Every Story, a Life
Edward Serotta’s online oral history project, which records the memories of elderly Jews, lets all of us—and generations to come—share in a rich and lively world on the brink of vanishing.
By Alexandra Starr
As a young man, Hungarian photographer Imre Kinszki wooed his wife by deluging her desk in the office where they both worked with paper airplanes; after they married and had children, he made whole towns out of paper for their daughter, Judit, and her brother, Gabor. “He knew how to fold bridges, houses, buildings, cupolas, everything,” Judit recounted. “He would even paint them.” Imre was such a strong pacifist that he didn’t allow popguns in the house; the prospect of his son’s circumcision distressed him to the point that he drafted a petition and adorned it with forged signatures to protest the procedure. “He was so sweet, tender-hearted, and gentle,” Judit said. “It was impossible not to love my father.”
Without Judit’s testimonial, Imre Kinszki’s whimsical and sensitive nature—his life—would be lost to history. He would only be known to the broader public as part of a horrifying statistic—one of the 6 million Jews who were slaughtered during World War II. But thanks to the efforts of American-born Edward Serotta, a former documentarian and freelance journalist, Kinszki’s description of her father, as well as photographs and a short documentary on the Kinszkis’ family life, are available on the Web. The Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation site, which Serotta founded and heads, features hundreds of photographs and stories, many of them eulogies of sorts to the people who died in the worst genocide of the 20th century.
Precious Detail of Daily Life
While the Holocaust—or the Shoah, as it is called in Hebrew—hangs heavily over the images and narratives, Serotta does not consider Centropa as a remembrance project, but rather as a vehicle to record and celebrate Jewish life in Central and Eastern Europe. For the past eight years, Centropa staffers in 14 countries have interviewed Jews who survived World War II and remained in Europe during the Cold War. Serotta is approaching his goal of collecting 1,500 testimonials—he is just shy of the goal, although many stories still have to be transcribed and edited.
The remembrances put a human face on historical events, such as the rounding up of Jews into ghettos during World War II and Communist crackdowns on Jewish observances. But they provide something more, as well: They remind us that even lives rife with enormous hardship cannot be condensed to a series of horrific events. The most harrowing narratives—which include stories about hiding in sewers during the Shoah, or learning a beloved brother was killed at Buchenwald—are interspersed with anecdotes about skating on a frozen lake for the first time, or the excitement of falling in love. “You are the fourth American group to come and see me,” a Serbian woman told Serotta. “But you are the first to ask how we lived, not just how we died.”
Even during bleak periods, many of the interviewees were able to preserve a measure of dignity. Bruno Bittman, a gregarious businessman living in Vienna, recalled that when his family lived in a Jewish ghetto in Poland during World War II, they observed Passover by crushing raisins into water as a substitute for wine. They carved holes into a piece of wood to create a makeshift menorah. And his mother tried to keep the family on a kosher diet.
“Run for Your Life”
Bittman also recounts how he saw flickers of humanity in his oppressors. One day German storm troopers came to his home to detain him. “I was so scared, I put on my tefillin and started praying so hard,” he recalled. To his astonishment, the SS men let him finish before hauling him away. “They weren’t all swine,” Bittman says. “Their leaders were. But not all of them were like that.” It perhaps says something about Bittman’s mind-set that he can recall this detail of his detainment, but not the brutal questioning he was undoubtedly subjected to afterwards.
He is not the only Centropa participant to have glimpsed decency in some members of the Nazi regime. Renate Jeschaunig, a retired librarian, can recall November 11, 1938, with particular clarity. That was the day after Kristallnacht, or Night of Shattered Glass, when storm troopers, Hitler youth, and civilians torched almost all of Vienna’s synagogues and prayer houses. She was walking to school, skirting the debris of cracked windows and jagged bricks, when an SS guard intercepted her. The then 12-year-old girl was flabbergasted when the storm trooper slapped her across the face multiple times. “Run for your life,” the guard told her. In the distance she saw storm troopers throwing passersby into a paddy wagon.
Jeschaunig remembers the man’s coarse country accent, the way he shook her small body. And while she didn’t understand at that moment that the SS guard was trying to help her, she now remembers him with gratitude. “If it weren’t for him,” she says, “I am sure I would have died in a concentration camp.”
Gathering for Tea at Centropa
Jeschaunig, like many of the elderly Jews based in Vienna, survived the war by living as a refugee in England. Centropa hosts a monthly tea or lunch to help this community retain its cohesiveness. The attendees’ shared histories often go back seven decades, which imbues the get-togethers with the atmosphere of a family reunion. “I came here a half hour before I was supposed to,” the 86-year-old retired dressmaker Fanny Grossmann confided at a gathering last summer. “This is like a second home for me.”
The wiry, bespectacled 58-year-old Serotta presides over these events with a manic energy, greeting donors and shaking hands with attendees. “When you look at these people, you realize how lonely many of them are,” he says.
While some of Centropa’s satellite offices also organize social events, the primary focus of the organization is to collect stories of a community that is rapidly dying out. Serotta conceived of Centropa in 1999, when he was filming a documentary on a Jewish old-age home in Arad, Romania. The local leader of the Jewish community presented the erstwhile journalist with the so-called “Library of Lost Pictures”: a cache of hundreds of photographs the group had inherited from Romanian Jews who had left no descendants. “Every person in those pictures had a story,” Serotta says. “And no one could tell them. No one even knew the names of the people in the pictures.”
A Personal Passion
Serotta had the contacts and skills to quickly assemble a staff and attract funding for his brainchild. Born in Savannah, Georgia, to Jews of Russian and Polish heritage, he had spent more than a decade reporting on Jewish life in Eastern Europe before he launched Centropa. It was his second career; he spent his first 15 years out of college in marketing and sales. “I had always wanted to do something creative,” he says. “But I was afraid to.”
At the age of 36, divorced and on a career path he found stultifying, Serotta asked himself what kind of work would most fulfill him. He decided to sell his Atlanta-based office supply business and take up photography and writing. “Bernard Malamud wrote in The Natural that you have two lives,” Serotta says. “The one you learn from and the one you live. It was when I committed to a life of travel and writing that I really started living.”
During annual trips in the late 1980s to countries like Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Serotta became entranced with the region. He moved to Budapest permanently in 1988, just two years before the Iron Curtain fell. The demise of communism heralded a revival of Jewish life: in many of the Eastern Bloc countries, Jewish communities had been forced to practice secretly, if at all, for decades. Serotta wrote articles and produced several short TV documentaries on the renaissance. His principle focus, though, was the three photography books he published on Jews in Eastern Europe and Germany.
When it came time to decide how to showcase the Centropa stories and pictures, however, Serotta gravitated to the Internet. The fact that a site could be continually expanded was one attraction; its potential to reach a much bigger audience than his texts was another lure. Serotta is also hoping to woo younger viewers. One of his current projects is putting dozens of mini-documentaries on DVD and partnering with schools in Eastern Europe and Jewish schools in the United States to integrate the films into courses on European history and the Shoah.
Hannah Lessing, head of the Austrian National Fund for Nazi Victims in Vienna, didn’t need much convincing to back Centropa. “Ed is doing something no one else is,” she says. “These oral histories have to be done now, because the people are dying. The Jewish survivors we have speaking in Austrian schools are in their 80s. In a few years, no one will be there to tell the stories. They are disappearing with them.”
The timing for Centropa is indeed fortuitous. A decade ago the technology did not exist for a multimedia website to present interviews, films, and thousands of pictures. And as Lessing points out, the living witnesses of World War II are rapidly disappearing. Serotta estimates that as many as half of Centropa’s interviewees have died since sharing their stories.
The opportunity to share their memories and experiences can be cathartic for Centropa participants. Jeschaunig says it is a way to do her part so that people never forget what happened to the Jewish community in the middle of the last century. Kinszki remarked that she learned something every time she spoke about her father.
Kinszki’s mother, Ilona, never accepted that she had lost the man who had wooed her by floating paper airplanes onto her desk at work. For years after the war she would go to the local train station every day in hopes of finding him. Even after she and Judit learned Imre was probably killed during a death march, she did not have him declared deceased, despite the fact that the family could have benefited from a widow’s pension.
There are, of course, millions of people like Imre Kinszki, and they are not limited to the annals of World War II. Victims of genocides in regions ranging from Africa to Turkey made an enormous difference in the lives of their friends and family. Outside of this small circle, however, these people are often just a footnote in a grotesque history, one of millions to perish under horrible circumstances.
An enterprise like Centropa can help change that legacy. Judit’s decision to share the family story, and the creation of a website where her words and images can be seen and heard, has arguably allowed for a version of Ilona Kinszki’s hopes to become a reality. Even though he died more than 70 years ago, the spirit of Imre Kinszki has not been completely extinguished.
Alexandra Starr was a 2007 Milena Jesensk journalism fellow in Vienna. She writes on culture and social issues from London.
The Centropa Recipe Archive, with its lively online forum, is a gathering spot for culinary memories. Visitors are urged “to carry this tradition forward by preparing these recipes with your children, serving them to your family, and then going for a five-mile run to work it all off…” Here, a favorite kugel prepared by Riza néni, great-grandmother of Andr•s Koerner, author of A Taste of the Past. This kugel would usually be served as a side dish, but is sweet enough to eat as dessert.
6 slices of white bread, cut into 1/2″ dice
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
3 tablespoons sugar
4 large egg yolks
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
2 teaspoons lemon zest (optional)
1/3 cup golden raisins
2 Golden Delicious apples, peeled, cored, and cut into 3/8″ dice
1/2 cup fruity white wine, such as Riesling
1/2 cup water
1 cup dry bread crumbs, made in a food processor
from about 4 slices of stale white bread
1/3 cup coarse semolina or farina
1 teaspoon unsalted butter or canola oil
(to grease the soufflé dish)
4 large egg whites
1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 tablespoon sugar
Special equipment: baking sheet, food processor, electric mixer (optional), 7″ soufflé dish, charlotte mold, or a similar diameter pot about 31/2″ deep, parchment paper
1. Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350°F. Place the bread cubes on a baking sheet and dry them without allowing them to brown, about 7 minutes. Don’t turn off the oven.
2. In a fairly large bowl, beat the butter by hand or with the help of an electric mixer until it gets foamy. Add the sugar and egg yolks, then continue beating until the mixture becomes fluffy and very pale. Mix in the cinnamon, salt, and optional lemon zest, then fold in the raisins and diced apples.
3. In another bowl, soak the bread cubes for about 2 minutes in the mixture of wine and water, squeeze them out, and discard the remaining liquid. Add the moistened bread to the first bowl and mix well.
4. Gently fold the bread crumbs and semolina or farina into the bread and apple mixture, and let it rest for about 10 minutes so that the semolina or farina absorbs some of the moisture. Meanwhile, generously grease a soufflé dish, line its bottom with parchment paper, then flip the paper over so that its top surface is greased, too.
5. Whip the egg whites and cream of tartar to soft peaks, add the sugar, and continue whipping until it forms firm peaks. Stir about half of the whipped egg whites into the thick and chunky bread mixture to lighten it, then gently fold the remaining egg whites into the mixture.
6. With a rubber spatula, transfer the mixture into the soufflé dish, making sure that there are no holes, and use the spatula to smooth the top surface. Cut a round piece of parchment paper to fit inside your soufflé dish and lay it on the mixture in the dish. Place the dish on a baking sheet.
7. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 minutes; remove the parchment paper from the top and continue baking for an additional 25 minutes. Let it cool for 10 minutes in the dish set on a cooling rack; run a knife along the side of the dish to release the kugel, and invert the kugel onto a large plate. Peel off the parchment from its bottom and allow it to cool for another 15 minutes. Place an inverted serving plate over it, and carefully flip it over so that its top side faces up.
8. Serve the kugel lukewarm or at room temperature. It is terrific by itself, but for visual contrast, you could also serve it with a little raspberry syrup.
Approximate time for preparation: 1 hour 30 minutes, plus cooling time. Serves 8.