Rachael (right) with her younger brother and grandmother, Hana, in the early 1990s.

Rachael (right) with her younger brother and grandmother, Hana, in the early 1990s.

In 2009, I sat down with my grandmother and asked to hear her story. At that time, I wasn't quite sure why I was so fervently recording it, typing each of her words down as if they were answers to unknown questions. For over a year we sat and talked; it was our time together, our unique moments as grandmother and granddaughter. When she passed away in 2010, I discovered a wealth of archive material that sent me on a spiral into her life story. She left behind photographs, diaries, letters, deportation papers, immigration papers, and report cards that dated back to the 1920s and spanned throughout her 85 years of life. In the beginning, I puzzled together her journey as a young refugee - scanning, digitizing and archiving her nearly two decades of statelessness as a result of the Holocaust. As the only survivor in her family, she lived on the periphery of war after fleeing Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia at the age of 14. 

It has now been 10 years since that first time we sat down to talk. Her story has returned to me a lost European identity and provided a deep connection to the immigrant experience. I have lived and traveled through Central Europe, Scandinavia and across the United States, building relationships with the people who aided in her survival during and after World War II and with those seeking survival today. I have aimed to immerse myself into the languages, landscapes and lives that formed her into the grandmother I knew. Because of her story, I have learned what it is like to love deeply and also how to move forward with grief after experiencing great loss. I have also seen first hand, the difference that an ordinary person can make in extraordinary times. 

As the world has changed, so has this story. In 2015, the refugee crisis came to the forefront of international media and I found myself watching the events of my grandmother's past unfold in real time. We are now witnessing the fragility of democracy and have a responsibility to return to our recent history to remind ourselves that in the lead up of World War II, many believed 'it could never happen here.' 

It is only in recent years that my grandmother's story has stopped feeling linear and has started to feel cyclical.

In my own personal life, I have faced the unexpected and sudden death of my young husband. He was an immigrant to these United States and my teacher in love and loss. Watching him die was the moment grief entered this story as a main character as in my early years of reporting, I did not have access to that piece of my grandmother's puzzle.

The world would be a sad place without progress if we didn’t try to change the injustice we see and feel.
— Hana Dubova

Now, I am working on two books - one is a memoir that entwines my grandmother's story of displacement with my own physical and emotional journey to connect with her life. The other is a photo book which entangles various family stories from the past and present. The third component of this project is education. I use Hana's story to create curriculums that speak to our past and present. I also offer lectures, presentations and workshops for students and adults. 

To learn more about this project, I invite you to visit the website : www.followmyfootprints.co.

You can also find this work on Instagram (@followmyfootprintsproject) & Facebook.