Jerri Zbiral (born Jaroslava Irena Zbíralová), 1948
Jerri Zbiral was born in Prague in November 1948. Her mother, Anna, was a survivor of the Lidice tragedy in 1942, which saw one Bohemian village razed by Nazi troops in retaliation for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich. The town’s women were separated from their children and transported to concentration camps, while all of the men were taken to a local farm and shot. Jerri’s mother spent the last three years of WWII in Ravensbrueck concentration camp, while Jerri’s sister Eva was sent to live with an aunt in Germany as part of the Nazi Lebensborn program. Jerri’s mother walked back to Czechoslovakia after the war and was reunited with Jerri’s sister. She subsequently met and married Jaroslav Zbíral.
Following the Communist coup in 1948, pressure mounted on the women who had survived Lidice to come out in favor of the Communist Party, which Jerri’s mother refused to do. Jerri also says her mother faced the jealousy of her peers whose children had not returned from the Nazi camps. In May 1949, the family left Czechoslovakia, crossing the border from southern Bohemia into Germany. They spent one year in Murnau refugee camp before settling in Norway. Jerri says the three years she spent in Norway were extremely happy for her as a child. Her father, Jaroslav, however, did not take to the country, and when his brother in Canada suggested that the family move there he jumped at the chance. The Zbirals moved to Montreal in 1954. Jerri first attended English-language Catholic school and then received her secondary education in French. She came to the United States in 1971 to attend graduate school in Rochester, New York. It was her first job which brought her to Chicago, where she has lived ever since.
In 1982, Jerri started to record the stories of her relatives and others who had survived the Lidice massacre. Ten years later, she created a film, In the Shadow of Memory, about the tragedy and her own relationship to the event. She has spoken with her husband Alan about Lidice on Studs Terkel’s show on WFMT Chicago. An art dealer, Jerri’s firm The Collected Image specializes in Czech photography in particular. As an adult, Jerri converted to Judaism. She became an American citizen in 2000. Jerri has two children.
Jerri’s mother called the men who assassinated Heydrich ‘cowards’
“She felt that the assassins were cowards and that they should have given themselves up. Or they should have immediately committed suicide. ‘Because,’ she says, ‘as a result of them hiding, we are the ones that suffered.’ So, I don’t know if everybody felt this way, but my mother felt that they were cowards and that they should have given themselves up.”
Jerri’s mother spent three years in Ravensbrueck concentration camp
“So, the commandant said ‘Okay so, who knows… does anybody here know how to sew?’ And my mother said ‘I do.’ And so she was put into the detail, into the factory with the sewing machines and I think there were like 50 machines there, you know, and all these women lined up making… they were mostly making coats for the men on the Russian front. And they would get either old coats and they would take them and have to turn them inside out, and then sew in linings and stuff like that, or they would take confiscated fur coats and turn them inside out and make them into coats for the men. Oftentimes apparently they found money sewn in, jewelry sewn in, of course that all had to be handed over because otherwise they’d be killed.
“She got beaten quite a bit in the camps, because you had all this quota that you had to fulfill. Since she was a professional seamstress she was really very good. And she worked very hard, and of course they were on starvation food – they got watered-down beet soup, watered-down oatmeal – that was kind of the food of the day. So, a lot of the women got sick, a lot of the women refused to work, and because my mother was very good because that’s what she did for a living, she was made head of the division, which she absolutely hated, because she was responsible for everybody’s work. So if somebody didn’t want to work, or didn’t work very well, she was the one who got beaten, you know, because she was the one responsible. Oftentimes she would sit down and finish off the work or do extra work so that they would meet the quota. But it became so bad that she convinced the commandant, the head, the capo, that she really didn’t want to do this. I don’t know what happened but eventually at some point they let her not be head of the division.”
Jerri’s aunt brought her sister Eva to see her mother in Ravensbrueck
“In terms of the children, no one really knew, except for my sister. My sister’s father, like I said, was František Kubík. Kubík had two siblings back in Berlin, one of whom was Ella, who is this remarkable woman. And she had the nerve – she had the chutzpah, that’s the only way I can think of… this good Yiddish word, chutzpah – to, after the tragedy, after June 10… she wrote to the Gestapo in Kládno and said ‘My brother was killed, you have my niece, I’m married to a German who’s a soldier on the Russian front. If you give her to me, I will bring her up as a German.’ And whoever was reading that letter that day must have been having a good day, because they said okay.
“At one point this crazy aunt of hers, whom I have met and who I absolutely love – she was like this short – an amazing woman… So she took my sister and Renata, with a bouquet of flowers, and went to Ravensbrueck, basically knocked on the gates of the camp and said ‘We want to see Anna Kubíkova.’ And the person who was at the gate basically couldn’t believe who this woman was with these two kids, and they sent her away. They said ‘You better get out of here, this is not a good place to be with two little kids.’ And so she was sent away. But she didn’t go. What she did was she basically started meandering around the perimeter of the camp, which of course had, you know, these fences and stuff, and was speaking very loudly. And the women that were working in the fields were Polish women. And they heard her, of course, and word got back somehow – there must have been this whole network in the camp – to my mother. Because the group of Polish women said ‘We saw a little girl and she looks like you, she resembles you,’ which of course caused… which was an amazing emotional thing for my mother. And so she knew that my sister was alive.”
Jerri explains why her mother left Czechoslovakia in 1949
“There was an awful lot of hatred and jealousy towards my mother, for many reasons. First of all, my sister was the first one to come back. She was very healthy compared to the other children, she was cared for compared to the other children. She didn’t have to work as a domestic, as a few of the girls had to do. She was very well treated, she was with her aunt – albeit it was very difficult, because at one point they left Berlin and tried to make their way down through Poland, but that’s another story which I won’t get into. She had it much easier than the other children had.
“Since my mother had been married to František, who worked for ČTK, who was an announcer, she had a very good pension. So not only was she receiving concentration camp money for the government, the Czech government, she was also receiving a pension, which was a sizeable amount of money, apparently, from ČTK. She was receiving it, as was my sister. So she had money. And by the way, they relocated all the women, put all the women in Kládno, and every Lidice woman was given a home in Kládno, and we were given a home where my grandmother lived on the ground floor and we, my mother and sister, lived on the top floor. So, they were living in Kládno, and then they had money.
“And the third thing was that there was an awful lot of German hatred after the War. Totally understandable – there are hundreds of stories of retreating Germans being stoned and beaten to death by mobs. And the sentiment was so high that they started saying that [my mother’s late husband] František was German, that he wasn’t really Czech. He was German, and that’s why my sister had been saved, and that’s why she was getting all this compensation and blah blah blah. And you know how things get on and get crazy. So there was an awful lot of… my mother had a really very hard time. She constantly had to say ‘No, Frantisek wasn’t German. No, I’m really sorry, I don’t know where your other children are.’ It must have just been this intense, crazy time.”
Jerri spent her first birthday in Murnau refugee camp
“He was always looking for ways to make money. So, he played cards. And he was very good at it, but he was also very good at cheating. And my son, my son Max, whenever we’d go visit, my father would teach him how to play cards, and my father would always cheat. And of course he would cheat on purpose, and he would make it obvious he was cheating, because then my son – who was maybe six, seven, eight years old, whatever – would say ‘Děda, you’re cheating!’ And he’d say ‘No I’m not!’ And he’d say ‘Yes you are!’ And that would be the whole thing. But that’s what he did, right? So he cheated a lot, and he won a lot. And my mother was also really terrified, because you know, the guys that were there, you know, they were rough and tumble guys, right. And if they caught him, they’d beat the shit out of him. So it was my birthday, it was November 16, and of course, there was no money for anything, there were no kitchens, you couldn’t bake a cake or anything. So my father apparently comes in from the night before, and throws down a bunch of money – German marks, you know whatever, whatever else there was, including a Canadian 20 dollar bill, or maybe it was American, you know, I don’t remember now – and tells my mother ‘go buy a cake!’”
Jerri says her parents created ‘little Czechoslovakia’ in their home in Canada
“They were never able to really, really get out of the country. Here they were in Canada, but they were never able to get out of Czechoslovakia, because there was little Czechoslovakia in our house. We spoke Czech, my mother made only Czech food. No other food but Czech, only Czech pastries and food. Great food, you know, can’t complain, especially the pastries, and she was a fantastic cook. But very limited, only Czech. I did not experience… we never went to other restaurants, my father traveled quite a bit with his work, so he was eating out a lot. He was away from home a lot, so when he came home, he wanted to be home so we never ate at restaurants. And if we went to the country or something, we packed food… Never went to restaurants.”
Jerri first returned to Prague in 1969
“And I felt, I think, for the first time… I mean I use the analogy that, and I think it’s pretty corny, that I was a flower ripped up by its roots with dirt still hanging on to it. And it really is, it’s not a unique thing to me… But at six months, I was ripped out of this culture, of this country, in very unpleasant, tension-ridden circumstances. But I still had this dirt attached. But my roots were just kind of dangling, you know, somewhere, and they would dry out, and then I’d be plopped in here, and then pulled out again, and then plopped down here. So I was always being shoved somewhere and then pulled out. And so you don’t really know where you belong. But what was interesting to me was going into the subway, the train, for example, or on a bus or a tram, and I’d sit there and everybody was speaking Czech in close quarters. And that’s all that I was hearing. And there was a kind of a bit of a comfort level – this total immersion. And I don’t know if it is genetic memory, you know, because being so young when I left. But it’s there – it was definitely there. And for years and years when I started to go back in the 1980s, I always had this kind of nervous energy before I went – this very nervous energy and then once I got there, there was like this calmness. Although now, having been there so many times, and being much more secure in who I am, and understanding more who I am, and being 62, having gone through a thing or two, I don’t have the desperate need to go back. I don’t have the desperate need to identify myself as Czech. Because before it was always ‘já jsem češka, já jsem Zbíral, já jsem češka.’ You know, and I don’t have that need anymore.”
Jerri says that her relatives in Czechoslovakia automatically thought that she and her family were rich
“Especially when we first came to Canada, not as much Norway, but when we first came to Canada, this was 1954, and Czechoslovakia was in a bad state. A bad, bad, bad, state. And the Czechs back home had an image of us in Canada, and I can say Canada and U.S. too, because I’m sure it was the same here, that we’re wealthy, that we have an easy life, that we have a big car, that we have big houses, that we have, you know, fur coats and all this stuff. A couple of interesting things – and you’ll find this with almost any ethnic group – one of the photos that they send back… my father’s boss had a Cadillac, which my father was allowed to take home on weekends every now and then, because he would also tinker around in it and fix little things here and there. So, what did my mother do? She borrowed a fur coat and we all got nicely dressed up, and we stood in front of the Cadillac and took a family picture of us in front of the Cadillac and sent it back. You know, and you’ll find every ethnic group doing that. But even before we did that, as soon as we got to Canada, we started to get letters – ‘Oh, send me this, send me that, gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme!’”
Category: Chicago, Oral History