Jerri Zbiral: finding a new path to Lidice

Jerri Zbiral

Anniversaries give us the chance to think again about the meaning of events and their relevance today. Next month it will be exactly 70 years since the destruction by the Nazis of the Czech village of Lidice in June 1942. The facts and figures are well known, and even in the shadow of huge numbers later killed in the Holocaust, still remain shocking: 340 people were murdered, including 88 children and all but two of the men of the village. They were killed systematically and in cold blood in a calculated attempt by the SS to prevent Czech insurgency. The extent to which Lidice later became a tool of communist propaganda, using rhetoric that equated Nazi Germany with the “West”, is also well known, and for many Czechs, the memory of Lidice still remains tainted by this legacy. So what can Lidice mean to us today, now that all but a handful of the survivors are no longer with us and with memories of both Nazism and Communism fading? David Vaughan brings us a special programme.

Jerri Zbiral
Jaroslava – or Jerri – Zbiral has been trying to make sense of Lidice for most of her life. She grew up in Canada. Jerri was born three years after the war, but her mother, half-sister and grandmother were all survivors of the massacre, and Lidice was a very real presence in the household as Jerri was growing up. The family had fled Communist Czechoslovakia in 1949, when Jerri was still a babe in arms, and this added a further layer to an already complex story. Her mother would talk constantly about her traumatic wartime experiences and they became part of Jerri’s own identity, but step by step she came to realize that she could not live her life in the shadow of the memories of others and decided to find her own path to understanding what had happened in Lidice. As an artist, she was well placed to find ways of expressing complex personal experience and several of her works have responded to the wartime tragedy. In the early 1990s she also made a documentary film about Lidice, called “In the Shadow of Memory”. The film led her to further unexpected encounters and reflections that in the end were to transform her life and give her a very different perspective on the meaning of the Lidice legacy. For the rest of this programme, I’ll be talking to Jerri Zbiral.

What happened to my family

František Kubík at the Czech News Agency,  photo: Archive of the Kubík family
“My mother is a Lidice woman. She lived in Lidice with her first husband, František Kubík and my half-sister, Eva. When Lidice happened on June 10 1942 her first husband was killed. He was actually the first man to be shot. He was a journalist who worked at the Czech News Agency, ČTK, and he was a German speaker. He had been born in Berlin of Czech parents, so they spoke Czech at home. They were a Czech family, but they happened to live in Berlin.

“When he was 18 years old he had a choice of whether he wanted to be a German citizen or a Czech citizen. He decided for Czech citizenship. He came to this country, did military service here, met my mother, got married, had my sister and moved to Lidice because he saw what was coming and he felt that, if they lived out in the country, then at least Eva would have something to eat. He was shot on June 10, and my mother and sister were taken to Kladno with all the other women and children. They separated them after three days. My mother went off to the Ravensbrück concentration camp with the rest of the women, where she spent the next three years. My sister was not selected in Kladno, when they were selecting children that had blue eyes and blond hair. However, the way her life was saved was through her aunt – her name was Ella – she was František’s sister and she lived in Berlin. When she heard what had happened in Lidice, she wrote to the Gestapo in Kladno and said, ‘My brother has been killed and I’d like to take Eva,’ and they ended up giving my sister to Ella. So she was the only known quantity of all the children, because she would write letters home to relatives and they knew where Eva was. No one knew where any of the other children were.”

Anna Kubíková,  Eva Kubíková and František Kubík,  photo: Archive of the Kubík family
It must have been very hard for Eva, not knowing what had happened to the other children…

“It was really terrible. She wouldn’t talk about these things later, so I really don’t know how much she knew. I don’t know if she knew her father was killed or not, but she did know her mother was in a concentration camp, because at one point Ella took her and her own daughter, whose name was Renata – she is still alive and I’m very friendly with her – and she brought the two children to Ravensbrück.”

She actually took them from Berlin to Ravensbrück…

“Yes, she brought the two children to Ravensbrück. My sister had a bouquet of flowers, and they knocked on the gates of the camp that they want to speak to Anna Kubíková.”

Do you think they had any idea where they were going – that they were visiting a concentration camp?

“Ella knew, but she was a little bit crazy that way, and I say crazy in a fond way. She was a very short woman and she was incredibly powerful and full of guts, and she wanted to do this. She wanted my sister to see her mother. So she did this. There was a woman guard who answered at the gate and looked at her like she was crazy – and said basically, “You’d better get out of here because you could be locked up yourself.” So she left, but she didn’t just leave. She walked around the perimeter of the camp and was speaking to the children very loudly. Some Polish women who were working out in the fields saw them and heard them and somehow word got through to my mother that there was this woman with two children walking around and they thought that the little girl – my sister – looked like my mother. So my mother knew that my sister was alive. I think Ella wanted her to know that Eva was safe.”

Brno ‘death march’ | Photo: Post Bellum
And at the end of the war what happened to your mother? I know there was chaos as the front approached, including the “death marches”, during which several of the Lidice women died.

“Yes, there was a death march, when the women were just marched out of the camp, and then of course things happened and people started to disperse. Slowly they made their way and would hitch rides on trucks and buses.”

The third anniversary of the destruction of Lidice,  June 1945
Did your mother head first for Berlin or for Prague?

“I think they headed straight down to Lidice, and she arrived with a group of women in Lidice on June 10 1945 – on the third anniversary of the destruction of Lidice. This was the first gathering in the village to commemorate the massacre, because Lidice had become such a cause célèbre. My sister was actually already there. She was brought to Lidice that day, she was in national costume, and my mother also made it on the same day. She arrived just as the ceremony was over and the crowd was dispersing, and then someone at some point said, ‘Oh, there are some more Lidice women who are arriving.’ So there were all kinds of brouhaha around. That’s when my mother saw my sister and it was this amazing tearful reunion. So my sister was the first child to return.”

A bitter homecoming

Men had been shot by the Nazis in Lidice
Was there any resentment among the other women who had lost their children because your sister had been spared the fate of the other children and had managed to survive the war by being adopted by her aunt in Germany?

“It was absolutely horrific. Since Eva was the first one to return my mother was accused of having been married to a German and that was the only reason why Eva had survived…”

… even though her “German” husband had been shot by the Nazis in Lidice?

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Exactly. He was shot with everybody else. There were 192 men that were shot.”

And what happened to your mother after the war?

“Two years after the war my mother met my father and they got married, and I was born in 1948 – in the year the communists came to power – and that created a whole lot of other issues, because my mother did not want to have anything to do with politics. She was the only Lidice woman not to join the Communist Party. It was less a question of being against communism or not agreeing with it than it was that she was just apolitical. She wanted a quiet life. She said: ‘I spent three years in a concentration camp because of a political act and I don’t want anything to do with politics. Politics is dirty and I want nothing to do with it. Besides, no one’s going to tell me what to do. I had to follow orders for the last three years and I’m not going to follow anybody’s orders.’ My father lost his job and that’s all due to what I guess was a very small group of very powerful Lidice women, who insisted that where he worked – he was an electrical engineer – they kick him out and then that he go to work in the coalmines.”

Do you still feel an element of tension when you go back to Lidice all these years later because of what happened – the way that politics split the Lidice women themselves?

“Well, this is something that happened seventy years ago and before I was born. I know that when I was coming here in the ‘80s, there was still this original group of women that treated our family very badly, and all I got was the evil eye. They didn’t personally do anything for me but there was a lot of talk. I think it’s really time to move on. We left the country, and that was our decision.”


When did your family leave the country?

“We left in 1949. I was only about seven months old.”

By that time it must have been pretty difficult to get out of Czechoslovakia.

“It was very difficult to get out of the country and this is what we did. My sister had gotten a permit to go into Southern Bohemia and to go up into the mountains, because she had suffered typhoid during the war. So my parents got a medical permit to go down there, and our whole family went. One day, there we were, having soup for lunch, and my father noticed that the border guards were coming down the hill with their dogs for lunch. So he said: ‘It’s time.’ We put our soup spoons down, gathered everybody up, left the money – we left absolutely everything. It’s basically the cliché that we took just the clothes on our backs. My mother had an extra pair of diapers for me and that was it. We left. And we went up into the mountains and crossed over into Germany.”

Bavarian refugee camps in 1949
It’s ironic in itself that you escaped to Germany.

“It is ironic that we escaped to Germany. When we were in the German refugee camp, we applied, I guess, to several countries, and I don’t really know what the mechanics of it was back then, but two countries, Australia and Norway, were taking refugees at the time. My mother didn’t want to go to Australia because there are too many snakes in Australia! So we went to Norway. We left Norway when I was five-and-a-half years old and we emigrated to Canada. My father didn’t like it there. It was too cold and he was not a socialist. It was a socialist system and he was very unhappy there. So we left and emigrated to Montreal, where I grew up.”

As you were growing up, several thousand miles away from where these very traumatic things had happened, did your family talk about all the things they had been through – and the complexities of all they had been through?

“Incessantly. Non-stop.”

So you weren’t one of those families where the parents kept quiet, started a new life and wanted to make sure that the children wouldn’t have to live with all the “baggage” from the past?

“No. My mother talked about Lidice all the time. She talked about Lidice, she talked about Ravensbrück, she talked about my sister being torn from her arms. It was almost every day. There were references all the time.”

And did your sister talk about it as well?

“My sister didn’t talk about it at all. My mother talked about it all the time, but my sister didn’t.”

Do you think that was because she was a child when it all happened and it left very deep wounds in her?

“It left tremendous wounds for her and I think only now in her 70s she’s coming to terms with that. And my mother, for some reason, had an absolute need to talk about it all the time. And I was her sounding board. Unfortunately I was really very traumatized by it, because I don’t think you can talk about these things to very young children.”

Also the child can’t experience it vicariously. You can talk to the child about what happened to you, but the child won’t have been through the same experience.

“Exactly. And the other thing was that my mother, father and sister had all three of them been through the war. I hadn’t. I was born after the war. So the three of them had a certain experience and I didn’t have that experience. So, when they told the stories, I absorbed them, and I had a need to belong to the rest of my family, of course. So, by listening to these stories, it made me able to belong, but it also really traumatized me. I was too young. And the constant repetition, you can’t do that to small children.”

A child of the ‘60s

Jerri Zbiral in 1966,  photo: Archive of Jerri Zbiral
As a teenager in the 60s, you must have been tempted at times to rebel and say: “I’ve had enough of all this. I want to lead my own life.”

“Oh, I was very much a ‘60s child. I still am very much a ‘60s child! I’m always questioning. I’m always rebelling. If ever my parents would say something, I’d go out of my way to do the opposite, which many children do. But it was the ‘60s, it was a very unusual time and it was very hard, I have to say, growing up in a traditional Czech family in Canada.”

But at the same time – through your mother – what had happened in Lidice also remained very much part of you.

“I had taken all of my mother’s stories and all of her history and all her memories, and I made that myself. I made that all as my own. Her memories were my memories, her history was my history, her stories were my stories, her experiences became my experiences, her victimization became my victimization, and I became a victim as well, which, of course, does not create a very healthy psychological environment. It created a lot of obstacles for me to overcome, which I only realized a little bit later in life, and I realized that I really needed to make some changes, and I needed to do something about this anxiety and this hatred and this paranoia and fear of strangers and suspicion. I had the classic immigrant refugee syndrome that we all had. Yet I really didn’t want it and I had a tremendous amount of anger. It was only much later that I was able to come to terms with that anger and really understand what it was about.”

Jerri with her mother in Canada,  photo: Archive of Jerri Zbiral
Clearly you did manage to come to terms with it and overcome it, because you’re talking about it as something that was in the past.

“Yes, absolutely. And it was basically through the making of my film, ‘In the Shadow of Memory’ that helped start this whole process.”

So tell us a bit about how that film came about.

“Before I talk about the film I have to rewind a little bit. I grew up in Montreal and went to graduate school in Rochester, New York. I was there for three years, then I moved to Chicago, where I met my Jewish-American husband. We got married and he knew about the story of Lidice and about my life, and in 1982 it was his suggestion that we really should start audiotaping my mother – that I was in a unique position where I could get first-hand information. So I started a whole series of interviews with my mother where I was getting the stories on audiotape. And then in 1986 we came here for the first time and started interviewing survivors as well.”

This was when the communists were still in power here, so it was a good deal more difficult to do that than it would be today.

“Exactly. But I managed to get a visa to come here. They were less than cooperative, but I found basically everything I needed to find in the Anti-Fascist League archives and they were absolutely fantastic. I sought out certain Lidice women who had been my mother’s childhood friends and I interviewed them.”

And your mother didn’t come with you…

“No, she did not. My grandmother had died by then and after my grandmother died she didn’t want to come here any more, because every time she came, it always created problems and issues and she didn’t want to have anything to do with it.”

Did she try to discourage you from coming?

“No, she didn’t, and I think that even if she’d tried I would have done it anyhow. But she was curious why I would want to do all this research, and of course she’d obviously told me all these stories, so finally, when I admitted one time how much I hated the Germans and hated Germany, she was very surprised what kind of an effect all these stories had had on me, and then she said: ‘I probably should never have told you any of this.’ And she was quite upset about that.”

The wrong kind of Germans

And what did you do with all the material you had been recording?

“In 1992 a friend of ours who is a film maker said: ‘This is a great story, we should really go and make a film.’ And we said: ‘Sure, why not. Let’s go and make a film. What a great idea.’ So we managed to gather a little bit of money and we brought a film crew to the 50th anniversary of Lidice. We went and re-interviewed the women that I had audiotaped. We filmed during the 50th anniversary, and as serendipity had it, we met a group of Germans who were there for the anniversary. They happened to be from Bremen. I ended up speaking to them, and it was an experience that started to change my life. I was very aggressive at first, I was very angry. I was almost like a lion that was in a cage, pacing back and forth, and I was ready to attack, because I was so angry. Here we were, standing in the exact same spot where it had all happened, and here were my enemies and here was my chance to lash out. And something very curious happened.

“I don’t know how it happened, but it just did. Instead of lashing out, instead of attacking these people, I just broke down in tears and said, ‘Can you help me?’ And they did, and, as it turns out, they were from a Bremen peace group, and they would come to Lidice every year and lay a wreath as a symbol, to apologize on behalf of the German people. Of course, you could say that these were the wrong kind of Germans for me to attack, but of course they ended up being the right kind of Germans for me. I would say that they exorcised a demon. I had all these demons in me, I had all this horrible energy and this hatred, and they kind of threw a cloak over me and they derailed me – they derailed this fast-moving train that didn’t really know where it was going. They stopped me in my tracks and basically showed me that I had other options, that I had another way to look at this tragedy and that you had to look at Germany in a different way. And this was a generation that was also born right after the war.”

Jerri Zbiral: ‘In the Shadow of Memory’
So, in a sense you were in a similar position, in that you were both trying to make some kind of sense for yourselves, in your own lives, out of the traumatic experiences of your parents’ generation.

“I didn’t know this until ten years later. Ten years after we made the film they decided they would like to bring me to Bremen. They translated the film into German and brought me to Germany in the year 2002. It was only there that I came full circle and realized that when I was here in a room full of my enemies, the descendants of the perpetrators, and I’m the descendant of the victim, that we were really essentially the same, that we were both caught up in this horrible event in history, and that we were both victims and were both stuck, and that we really had to get unstuck and move on with our lives, because this was our parents’ history. This was not ours. The Germans had absorbed all this guilt and I had absorbed all this anger, and guilt and anger don’t go anywhere. Guilt and anger have no positive resolution.”

You’re an artist and it seems to me that you’re in just the right profession to be able in some way to deal with these things, because there aren’t many professions where you can deal in such a complex way with your own past.

“I feel very fortunate that I am, because a lot of people don’t have that kind of outlet. Writers have it, artists have it. We’re able to take this emotional energy and turn it into something concrete that you can hold on to, whether it’s a piece of two-dimensional art, whether it’s words on a page, whether it’s a painting or a photograph.”

And have you made any works of art that have responded directly to this question?

“I did. This is one of my favourite stories. It is when my son was thirteen and my daughter was nine. Things were working out. I was already on my way to working out these things. In the basement of our house there were a lot of exposed pipes that were really ugly and rusted. And I had proposed to my children, ‘Let’s paint the pipes, let’s paint the room and let’s make it agreeable.’ So we went downstairs, I took out all the leftover cans of paint and I put them in front of my kids and said, ‘Well, why don’t you choose some colours?’ And my son said, ‘Why don’t we do red?’ and my daughter said, ‘Why don’t we do yellow?’ and my son said, ‘Why don’t we do black?’ And I said, ‘No, we can’t do that!’ Immediately, it was a knee-jerk reaction, ‘No, we can’t do that!’ And they said, ‘Why?’ and I said, ‘Because those are the colours of the German flag.’ At which point all of us were just stunned. We were silent, and my children just looked at me. They couldn’t believe what had happened. And I thought to myself, ‘Nuts – I’m doing it again!’ My daughter looked at me with pity in her eyes and she said, ‘Mom, you really have to stop doing these things.’ And my son just shook his head, walked upstairs and said to his dad, ‘Mom just hasn’t learnt a thing from making the film, has she?!’ All you had to do was mention those three colours and it was kaboom – no, we can’t do that!

“What I ended up doing after this event, which, of course, I was very upset about, was making an art piece where I took pipes and painted them yellow, red and black and took photographs – my work is photography-based mixed media, where I use photographs, where I write and where I use objects. And I put it into a shadow box frame. So the piece includes these pipes, and I have feathers and I have writing and I have photographs – and I think it’s one of my most successful pieces.”

Drawing strength from history

A word that is often used in terms of Czech-German relations is “reconciliation”, but that isn’t quite the same thing, is it?

“No, because reconciliation means forgiveness. I can’t in reality forgive what happened in Lidice. I can’t forgive. It’s not for me to forgive. I wasn’t there, so I can’t forgive anybody for anything. It hadn’t been done to me. I’m still pretty angry about it, because it happened, and it damaged my mother, my family, my sister, but the way I can reconcile with it is that I’m not making my mother’s history my own, and I’m moving on with my life, and I’m trying to understand that history and make it into an advantage rather than a disadvantage. I’m trying to draw strength from it.

“People go through a lot of events in their lives, obviously not as horrific as this one, but ones where they do have to come to terms with certain things in their lives. For example, when we show my film in the United States and then we have discussions afterwards, sometimes – when there are people there like social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists in the group – a lot of them talk about the traumas of rape victims, traumas of people who have had horrible experiences of torture in other countries. A lot of people go through trauma and you have to come to terms with that trauma. There are different ways of dealing with it. So we’re hoping that our film can also go beyond World War II and maybe address other issues in people’s lives.”