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Hana’s story: Holocaust Museum exhibit tells an extraordinary tale

Bill DeYoung



Rachael Cerrotti documented her grandmother's escape from Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in a podcast, a memoir and a museum exhibit. Images provided.

Rachael Cerrotti is coming to the Florida Holocaust Museum Sept. 30, to talk about her exhibit We Share the Same Sky. She will also give a talk at a reception that evening.

While We Share the Same Sky will remain on view through May 2024, Cerrotti herself is dropping in for this one-time visit, to explain how the historical exhibition came to be, and why it’s significant.

Growing up in Boston, Cerrotti knew that her grandmother, Hana Dubová, was a Holocaust survivor. “She was the type of person who gained strength by talking about it,” Cerrotti tells the Catalyst. So Mutti, as she was affectionately known, spoke often at schools and community centers. Later in life, she helped a local college collect testimony from survivors.

Hana was 14 when she was spirited away from her hometown of Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1939. She was transported safely to Denmark, but her family was not so fortunate. Hana was the only one who survived the Nazi purge. With the kindness and help of numerous strangers, she got to Sweden – and, ultimately, the United States.

This was family lore. As a child, Cerrotti always understood why her mother didn’t have any grandparents.

While studying photojournalism in college, and developing an interest in storytelling, she thought of Mutti and her incredible, life-changing journey. So she sat her grandmother down and asked her to start at the beginning.

It was 2009; Rachael was 20. Hana was 84.

Rachael and Mutti, 2009.

A little over a year later, she died. “And she left behind photographs and diaries and all sort of primary-source documents,” Cerrotti explains. “Creative writings from later in her life. Just this wealth of story, that was very well curated by her, of her own life. Pictures were captioned. Folders were labeled. Essays were edited. And she left all that behind.” Her Mutti, it turned out, was an exceptional chronicler.

Eventually, her granddaughter began the process of digitizing everything for the family, as a sort of memory book. “That’s where it began,” Cerrotti says. “And then it was just a rabbit hole from there.”

First the was “four years of digitizing, which turned into lots of research, and schooling myself, which turned into teaching in classrooms. Then that turned into a big photojournalism project, where I started traveling. And as my personal life unfolded, it just kept going.”

Rachael Cerrotti found herself immersed in the life of Hana Dubová, survivor and refugee. And it had fallen to her to make sure it got heard.

“I always said I could have written a book about my grandmother’s life without ever leaving my bedroom floor,” Cerrotti laughs. “With what she left behind. But that was not my driving interest. I was concentrated on this question, which my grandmother posed: ‘What does it mean for the young people?’

“After speaking to a high school class, she came home and wrote in her diary: What does my lost generation mean for these people? What does this history mean now? Why does this matter? She was very tough on herself in a very curious way. She would have been a fantastic journalist, had she had the opportunity. She wanted to understand what people’s interest was, and that resonated with me.”

Starting in 2014 and for many years that followed, Cerrotti traveled through the Czech Republic, and to Scandinavia, walking in Hana’s footsteps. “It’s a very different experience to read a piece of writing that my grandmother wrote about her escaping Czechoslovakia by train; if I read that on the floor of my bedroom in Boston as a 24-year-old, versus on that exact train ride, looking at the same imagery, the writing hits very differently.”

Five years later, with an assist from the USC Shoah Foundation, she created the podcast We Share the Same Sky. The Huffington Post named it one of the year’s best.

In the first episode, Cerrotti described the discovery of her grandmother’s archive:

There were report cards and deportation papers and love notes from her parents censored by Nazis. Then, amidst all of these papers, I found a plain manila folder. It had a note on it, written in red ink in her shaky cursive handwriting. She’d written my name.

We Share the Same Sky became a book in 2021; the museum exhibit debuted this year.

The museum exhibit includes original writings, photographs and artifacts, as well as photos and testimony recorded by Cerrotti during her time in Denmark and Sweden; she met with descendants of the people who’d aided Hana Dubová.

Will Rachael Cerrotti’s work ever be done? Probably not. “Because my grandmother left behind so much, I had many different narratives to work with,” she marvels. “And the richness of family storytelling is that you have a lot of different perspectives, and a lot of different experiences happening at a similar time.”

Over time, things change – perspective, purpose, even the deeper meaning. “You get comfortable with the story changing,” Cerrotti explains. “You get comfortable with the stories meaning different things, particularly in the culture we’re living in now, which is tense and difficult.

“Having that kind of softness for storytelling, and that kind of flexibility for the human experience, is like a gift that my grandmother left me.”

RSVPs are required by Sept. 15 for Rachael Cerrotti’s talk Sept. 30 at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Call 727-820-0100 or click here to RSVP.
















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