Nina F. Grünfeld
Frida: My Long-Lost Grandmother’s War
Translated from the Norwegian
by Rosie Hedger
© Nina F. Grünfeld
Translation © Rosie Hedger
Frida Enters the World
The Village of Lelesz
A New Democracy
The Spy Affair
On the Move
The Fall of Czechoslovakia
Back in Bratislava
In the Mikveh
New Year’s Day
Andrej Hlinka Square
The Fall of Hungary
The Last Winter of the War
On Track and Side-tracked
Images and Illustrations
The first time my paternal grandmother, Frida, turned up in police reports was the spring of 1931. Intelligence officers in the city of Košice, in the south-east of Czechoslovakia, penned a top-secret report on the subject of spy-related activities in the region. The report was signed, sealed, copied and sent to the police headquarters of the major cities in the country: Prague, Bratislava, Brno, Opava and Uzhhorod. It was also sent to the Ministry of Defence, the military headquarters and the military police force. Intelligence officers had no option but to take the report seriously, in other words.
The report from Košice was just one of many documents concerning Frida Grünfeld. When I first embarked on mapping out my grandmother’s life and eventual fate, I found evidence and fragments of history contained in archives all over the area formerly known as Czechoslovakia. At that point in time, my father Berthold, Frida’s son, had been dead for ten years. He never learned most of what I now know about Frida, in spite of the fact that he was present when she was interviewed by police in 1931, a tiny embryo nestled in Frida’s womb, just beneath her beating heart. Frida was also unaware of what was going on within her body, as well as the challenges that awaited her.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wondered who she was. Childish curiosity and questions about what my grandmother looked like, if we were in any way alike, about who we are and where we come from, they all unfurled and transformed into a desire to find out more in early adulthood. I wanted to slot together the fragments that my father remembered to create something cohesive. The little he recalled and that he was willing to share was tainted with a sense of misfortune and misery. He knew which country he had been born in, that Frida had named him Berthold, and that he had been given away after that point. He knew also that he was Jewish. That was all.
After a while, my own personal motivation took the form of artistic expression. Three films and a book took my father’s history as a starting point, but at no point did I manage to make it any closer to Frida.
The knowledge that I hadn’t explored the archives sufficiently thoroughly became obvious after the Fall of the Iron Curtain. In the years that followed, it became easier to access archives in the former eastern bloc countries, and they were able to share more of their material with visitors. As collections were digitalised and made available online, I found that I was also able to make the most of this.
My pursuit of Frida has its own chronology. The discoveries I made didn’t follow the order in which they’d occurred during her life, which occasionally caused confusion. On other occasions, it led me astray, but the more that I found out, the closer she became. My search was yielding results. I was able to slot one piece of the puzzle after another into place, and with every piece that fitted, I became all the more enthusiastic to see the entire puzzle in its finished form. It became an obsession. The mystery of my grandmother’s life had to be solved. To understand her, I’ve come to realise, is also to understand myself, the privileges that I enjoy, and how little is required to transform the course of one person’s life.
But why were the police so interested in my grandmother? What had she done, and what happened to her after her interrogation in Košice? How much do a person’s circumstances influence their life, and why did she give up her child?
On more than one occasion, I’ve wondered whether Frida’s story ought to be left untold. Perhaps my father had done right by keeping his cards close to his chest when it came to the little that he recalled from the Bratislava of his childhood, and perhaps Frida quite simply ought to be allowed to rest in peace. But surely the dramatic history of central Europe, of which Frida and Berthold formed their own part, must also have had its highlights? In between every painful exertion there must also have been a sense of hope, and from time to time perhaps even joy and laughter? I searched for something, anything, signs of life, documentation, perhaps even a photograph that might reveal the fact that history was good, too. As my search reached its conclusion, I made a bizarre discovery that convinced me I had Frida’s blessing to tell the following story.
Extract from ‘Frida Enters the World’
The Slovakian village of Lelesz was so small that the storks in their nest at the top of the abbey spire could see both where the village began and where it ended. Below the towering heights of the abbey, small brick houses were lined up in rows. Each had its own fruit and vegetable patch, its own well and picket fence. Small gravel paths divided the houses, and in the middle of the village was an avenue of acacia trees, between the church and the synagogue. Viewed from above, it was impossible to say which brick buildings housed Christians and which housed Jews. The gypsies, on the other hand, were easily to spot. They lived on the outskirts of the village, on the boundaries of the extensive fields that transformed into a glimmering sea of golden sunflowers every summer.
The population of Lelesz was proud of its storks. Not all of the villages in the region had the privilege of being home to the proud birds when they returned home each spring after wintering in Africa. A village without a stork’s nest was hardly a real village at all, in the eyes of many. It was as if their presence could be considered some sort of blessing. As if the storks brought the promise of enhanced, peaceful coexistence, arriving with the spring and summer, and thanks to them, the little children were brought into the world safe and sound, just as Frida was on Thursday 3rd September 1908.
Frida was born into the Jewish Grünfeld family. Frida’s mother, Hani, had already given birth to seven children and knew what to expect, but now approaching forty, her body had grown weary. Recurrent headaches and joint pains had long plagued her. Fortunately her midwife, Anna Reskó, was present to help her, as she had several times before. Anna came from a family of local Christians; the women in the family had served as midwifes for several generations. It was normal to follow in one’s father or mother’s footsteps. Frida’s father, Moric, was a shoemaker, just like his father.
A frequent topic of conversation among the inhabitants of Lelesz at the time was the ongoing linguistic conflict between those whose mother tongue was Hungarian, and those who spoke Slovakian. As a result of the village forming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for many hundreds of years, numerous languages were spoken. According to the census of 1910, 99.7% of the population spoke Hungarian as their native language, but in the streets and taverns, other languages including Slovakian, German, Ruthenian and Yiddish could also be overheard. The linguistic conflict had raged for generations, but had been reinvigorated the previous year when the Černová massacre had taken place.
Disagreements regarding the consecration of a new church had initiated the turmoil in Černová. The local population, who desired an independent Slovakia, wanted young, nationalist priest Andrej Hlinka, born and raised in Černová himself, to perform the consecration ceremony. But Hlinka fell into disfavour with his Hungarian bishop, Sándor Párvy. After leading the pro-Slovakian protests, he was suspended from his role as priest and sentenced to two years in prison. The local population preferred to wait for Hlinka to be released to hold the ceremony, but the bishop stepped in. Two Hungarian-speaking priests were sent to perform the consecration – a provocation that resulted in the deaths of 15 people and the injuries of many others.
The event drew attention, both nationally and internationally. Several parties desired independence and fought for the rights of minorities, attempting to capitalise in an idealistic manner on the events that had occurred. Hlinka successfully had his prison sentence reduced and gained the sympathy of the outside world.
This was the society into which Frida was born, in the final days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Several hundred years of central command from Vienna and Budapest were challenged by growing local powers. Frida lay snug in her crib at this point, gently rocked by her mother, father, three older sisters and two older brothers – the eldest almost twenty years her senior. Frida’s parents could just as easily have been her grandparents, and her eldest brother Salomon could have been her father. This was the way of things in poor families who had nothing in abundance but children. Generations were staggered and affectionate bonds were formed between siblings just as they were between parents and children. Scant resources and cramped living conditions meant that the prospects of leading a life other than the one they knew were limited. Many young people chose to emigrate.
In 1910, when Frida was two years old, her older sister Mari left her family behind to travel to America with their neighbour, a girl named Szeren Herschkovics. Mari was 17, Szeren 16. From Lelesc they travelled to Antwerp, where they boarded the MS Finland. On Monday 25th July, they arrived at Ellis Island. Once there, they stayed with Hani’s older brothers, their uncle David Zchwarz, who lived on Broadway in Brooklyn.
Four years later, when Frida was six, her older brother Jozef also emigrated. Aged 19, he sailed from Bremen on a ship by the name George Washington. He left his homeland just in time to avoid conscription in the First World War.
Extract from ‘A New Democracy’
After Regina and Salomon had emigrated, only Frida, her older sister by two years, Helen, and her little brother Herman, remained in the family home. Helen was considered the family bookworm and Herman worked as an apprentice in Moric’s shoemaking workshop, but Frida was of a different mould. Had she inherited Hani’s temper and Regina’s tendency to fall in love with ease, the stage would have been set for conflict in an age where the practice of religion and a culture of honour were central within society. Throughout the small villages there was talk of who behaved decently and who carried themselves improperly. Everyone had rebels and black sheep to deal with, to their own great indignation and amusement. It was quite common that rumours spread quicker than the act they purported to describe. Young, beautiful women like Frida were the most vulnerable to such tales. A young man could get away with most things, as long as they avoided theft and murder. After all, he was just a boy. Girls, on the other hand, were afforded precious little tolerance when they overstepped societal norms and rules. Nevertheless, in most villages and Jewish shtetls, there was a girl who took a wrong turn, who spoke too loudly, sang too often, danced with a little too much passion. Were she to take a wrong step with one foot, everyone knew that it wouldn’t be long before the other followed suit. It was simply a case of waiting and watching. One wrong step and a young girl’s fate was sealed. There was nothing more that could be done. She had damaged her family’s honour beyond repair. The guilty parties floundered in disfavour. The only possible reparation that could be made in the face of such devastating shame was to cover all the mirrors in the house, as Jews are required to do when a death occurs in the family, and to have the father or brother read the kaddish, a prayer recited in times of mourning. Once considered dead to all intents and purposes, she was also required to leave the village.
Extract from ‘Birth’
Frida’s child was born on the Sabbath day, Friday 22nd January 1932. As a young, unmarried, first-time mother, she must have felt stigmatised, alone and afraid. She volunteered very little information about herself when she arrived at the maternity unit of Comenius University Hospital in Bratislava, other than the fact she was 23 years old, her child’s father was unknown, and that she was registered as living in Piešt’any. In other words, she had travelled to the city in order to give birth. Nobody knew her here.
Historically speaking, social welfare services such as orphanages, old people’s homes, poorhouses and health services were taken care of and managed by the various religious communities. Catholics, protestants, Orthodox Jews and Neolog Jews approached their respective community institutions in order to seek help. The system had been reorganised towards the end of the 19th century, but the practice remained unchanged. One received help from one’s own people. In the spirit of the Talmud, anchored in Bratislava’s strong Yeshiva culture of orthodox schools established for the study of the Torah, Mishnah and Talmud, a Jewish system of help had been created that was both specialised and advanced, far beyond that which the Catholics and Protestants were able to offer. These sought to redistribute resources and allowed women like Frida, who were unable to pay for healthcare, to deliver their babies in safety.
In the immediate wake of the birth, Frida gave her healthy son the name Bartolomej, a name that sounds a great deal more Catholic than Jewish. In the absence of a father, the boy was given Frida’s surname of Grünfeld.
It is most likely that Frida remained in hospital for a week, as was common at the time. Over the course of this week, new mothers were assisted in establishing good nursing routines, and were taught how to wrap cloth nappies around tiny babies’ bottoms and how best to rock their babies to sleep when they cried. On the maternity ward, Frida would have heard the other mothers tend to their babies and would have seen them form a bond with one another as they swapped tales of milk production and painful nipples; she would also have witnessed proud new fathers and grandparents visiting the new additions to their families.
It was different for her. It was most likely that everything had been planned before her arrival in Bratislava, and it may even have been one of the Jewish doctors at the hospital who had taken pity on her and made contact with the social council in the most liberal of the two Jewish communities in the city. The child was to be removed from its mother’s care.
Frida was not able to arrange the boy’s circumcision, brit milah, which should have taken place on the eighth day of the infant’s life, before the boy was handed over. But when Frida gave Berthold to the Jewish congregation and entrusted them with placing him in a safe home, she knew that they did so in order to preserve his Jewish identity. Berthold became a child of the Jewish community.
Extract from ‘The Fall of Czechoslovakia’
It was a lot to take in over the course of one day. Frida had been found. She had lived and died without us having known anything about it. She had loved, been loved and had another child. That was a comforting thought. But had she ever attempted to track down her first-born son, Berthold? The time had come for me to share everything that I had learned with my father.
‘And there was me thinking I came from the gutter,’ Berthold said, clearly moved. He was sitting on the sofa with Gunhild and listening intently as I enthusiastically conveyed my recent discoveries upon my return from Israel. The idea that traces of Frida’s life remained intact and that these might form part of a happy ending, sparked something within him. His new cousin Eveline in Stockholm was just a phone call away, as was his half-brother Misa, in Slovenia.
‘How do you feel about suddenly having a family, after all these years of being alone?’ I asked him.
‘I’ve got no problem with it,’ Berthold said with a smile, sounding almost shy.
‘But what if it turns out that they’re not your family after all? Will you be disappointed?’
‘That sort of thing can be cleared up with a simple DNA test,’ he said, his arm outstretched as if to offer a blood sample then and there. ‘We’ll have to pay a visit to Misa to get him tested too,’ he said.
That was simply what had to be done, the idea of a beginning – the possibility of having his own family. Dad was ready to set out on his journey home.
Extract from ‘The Mattress’
‘What if I’ve been wrong all these years,’ Berthold said. ‘What if it turns out that she’s not as disrespectable as I’ve always believed.’ It was September 2004, two months after I’d been to Israel and learned that Frida survived the war and married David Mel, a doctor. We were sitting on the train from Berlin to Bratislava via Prague: Berthold, me, and the cameraperson that had helped me to make a documentary film broadcast on Norwegian television.
‘Well, here we are, on the same route I travelled 65 years ago, only in the opposite direction this time,’ he said. Our destination was Slovenia, where we would be meeting Misa, Frida’s other son and Berthold’s long-lost half-brother. On the way there, we would be stopping in Bratislava in order to access the national archives. Through my contact with the Slovakian embassy in Oslo, I had managed to get in touch with Lenka, a friendly, English-speaking student living in Bratislava. She had agreed to help us access the archives and interpret any findings. We agreed to visit the archives the day after our arrival.
Lenka read documents and explained what she found. We learned for the very first time that Frida came from Lelesz, where she had been born 3rd September 1908, and that her mother was named Hani and her father Moric, as well as the fact that she had grown up with three sisters and three brothers. We learned about encounters with the police, with numerous changes of address reported. In several documents, Berthold’s correct date of birth was listed. The more we read, the more obvious it became to us that the Frida who had managed to escape via steamship across the Danube in 1940 could not, in fact, have been Berthold’s mother and my grandmother. In that light, Misa, Berthold’s half-brother, the dentist in Slovenia, could not be his half-brother, and David, the doctor who had married Frida in 1944, could not be his step-father.
Berthold grew pensive. ‘It’s as I’ve always thought,’ he said. ‘I don’t come from a good family after all.’ What could I say to that? His assumption that he came from the ‘gutter’ had now been documented and archived, once and for all. How could Yad Vashem have been so wrong? Perhaps, much like us, they had such a powerful urge to make positive discoveries when the opportunity arose that they clutched onto that possibility with all their might. That was a cardinal sin. Ordinary critical thinking had been non-existent. Instead it had been no more than a desirable notion that had ruled their actions, and which had ultimately led my father and I on a path to meeting with a much-desired brother in Ljubljana.
We sat there in silence and allowed the reality of the situation to sink in when Lenka suddenly let out a gasp. She had been leafing through some papers.
‘What does it say, can you tell me?’ Berthold had asked her, intrigued.
‘This appears to be a witness statement made in connection with something that must have happened on New Year’s Day in 1940,’ Lenka explained. ‘Someone was accused of having stolen something, and when the guard, whose name was Bolebruch, appeared at the house to restore law and order, Frida replied in Hungarian that he should, um…’
‘Come on, tell us,’ Berthold insisted, impatiently.
Lenka stuttered. ‘Um, no, I’m afraid I’m not sure how exactly to translate that.’
Extract from ‘Andrej Hlinka Square’
After the dramatic events of New Year’s Day, Frida no longer frequented the narrow streets between the Presidential Palace and the Blumental Church. Instead she spent time at Andrej Hlinka Square, which only a few years beforehand had been known as International Worker’s Day Square. It was here that the proud working classes and supporters of Czechoslovakian social democracy had previously met to mark May Day and to sing The Internationale. Now the Fascist paramilitary militia looking to instil fear in political opponents, gypsies and Jews had taken over and turned the place into a popular meeting spot.
During the day, the square was used in the same way as it had been previously, by visiting farmers selling fruit and root vegetables and local residents on their way to and from work. In the evening, however, the place became crowded with drunk, lovesick guardsmen dressed in black shirts with bandoleers and boat-shaped hats with tassels. There stood Frida, 32 years old and 158cm tall in her stockinged feet – five centimetres taller in heels. With her symmetrical features, her dyed, reddish-blonde hair and a good set of teeth concealed behind full, red lips, she offered herself up to them. For Frida, the square was a place of work. She could earn money here. The key things were to avoid being arrested or exposed as a Jew.
Being a member of the Hlinka Guard under Beneš had been forbidden, and was punishable with up to twenty years in prison, but as soon as he went into exile, it became a free for all for everyone who wanted to march in step.
The duties of the Hlinka Guard after the national socialist Slovak People’s Party takeover was incorporated in several government decrees. By performing certain tasks, such as promoting love for one’s country and upholding internal security, the Guard would act as a counterbalance to the existing army and police force. To begin with, most of the recruits to the Guard had been from middle class backgrounds, but as time passed, the Guard formed stronger bonds with the German SS and numerous recruits dropped out. Instead, many farmers, unskilled workers and criminals signed up. With the increase in recruits from these backgrounds, use of violence also became more widespread. They greeted one another and the wider world by raising their arm to give a Nazi salute and shouting the official greeting Na stráž! – On guard! The Hlinka guard incited fear, but Frida knew that behind the dark uniforms and tall boots were overgrown boys seeking validation, fellowship and an outlet for suppressed aggression and sexual frustration. She could offer them all of these things, if it weren’t for people such as police constable Štefan Zdvonka putting a stop to things. On such occasions, the trek back to the police station on Špitálska was a short one. Perhaps she didn’t even mind. It offered her the opportunity to warm herself up, at the very least.
After half an hour’s wait, Frida’s name was called by the duty officer. Familiar with the routine, she handed over her purse and coat. The duty officer opened her purse. On the form listing her personal belongings, he noted that she had thirty-four crowns to her name.
Detention and Custody Report, read the subtitle on the following form, this time filled in by the prosecutor, Mr Viest. At the top of the sheet of paper were the words Police Directorate of Bratislava. In contrast to the notes jotted in pencil by the duty officer, Viest completed his report on a typewriter. He filled in the dotted lines: ‘13 February 1940, 00:30. Frida Grünfeldová, arrested at Andrej Hlinka Square.’
‘Religion?’ Viest asked.
‘None,’ Frida replied.
‘Bezvynania’, he wrote, none.
Being of no religion was synonymous with being Jewish, particularly when a person’s name also had a German ring to it. Further on in his report he noted her details, ‘born 3 September 1908 in Lelesz, Velké Kapušany – Madarsko’. Viest spelled Lelesz in the Hungarian way, with a z, also adding that Velké Kapušany was located in Hungary. In other words, his view was that Frida was Hungarian, no matter how she might try to pass for being Czech. Beyond noting her physical appearance, the prosecutor wrote the following: ‘The person in question is a foreign national living here without making any attempt to find work. She lives an idle life, earning a living exclusively via prostitution. Deportation recommended.’ The document was signed by Štefan Zdvonka, who had arrested her, as well as Viest himself. Frida was subsequently transferred to prison. By this point, the time was long past midnight and Monday had rolled into Tuesday.
Six days later, on Monday 19th February, the police directorate of Bratislava took the decision that Frida should be deported from Slovakian state territory. The decision was sanctioned with the following words:
Available documentation confirms without doubt that the individual in question is a foreign national. This person has no home, and has neither a job nor an income. There is a justified risk that the individual would become dependent on state support and would become a significant responsibility for the state to bear. From an official and state perspective, this represents strong grounds for deportation. This decision can be appealed through county offices in Bratislava via this office. The date by which an appeal must be lodged is 15 days from the announcement of this decision. Any postponement in the execution of this matter is illegal according to act 77, section 8/28. Urgent public interest is required for the postponement or reversal of this decision. Any complaints beyond this will be disregarded.
Extract from ‘Mittwerda’
At around 7 o’clock that evening, a truck pulled up outside Uckermark and the hospital barracks. Frida and the other sick women were stretchered out to the back of the lorry. They were then driven 2-3 kilometres back to the part of the main camp where Mittwerda was located. Few of the women made their way off the lorry unaided. They could no longer walk, and were pushed, thrown and shoved down from the vehicle and into the gas chamber. Did they weep? Did they understand what was happening to them? Did they beg for their lives? The women knew what awaited them. They were under no illusions; they knew they were about to die. Some were happy to escape – they welcomed death with open arms. The majority were fearful and had hoped they might make it out alive, now that peace must be just around the corner.
Otto Moll stood on the roof of the barracks. He was happy to perform the task of dropping the Zyklon B down through the mushroom-shaped hatches in the roof. ‘Nah, gib ihnen schon zu fressen!’ – ‘Now then, let’s give them something to chew on!’ witnesses reported having heard him say.
Frida was naked and exposed. She was no more than skin and bones, hairless and covered in blemishes, lice bites and scabies, with dried excrement and urine all over her thin legs, her ankles swollen. This was the surest sign that typhoid had her in its clutches, forcing her to her knees. In those minutes inside the gas chamber, as the cyanide gas was released through the holes in the ceiling above, quickly spreading from the floor and up the cold walls, displacing any trace of oxygen and forcing its way into their airways, as she found herself no longer able to breathe, instead feeling the burning of the gas in her lungs, as it turned her stomach and the paralysing muscle cramps caused her heart to explode – perhaps in that moment, death came to her as a liberating force. She was able to slip away from the miserable life she had been allocated.
On Friday 6 April 1945, just before the dawning of the Sabbath day, Frida was gassed to death. So many things in her life had occurred on the Sabbath. On that final Sabbath day, she found eternal relief, slaughtered like an animal and burnt, against Jewish custom. No kaddish – prayer of mourning – was read for her.
Frida was number 433 of the 480 on the list of those killed that Friday at Mittwerda. The entire list was complete, each and every life crossed out with a tiny check in the margin.