A holocaust survivor from Croatia taught me today that the best medicine for all one’s troubles might be laughter.
I got an assignment to find a survivor for our story on the Holocaust Remembrance Day and do a short phone interview. It sounded almost disrespectful – how can you just expect to call them, fire away with your questions and then hang up? I’ve once interviewed a guy who survived Srebrenica and it went on for hours.
No such problems with this lady.
– I have nothing else to do, so I’ll be waiting for you – she told me when I called.
– Can I just ask you where you were during the war? – I asked hesitantly, since the person who gave me her number wasn’t sure.
– In the Budapest Ghetto. I was also on the way to Auschwitz, but I escaped. I was a naughty girl, so I escaped three times and survived. The good ones, they died – she said.
An hour later, we’re sitting at the Jewish Community, my first time there. The sign on the door says just that there’s a kindergarten. When I ask for Lea, they know who it is and tell me to go upstairs.
She’s a small lady with grey hair, 82 years old. Later when my photographer arrives, she asks if she should put some more lipstick. But for now, she’s telling jokes.
Loads of them.
– What’s the happiest day in Croatia?
– I don’t know.
– The day of pre-election silence.
She tells another one about a Jewish boss who wants to throw “a cheap party that will make employees happy”, and his manager replies that he should hang himself “because it’s cheap and the workers are guaranteed to like it”. She also remembers that she once told a joke about holocaust and her cousin slapped her.
– She told me: how can you joke about it when so many people died? But, I’ve always used humor to brush these things away from me – she says.
Humor is her therapy. She says that, when Spielberg taped her for his Shoah Foundation, all the shots were shaky because the cameraman couldn’t stop laughing.
But, in the meantime, she tells a story about years of running and hiding, of death and fear. In 1941, her family left Croatia, then a Nazi proxy-state, and fled illegally to Hungary, where the Horty regime protected its Jews. As they had no papers, they spent years in hiding, until a regime change in Budapest and the subsequent hunt for the Jews. Her parents were put into the Budapest Ghetto, where her mother died. She, in her teens, along other young Jews, was separated from her family and destined for “work camps”. In fact, they were supposed to be taken to Auschwitz, but were lucky since, because of the advance of the Soviet Red Army, it was no longer possible to move prisoners by train. So, they were taken on foot. After six days and nights, with no food or water, and with the weak ones being shot, she decided to escape. She managed to get to Budapest, only to wind up in the Ghetto, in a room she shared with 20 other young Jews. One night, a Hungarian soldier, who was secretly a communist, smuggled them out and brought them to a Red Cross orphanage. They were really too old to be there, but they used it as a hiding place. Eventually, they were found out and taken to the Danube, along with thousands of other Jews, to be shot. But, she says, after they started shooting, a Red Army fire was heard, and the shooting stopped. She ran again, to another Red Cross center and it was there the end of the war found her.
She later found out that her mother didn’t make it. Eventually, she returned to Zagreb with her father.
– I didn’t understand it at the time. It was all an adventure for me. I was so sure I would survive. The only thing I wanted was to go back to my Zagreb. Every other night I dreamed of Ban Jelacic [the statute on the Zagreb main square]. But, when we came back, they [the communist regime] took it down – she said.
After the war, she wanted to become a comic actress, but her father wouldn’t let her. So she became a translator and most of all loves translating jokes. Everyone calls her “a merry widow”. She married three times and after those three marriages, she can only tell me that freedom is priceless.
My photographer left Lea with a kiss on her hand. I left her worrying that my today’s story about holocaust might wind up being too funny or too light.
Luckily, when I came home, I saw that the prime time movie on Croatian Television was La Vita e Bella. Lea wasn’t the only one to use laughter as a way out of the darkness.