helena is reunited with her son and family. Juliet, 2, is sitting on her father's lap. (Supplied)
After discovering a list of six names on a Holocaust memorial in Prague, journalist Juliet Rieden embarked on a long and challenging journey to learn about her father's history.
Sharon Verghis

10 Sep 2019 - 8:32 AM  UPDATED 10 Sep 2019 - 8:32 AM

Imagine yourself as the only child of parents who are only children themselves. You have no aunts or uncles or cousins that you know of. The family tree is a bare, spindly thing bereft of twigs and leaves. You grow up weaving a fantasy of your mum and dad, finding each other and creating a family of their own - you and your two older brothers. Still, as a teenager, you envy your friends’ big, noisy families, complaining bitterly of your own lack of kin. 

Then, one day, you discover that that your bare tree was once a thriving, multigenerational ecosystem. Scores of ghostly family members start emerging from the past.

For journalist and author Juliet Rieden, this dramatic rewriting of family history began with a shock discovery on a sunny afternoon in 2016 at the Pinkas Synagogue in Prague’s Old Jewish Quarter.

Here, on a three-day stopover in this fairytale former Iron Curtain city, Rieden stumbles across a list of six names on a memorial to those killed in the Holocaust. They all share her own unusual surname, Rieden. Emil Rieden, Berta Rieden, Felix Rieden, Otto Rieden… who are these people?

A quick Google search yields an answer.

As she writes in her moving memoir The Writing on the Wall, “Emil was my great-grandfather, Berta and Felix my great-aunt and great-uncle…All three were siblings of my grandpa Dr Rudolf Rieden; Emil was his father.”

Her shock is boundless.

“Could these really be my people on the wall of this memorial to Czechs murdered by the Nazis?”

They are.

Growing up, Rieden knew only the barest bones of her father Hanus’s story: that he had been born in Prague in 1930, the only son of a distinguished Jewish former soldier and doctor, Rudolf, and his wife Helena, and that in March 1939, at age eight, he had been put on a charity flight to England only a week before Hitler’s troops thundered into the city.

Rudolf and Helena were caught and imprisoned in the so-called ‘model’ transit camp Theresienstadt. Unlike thousands of the approximately 155,000 Jews who came here en route to Auschwitz, they survived.

Inexplicably to Rieden and her mother, however, they never came for their son after the war. Instead, in a letter written in halting English, they expressed a wish that he make a new, safer life far away from the horrors of war-ravaged Europe.

Rieden knew that some of her distant kin had died in the Holocaust. They were, however, nameless, phantom ghosts, not real people.

Rieden knew that some of her distant kin had died in the Holocaust. They were, however, nameless, phantom ghosts, not real people.

On this warm day in September 1, 2016, age 52, she finally came face to face with flesh and blood, contained in names and numbers and dates of death, hieroglyphs “pregnant with meaning’. These were close kin, she learnt, who had lived with her father when he was a little boy. And they had all been murdered – along with scores of other relatives on both sides of her father’s family.

Returning to Sydney, Rieden, a veteran journalist, decided to pursue the truth of her family. Did she have living kin? Why did her father, who passed away in 2006, never talk about his past?

Her search over 18 months would prove a meticulous, difficult trawl through history, taking her to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, across Poland and the former Czechoslovakia, to the archives of Israel’s Yad Vashem and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Steven Spielberg Film and Video Archive, to the Sydney Jewish Museum. She would meet filmmakers and elderly eyewitnesses, track down accounts of her father’s life in the British children’s home he grew up in, unearth diary entries and drawings and confidential government records in a locked box in Britain's National Archives.

Her memoir would turn out to be not only a search for her father’s past and a wider hunt for family, but a harrowing account of human depravity as reflected in the systematic, codified nature of Nazi evil

From the outset, she would be hampered by her own demons, moral turmoil: was she opening a Pandora’s box? Would her gentle father, silent about the past all her childhood, be angered by her not letting sleeping dogs lie? How did his parents survive? Was her grandfather a member of the infamous Ältestenrat, the Jewish council of Elders that ran Theresienstadt?

But Rieden persevered.

For her, the daughter of the Holocaust, it is more vital than ever to preserve the stories of the last generation of Holocaust survivors as they die out. As Magda Szubanksi says in the book’s foreword: “Memoirs such as this will ensure we do not lose the struggle against "forgetting" - that sly accomplice of tyranny”.

For her, the daughter of the Holocaust, it is more vital than ever to preserve the stories of the last generation of Holocaust survivors as they die out.

This is particularly vital, Rieden believes, against a rising tide of nationalist politics and xenophobia worldwide – more than ever, we need reminders of how toxic ideologies can consume nations.

For Rieden, it would prove a devastating end to a difficult journey. She would discover that all her kin ended up dying in the Holocaust as far as she could ascertain – including three-year-old Vera, gassed at Auschwitz in her mother’s arms.

For a long while, she says, she was left bereft, depressed, husked out not only by the injustice of her family’s fate but our seemingly endless capacity for hatred of ‘the other’ well over 70 years after Nazi Germany’s fall, from the rising tide of anti-Semitism we're seeing across Europe today to  the persecution of refugees across the West.

Do we ever learn?

But ultimately, there is a sense of triumph – not just because of her father’s dramatic, improbable escape out of Hitler’s grasp, but the discovery of distant kin by marriage in Israel.

She has made contact and hopes to maintain ties; there is joy in finding those who share her family story, if not her DNA.

"For the complaining little girl who longed to have relatives, [it's] a wonderful feeling."


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