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In memoir, Portland author retraces her grandmother's journey to share the story of the Holocaust


Portland-based author Rachael Cerrotti lost her grandmother, Hana Dubova, more than a decade ago, and has devoted much of her life since to chronicling Dubova’s story of survival and rescue during the Holocaust.

The history forms the basis of Cerrotti's memoir, released last year, called “We Share the Same Sky." In it, she follows in the steps of her grandmother's journey across wartime Europe, collecting stories of the people who helped rescue her, house her in Denmark and get her on a boat to safety in Sweden.

On this International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Cerrotti spoke with Maine Public’s Robbie Feinberg about how those stories of the past are reflected in the present.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Feinberg: Your grandmother's story was really noticeable to me because so much of it isn't just about the atrocities of the Holocaust, but specifically about rescue and the goodwill of all of these people. And real cooperation between Denmark and Sweden that saved thousands of Jews during the war. Why did you think it was important to share that side of the story?

Cerrotti: Yeah. Well, I think that's the piece of her story that has kept me so entrenched in this history for all these years. I mean, I started digging into this when I was 20. And I'm in my 30s now. So it has kind of been a long journey of curiosity and questioning. But, you know, I think that particularly in the context of today, we're really seeking to understand, how do we do good in a world where so many things feel bad, hard, challenging, kind of uncontrollable? And to go into these stories of history where you see one of the most tragic periods of history unfolding, and then you look at these individual actions, by everyday people, who were making these choices. And sometimes it was as simple as being kind. Sometimes it was as simple as staying quiet. Sometimes it was as simple as offering a warm meal. Like, these weren't major acts. But if you look at the course of history, they help save lives. And so I think, studying history through these rescue missions offers almost this blueprint of what to do today. And I really appreciate it. It's one of the reasons that I've fallen so head over heels for learning history as a storyteller, is that I think it really helps us offer a lens on, how do we want to be today.

A big theme of your writing was the displacement that your grandmother experienced as a refugee, both during and after the war. And you trace these parallels between that and the influx of migrants to Europe in recent years. You actually spoke with some current day migrants. What was it like to hear those stories when reflecting on your grandmother?

Rachael Cerrotti

My grandmother was saved by the Danes first, and then by the Swedes. And when I was going back to those places, during these years, you know, 2014, 2015, 2016, this is one of the primary places that current-day asylum seekers were trying to get to. Because historically, there are really good social services. So I started doing documentary work with these individuals, particularly young people who had crossed by boat, which my grandmother had done in 1943. And looking at, how are they living? How are they surviving? And how are they thriving in these new countries of theirs?

And I encountered some really incredible stories and incredible acts of kindness from Swedes today, who are really trying to make or help these young people have a better life. And I'll add that it goes as far as when I was built this really lovely relationship with individuals who helped save my grandmother in 1943, during the rescue of the Danish Jews, which is a rescue mission that saved 95% of the Jewish population in Denmark. And I was on the shores of southern Sweden. And I visited this family, and became close to them in 2015. For the first time, I came back in 2016. And they had taken me to this house that my grandmother had stayed in her very first night as a refugee in Sweden. And there were young refugees there today. So, you know, it was down to the very building that these young people were staying in that I was finding this relevance. And so around this time, I said, 'Well, there's no way to tell my grandmother's story without speaking about what's happening in the world today.'

In recent years, we've unfortunately seen even more Holocaust survivors pass away — many are in their 80s or 90s. At this point, how do you think we can properly remember the Holocaust and these stories with fewer of those firsthand accounts? And where do you feel like your book fits into that?

Jewish culture has a huge emphasis on storytelling. And so I see now, being in a space of, now it's my generation's responsibility to say, 'OK, what do we do with this history?' And we're in a really, I think, interesting exploratory space of, like, how does storytelling change? And how does the recounting of someone else's memories change as generations move forward? And it's a difficult space to explore. There's a lot of sensitivities. But I think it's also really exciting. And how do we do that?

And I think there's also this really special space to say, 'How do we collaborate with other individuals who also come from really difficult histories and find where our stories intersect?' That maybe it's from a different part of the world where there was prejudice and persecution and discrimination. Maybe it's from a different period of history. But thematically, we're finding a lot of similarities. And I think that space is also a really valuable one to be exploring right now.