From Ireland to Auschwitz
In 1948, when Andrew Kohn was an infant, his Jewish family fled communist Czechoslovakia and moved to Dublin. Now retired, he has made his first return trip, a journey that took him to Auschwitz and Terezín and into surprising parts of his family tree
Revisiting his family’s past: Andrew Kohn with his fathers Leica. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Documentation: the American Red Cross letter that informed Kohn about his relatives who died in the Holocaust; and his Czech birth certificate
Revisiting his family’s past: Kohn with the photo albums and documents that informed his research. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Terezín Ghetto Museum: the dates beside each name indicate that they were children. Photograph: Andrew Kohn
Auschwitz: the administration and medical buildings. Photographs: Andrew Kohn
Auschwitz: more than 30 people would occupy each cell. Photograph: Andrew Kohn
Auschwitz: flowers in the gas chamber. Photograph: Andrew Kohn
When Andrew Kohn travelled from Dublin to the Czech Republic earlier this year an unexpected reception awaited. A television crew gathered to film his lunch with the mayor of the town of Bruntál, who treated Kohn as if he were a long-lost friend, while a local historian asked him so many questions that an interpreter struggled to keep up. “The greeting was beyond anything I could imagine,” says Kohn, a 66-year-old photographer, who lives in Blackrock, Co Dublin.
The trip was his first return to the land he left as an infant, the excitement sparked by a folder of documents he brought with him. It contained slivers of history encapsulated by an old article in the Kent Messenger newspaper with the headline “The man from behind the Iron Curtain”.
The story concerned Kohn’s father, Sigmund, a Jewish grain merchant who moved to London as a refugee, in 1938, and avoided the German invasion of what was then Czechoslovakia. He subsequently married a schoolteacher named Marion McCombie and returned to Bruntál as part of the Czechoslovak Army Abroad, as the military arm of the Czech government exiled in London was called, knowing only vaguely of the deaths of his relatives in the Holocaust.
Not long after settling into life under Czechoslovakia’s Third Republic, however, the Kohns and their three young children were forced to leave once more by the incoming reign of communism.
The documents Kohn’s father kept from that time – prewar material in both Czech and German – are a trove of information. “Given that German-speaking Czechs were deported after the war, and that there were so few Jews in Bruntál to begin with, much of the local population had practically been removed,” says Kohn. “So what I brought along opened up whole new areas of historical research.”
One particular possibility stood out. Sure, Kohn’s welcoming party were fascinated about how his parents had left communist Czechoslovakia, just as they were about the business his ancestors ran in Bruntál for generations. But they were also eager to know if he could be related to John Kerry, the US senator who is now President Obama’s secretary of state, whose grandfather Fritz Kohn had once lived nearby.
This wasn’t quite what Kohn had anticipated. His connection to the place extended little further than being born there in 1948, just as communists were taking control. By the time Kohn came into the world, his father used to say, the hospital had gone from being private to public. But 18 months into that shifting political landscape, the Kohn family left for London and then, in 1955, moved to Howth.
In the years since, the idea of revisiting his birthplace never struck Kohn as much more than something he’d like to get around to one day. After retiring from Killester College of Further Education last year – he was a photography teacher – Kohn realised how he’d like to spend the first free birthday he’d had since taking on the job.
“Once you get to a certain age you think, I better do it now, while I’m still going,” he says. “And when you grow up with a birth certificate that you can’t read, because it’s in a foreign language, something about that seeps into part of your consciousness.”
Making sense of those documents had always been part of the inspiration to return, and in looking for ways to make the trip more meaningful Kohn began planning an itinerary and establishing contacts in the Czech Republic. “I didn’t want to be just a dumb tourist who steps out of a hotel and goes, ‘Okay, this is where I was born. What do I do now?’ ”
Despite having no known connection to John Kerry, Kohn was treated to a thorough tour of the city by a historian, Pavel Rapušák, who excitedly copied the documents and promised to research Kohn’s family history further.
“I just connected with him,” says Kohn. “Even though we didn’t speak the same language we had the same Pentax camera, and he invited me out with his photography group afterwards. None of them spoke English, but we had an amazing evening just drinking beer and showing photographs.”
Photography had been the other motivation behind Kohn’s trip. Returning to the site of his birth, in Ostrava, offered fantastic possibilities: the Vítkovice industrial complex was home to the first factory hospital in continental Europe, serving the largest iron and steel works in Austria-Hungary.
Although the hospital still functions, the industrial complex is now a tourist attraction recognised by Unesco as a European heritage site. The day Kohn visited, the imposing blast furnaces and angular, decaying buildings contrasted with the sight of a street fair held in the complex, all clowns, merry-go-rounds and children’s laughter.
Elsewhere in Ostrava, he ascended Halda Ema: a “volcanic” slag heap made from more than four million tons of waste rock, its high temperatures giving rise to trees and plants, its peak offering a haze-infused panorama above Ostrava-Vítkovice.
Accompanying Kohn was Jiri Hrdina, a photography teacher he’d arranged to meet, who spoke about life under the communist regime as they wandered back towards the city, taking in a former miners’ village now crumbling apart.
Another document in Kohn’s folder brought him to Auschwitz. It was a letter from the American Red Cross confirming the deaths of his relatives in the Holocaust. It included copies of the deportation cards belonging to his aunt Irena and her husband, Hugo, who had been sent to concentration camps on January 23rd, 1943.“There were 2,000 prisoners on the transport,” the letter reads. “However, only three people survived. The above-mentioned are not on the list of the people who returned home.”
The enormous scale of Auschwitz underlines that reduction of human lives to numbers. But, to Kohn’s surprise, this is precisely what left him unaffected by the visit. He didn’t get the sense of personal loss or feeling of evil that other visitors speak of – and his grey, ghostly shots of fences and barracks reflect that emptiness.
“I know that sounds very glib, but you have to understand this is something I knew about all my life. My father and I had many conversations about the Holocaust, and I will always be grateful to him for being so intelligent and pragmatic in accepting what happened to our family.”
Kohn pauses, tapping the table for emphasis. “The big thing I learned from my father was an incredible belief in the family unit, which I still have. He had a fairly small family that was completely annihilated, and I think that’s what hit him the hardest.”
Kohn’s grandmother Ida never made it beyond her deportation to the Theresienstadt ghetto, in Terezín. It’s a place he hadn’t given much thought to before the trip, but his perspective on it has changed since returning in May.
The SS ran Theresienstadt as a labour camp known for interning elderly Jews and serving as a transit point for those en route to extermination. At one point its population ran to 58,491 people, crammed into barracks originally designed to accommodate 7,000 troops.
Visually, Kohn says, there’s no sign that anything bad took place. It’s just a town so small that he couldn’t find anywhere to stay, forcing him to spend a night sleeping in the back of a car. But walking through an exhibition commemorating Theresienstadt, Kohn scanned a list of names and dates only to realise just how many children had been held there.
“When you see all the children’s writings and notebooks – typically teenage kid stuff – that hits you hard. I think the thing we tend to overlook is the future generations wiped out along with the millions who died. To see all those children’s names, you have to imagine what would have happened if they got married, had kids and grandkids. We have lost whatever potential those people offered.”
Terezín also answered a question that had haunted Kohn for years: how was it possible to transfer millions of people living ordinary lives – whether they were Jews, Gypsies, communists or homosexuals – from their homes to their eventual deaths in gas chambers?
“Theresienstadt was the staging point,” he says. “You brought people in from one level and gradually weakened them. In preparing a society to kill large numbers, you first have to take those people through a process of degradation . . . and I don’t think we realise just how calculated that whole system of extermination was.”
Kohn had no expectations for his week-long trip to the Czech Republic. It was not intended as a sentimental homecoming, he says, or a pilgrimage to honour the dead. He knew from working as a photographer that reality has a way of eluding preconceived ideas. But its highlight was in the kinship he felt with Czech people in Bruntál and Ostrava, the rapport he struck with likeminded photographers – new friends he has kept in touch with.
It was also in appreciating how fortunate he was not to grow up feeling like an emigre, pining for a life left behind. “What I really got from this is a nice reassurance of something I’ve always known: that I belong anywhere I feel comfortable.”
Andrew Kohn has written about his visit at andrewkohnphotographer.com/blog