Understanding the past – Holocaust Memorial Day and In the Blood

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, when we remember the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered in the Second World War, and all victims of persecution and genocide around the world.

Author Anna Fodorova grew up in a family where everyone except her parents had been killed in the Holocaust.  Both in her career as a therapist, and as an author, Anna explores the notion and experience of being a Second Generation Holocaust Survivor. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, and to remember all the lost families, Anna has shared this blog post with us.

In 1968 I was a student at the Prague College of Applied Arts. Being a Jew in post-war Czechoslovakia seemed then like a dangerous secret, but it was an exciting time – there was hope that the reform of the totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe was possible, and it was the first year that we were allowed to travel and work in the West. When a fellow student showed me the Butlin’s holiday camp brochure picturing a palm tree against the sea, I imagined myself as a barmaid somewhere in the Bognor Riviera and, though I didn’t speak a word of English, I felt I had what it took: I was young, had long hair, wore a miniskirt and intended to purchase some stick-on eyelashes as soon as I got paid.

On arrival in Bognor Regis, the first thing I noticed was that Butlin’s was surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence and powerful searchlights. I was issued with a uniform and a card with a mugshot of me holding a number that I had to show every time I left or entered the perimeters of the camp. I slept on a bunk bed, and at night I watched the security guards walk around with their scary dogs.

Bizarre though my experience in Butlin’s was, I remained blind to its obvious echoes. I left Butlin’s hoping to hitch-hike around England but then the Russians invaded my country, and I became an emigrant.

Years later, when I started to train as a psychotherapist I gathered the courage to talk about what it felt like to be born into a family where everyone except my parents had been killed in the Shoa. Around the same time I came across the term ‘Second Generation Holocaust Survivors’. When I mentioned it to my mother she looked at me surprised: What second generation? You were born after it was all over, nothing happened to you.

I became puzzled by that nothing. The nothing that we carry inside us, and that formed us in our childhood. I attended conferences about the transgenerational transmission of trauma where, to my amazement I met people who, though coming from different countries and circumstances, had similar experiences of silence, denial and guilt. I published a paper about it in Psychodynamic Practice journal called Mourning by proxy: Notes on a conference, empty graves and silence. The same journal also printed another paper of mine called Lost and Found: The fear and thrill of loss. As a part of my research I visited the London Transport Lost property office and, seeing piles of toys, shoes, suitcases, push chairs (what happened to the child?) and other personal belongings who lost their owners, my internal associations were no longer a mystery to me.

I realized that the loss of someone or something and the search for them was going to be a theme that stayed with me. Another theme I wanted to explore was heritage, both psychological, and the one we carry in our genes.

My new novel, In the Blood, explores the impact of history on the personal lives of three generations – a mother, a daughter and a grandmother. My main protagonist, Agata, is the only child of Czech/Jewish parents. She grew up in Prague, believing that all her relatives perished in the Holocaust. Now living in London with her English husband and their daughter, Agata discovers astonishing news: not everyone died.

Like Agata, I too believed that my mother was the only member of her family to survive the war. When, to my incredulity, I found out that it wasn’t quite so, I tried to understand why this was kept a secret. What was there to hide?

Eventually I realised what that secret was: it was trauma, but in my novel Agata sets out to discover ‘the truth’.

Through her subsequent search for her surviving relatives, she meets a young man, the grandson of a Nazi who is writing a thesis about the transmission of trauma to the descendants of the perpetrators as well as the victims. They form an odd relationship. Soon Agata’s pursuit turns into an all-consuming obsession that alienates everyone around her. Yet for Agata, despite her quest risking the tearing apart of not only the family she already has, but her very own identity, finding out what happened in the past seems vital, the past that we all need to understand, whether that is to come to terms with the transmission of trauma, or as in Agata’s case, to put names and dates and faces to all the lost families, and to discover the not so lost.

To find out more about Holocaust Memorial Day you can visit www.hmd.org.uk. At 4pm today people across the UK will take part in a national moment for HMD by lighting candles and putting them in their windows to remember those who were murdered, and to stand against prejudice and hatred. You can take part as an individual and share a photo of your candle on social media using #LighttheDarkness.

You can read a first chapter extract of In the Blood in this blog post from earlier in the year.

Exclusive first chapter extract of In the Blood

As the end of summer approaches we’re looking forward to the autumn publication of In the Blood – an unforgettable twentieth century family saga that explores the impact of historical events on the lives of three generations – a mother, a daughter and a grandmother.


In the Blood
 is set in 1980s London, Prague and Munich, against the backdrop of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and the novel opens on this day, 21st August, 1988; twenty years after the Warsaw Pact invasion of then Czechoslovakia.

Exactly to this day, twenty years ago Russian tanks rolled under our Prague balcony, Mama reminded Agata only this morning. Imagine! Military invasion in central Europe! ‘Now we’ll never see our daughter again, she’ll stay in England,’ your father said – no, he sobbed. Soft. That’s what Pavel was, but here – here they are not interested in what happened to us in 1968, here the radio is interested in some actress from some Corporation Street and her stupid breasts!

Author Anna Fodorova opens the book on this day to emphasise the intertwining nature of personal and political histories:

“In the Blood begins on the 21st August 1988, twenty years after the Russian tanks rolled into Prague, the brutal invasion that shocked the world and altered the fate of my main character, Agata.

When I wrote the story, I couldn’t know that history would repeat itself this year with another catastrophic Russian invasion – I was interested in how the past shapes our private lives.

Agata’s story culminates a year later with the fall of the Berlin Wall, another world-changing event which is paralleled by Agata’s crumbling relationship with her family, particularly her mother, who has built her life from half-truths and secrets.” 

Read the first chapter of In the Blood now.

Pre-order your copy of In the Blood.

Writing the Past: Katy Darby, the Tyburn Jig

Katy Darby reads her short story, The Tyburn Jig, from our anthology Five by Five, read at Writing the Past, our event for Hither Green Festival 2019 at Manor House Library. This was our 18th/19th century contribution.

Hither Green Festival Writing The Past

We are once again taking part in the lovely Hither Green Festival (they ask us, this is so rare, and so good for the ego!)

Saturday May 18th 7pm

at one of our favourite venues,

Manor House Library, on  Old Road SE13 5SY

Readings of stories and poems based in the past – from the 17th to the 20th Century – life stories and imagined lives, followed by a fairly short discussion about writing from history – what inspired the piece, what research was needed, how was the story shaped by the facts and which got in the way – that sort of thing.

Poetry:

Kate Foley will read from her two poetry collections of personal history, spanning adoption and WWI to coming out as a lesbian in the second half of the 20th Century, The Don’t Touch Garden and A Gift of Rivers

Math Jones will read from his recently published complex narrative made up of poems of imagined folkloric history set in the English Civil War, The Knotsman.

Short Stories

Joan Taylor-Rowan will read her short story The Bet about an incident during the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Rebecca Skipwith will read her short story Surplus Women set just after WWI, from the anthology An Outbreak of Peace

Katy Darby will read her story The Tyburn Jig set in the early 18th Century from the anthology Five by Five.

Cherry Potts will read from her novel in progress, The Bog Mermaid, set in 1926 and 1976.