‘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
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