‘We must never stop telling sto­ries of the Holo­caust’

Art dealer Oliver Sears lives in Dublin in peace­time, yet his mother’s ex­pe­ri­ence of hid­ing in Nazi-oc­cu­pied Poland still haunts them both. Mother and son talk to CLODAGH FINN

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - AGENDA - AT THE SHARP END

It’s un­set­tling to hear gallery owner Oliver Sears (50) ex­plain that even now, nearly 75 years af­ter the Holo­caust, he has the where­withal to flee his Dublin home in the mid­dle of the night with his beloved wife Cather­ine and start a new life else­where — if it ever be­came nec­es­sary. “That,” he says, “is my re­al­ity.” He tries not to al­low his fam­ily’s ex­pe­ri­ence at the hands of the Nazis in World War II to gov­ern him, but it is im­pos­si­ble to for­get that his Jewish mother — and by ex­ten­sion him­self — would not be alive if she had not been thrown from the win­dow of a train on its way to Tre­blinka ex­ter­mi­na­tion camp in 1943.

Iron­i­cally, the act that saved Monika Sears’ life was also the one that marked her most deeply. She won­dered what she could pos­si­bly have done to be ‘thrown away’ so vi­o­lently. For years, she be­lieved that it must be be­cause she was a ter­ri­ble bur­den.

It hadn’t been safe to ex­plain why the adults were brib­ing the guards to be near the door and win­dows, and even though her mother and grand­mother jumped from the train min­utes later, con­fu­sion re­mained.

“It took a long time to con­vince me that she didn’t want to throw me away. The ex­pla­na­tion was in the head, the im­pact was in the body,” the 79-year-old says, speak­ing in Dublin af­ter a rare pub­lic ap­pear­ance at Trin­ity Col­lege Dublin.

Monika doesn’t like to re­call be­ing “goaded by ter­ror”, as she so elo­quently puts it, but her son be­lieves it’s im­por­tant to keep alive the per­sonal tes­ti­monies of the Holo­caust, par­tic­u­larly at a time when the far-right is on the rise all over Europe.

“I’m do­ing it for him,” she whis­pers.

It’s clear she finds it enor­mously dif­fi­cult to re­visit her mem­o­ries of be­ing shut­tled from build­ing to build­ing dur­ing the War­saw Ghetto Up­ris­ing in 1943 be­fore board­ing one of the trains that car­ried hun­dreds of thou­sands of Jews to their deaths.

For many years she said noth­ing about the Holo­caust, even though her mem­o­ries were some­times so strong she could taste them in her mouth.

They left a deep psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal trace. Many years af­ter the war, she and her hus­band were pass­ing through a train sta­tion on a ski­ing trip to Aus­tria when the word ‘Achtung’ (at­ten­tion) came blar­ing over the loud­speaker. “I dropped into a dead faint,” she says.

Life was never go­ing to be easy for a child who was born in Poland in 1939. In Novem­ber of that year, her fa­ther, Pawel Rozen­feld, a wealthy fac­tory owner, was taken from his home­town in Lodz, Poland, and shot by an Ein­satz­gruppe (death squad) in Lagiewniki woods out­side the town along with 14 oth­ers.

When he didn’t re­turn home, his wife and in­fant daugh­ter went to War­saw to look for them. They ended up in the War­saw Ghetto and Monika’s ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of the ghetto and of her mother’s newly bleached hair. It was an “im­prob­a­ble corn gold” that could pass as Aryan but Monika looked “all wrong” with her dark hair and brown eyes.

Not that she was aware of the im­pli­ca­tions. She didn’t know that she was Jewish. She didn’t even know she was with her mother who thought it best to pass her­self off as an aunt. Dur­ing the war, she moved be­tween Aunt Krysia (her real mother) and her nurs­ery maid, Aunt Pola, who took her to the coun­try. She learned to make her­self small and in­con­spic­u­ous.

“I didn’t cry. I never said I was hun­gry. I did ex­actly what I was told. I could spend hours on my own.”

She remembers be­ing a stow­away in a count­ess’s flat in War­saw and spend­ing en­tire days, over a pe­riod of months, sit­ting qui­etly un­der a ta­ble with her toy doll, toy arm­chairs and books.

On the sin­gle oc­ca­sion she dis­obeyed instructions, peek­ing through the out-of-bounds win­dow, a bul­let whis­tled past her, singe­ing her hair.

Monika’s clos­est pal, Bolek, a boy of six or seven, was not so lucky. She saw him fall to the ground be­side her af­ter a bored solider took a shot at him. She says she bent down to try “to stuff his guts back into his bro­ken body” and was fu­ri­ous when her mother pulled her away. “I thought I could put him to­gether again.”

Her son, Oliver, might never have heard any of these ex­pe­ri­ences if his mother hadn’t been moved to write them down in an ex­tended let­ter to her first grand­child, Edoardo, in 1991 af­ter her first trip back to Poland with Oliver. Now pub­lished as a mem­oir, From My War to Your Peace, Love Nonna looks at the war from a child’s point of view and ex­plains that the most im­por­tant les­son upon ar­rival in post-war Eng­land was learn­ing not to ap­pear dif­fer­ent.

“I had to learn to speak ac­cent-less English, to be­come a nice English girl. I learned very quickly. You talked about pup­pies and ponies and bul­ly­ing older brothers,” Monika says now, em­pha­sis­ing the P of pup­pies and ponies in Queen’s English to make the point.

She pauses, then adds: “You didn’t talk about the guns and shit and fear”. She put all that be­hind her.

Monika went through school, read English lit­er­a­ture at univer­sity, ran an an­ti­quar­ian book­shop, mar­ried and had three sons. Her dream was to give them the kind of life the chil­dren she saw on the Corn­flakes box had — care­free, bright and pros­per­ous.

And it was just like that for her youngest son Oliver un­til he was six years old, he says. Then he started to no­tice that some­thing was awry.

Their Catholic-Pol­ish house­keeper Richard, who was deeply trau­ma­tised by what he had seen as a teenager in Poland, ter­ri­fied a seven-year-old Oliver with sto­ries of mass mur­der.

The fam­ily home in north Lon­don also had reg­u­lar vis­i­tors who spoke of con­cen­tra­tion camps and had “tele­phone num­bers tat­tooed on their arms”.

“My child­hood was punc­tu­ated by a lot of con­fu­sion,” Oliver says.

He knew there were se­crets in his fam­ily and some of them took years to emerge. He was 10 be­fore he dis­cov­ered that the man he knew as his grand­fa­ther was not his bi­o­log­i­cal grand­fa­ther; his ‘real’ grand­fa­ther had been lost in the war.

“Once I un­der­stood that my fam­ily were on the sharp end of this, it lit some­thing in me that has never been ex­tin­guished,” he says.

He moved to Ire­land in 1986 and opened the Oliver Sears Gallery on Molesworth Street in Dublin in 2010, but his fam­ily his­tory still shapes his view of the world.

“The Holo­caust side of my life is some­thing that is deeply desta­bil­is­ing. It’s like be­ing in a

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