It happened so gradually that I did not notice it at the beginning. My twin sister and I were just 6, and we had entered grade A in a Jewish school, when a pro-fascist regime took over the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia. At that time we had a spacious apartment on the fifth floor of a building on
Stefanikokva Street, one of Bratislava's main streets, and we watched President Tiso's processions from our balcony.
I have never succeeded in really belonging, in feeling completely at ease with people, even with friends, in forming one single lasting bond. I have become an outsider and loner in a world full of "others."
The adults started talking in whispers, looking from side to side. Mysteriously, some children stopped attending classes, and midsemester the school was shut down altogether. A few of us whose parents had either special permits or had converted to Christianity transferred to state schools, but most children disappeared into oblivion. I never saw any of them again.
Until the uprising in Banska Bystrica in 1944, my own life became harder and harder, but it was bearable. Nobody explained why things happened, but we moved from one flat to another, each one smaller and farther away from the city center. Fewer friends were around and, for no apparent reason, relatives "went away" or "traveled." They did not even come to say goodbye. They never wrote. My aunts and uncles, my only cousin, my grandparents who loved me so tenderly, all evaporated silently. The separation from my loved ones became confusing and ominous, all the more so because I was discouraged from asking why.
One day, my father was taken to a labor camp in Sered. My sister and I stopped attending classes and, with our mother, we were crowded into a freezing room. My mother wept silently at night. I clung to her desperately. She was my only link with the world that had abandoned me.
When Father came back -- one of the very few prisoners to return -- beaten but whole, I felt lucky, and I was sure that things were taking a turn for the better. But after a short while, my sister and I were told that, if we were to survive, we had to separate.
Our parents placed us in an orphanage kept by the evangelic pastorate in Modra and, without disclosing their location, they too went into hiding. I was desperate with grief. I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade myself of the necessity of being left in this horrible institution, a place where the nuns beat children for any tiny offense, and where I had to pretend to be someone else. How could my dear parents have done such a thing to me?
I developed a constant fear of people and tried to avoid contact with them. I was confused, angry and infinitely sad. Not quite comprehending the cause of my circumstances, I became distrustful of the whole world and of every person in it.
Since then, I have never succeeded in really belonging, in feeling completely at ease with people, even with friends, in forming one single lasting bond. I have become an outsider and loner in a world full of "others."
The separation from most of my beloved, indeed of the world as I knew it, was permanent. They did not return from their ghastly destinations. They have no graves, but their spirit still hounds me, as if they have not found their peace. Or is it perhaps I who did not? My paternal grandmother's life ended abruptly in a gas chamber, my maternal grandfather's in another. My maternal grandmother was beaten to death; one uncle was shot trying to escape from a transport to the East. I will never know how the others left this sorrowful world.
And yet I was, in a way, lucky. The Filus family in Vrbovce kept my parents safe in a hole in their barn and the Derer pastor in Modra did not disclose our hiding place to the authorities, despite mortal danger to himself and to his family. And after the war, our little family of four reunited, later made aliya and started a new life. None of us was ever quite the same, but we were alive.
Chava Kolar, born Gertruda (Gerda) Kaufmannova, immigrated to Israel in 1949 with Youth
Aliyah. She is retired from the Weizmann Institute of Science and volunteers for a senior citizens group and the Committee of WIS Retirees.