Gabriella Karin walked slowly up Dunajská street in Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia. It was her first time on this cobbled sidewalk in 74 years. She was approaching a beige five-story apartment building. As she neared the doorway, she thought about how this building had survived World War II and decades of Communist rule. Incredible, she thought to herself, that it still stood.
Karin had survived, too. As a Jewish teenager, she’d hid in this building during the Holocaust for nine months. A Gestapo headquarters had sat just across the street. She turned to see it was now an ordinary, rundown building.
Karin, who’s now 88, wore a new jacket, which she’d bought for this trip. She wanted to look her best. It was white lace with tassels along the bottom. She was the subject of a documentary about surviving the Holocaust. Outside the building, she posed for the camera crew. Karin’s curly hair fell unevenly over the right side of her face. She had it dyed dark brown, so, she hoped, she’d look younger on camera. Before leaving her hotel, she’d applied red lipstick and filled in her eyebrows. It was cold for May, so she had begrudgingly put on a black puffer jacket. But no fashion snafu could smother her spirit. She’d grown up. She’d had a career (in fashion, no less) and a family. The last time she entered this building, she wasn’t sure she’d live.
Karin rang the intercom 10 times before anyone let her in. “You can trust me!” she pleaded in heavily-accented English. At 120 pounds, Karin was not particularly imposing. But add her seven-man film crew, and people were less eager to welcome them. Finally, using her rusty Slovakian, she convinced the person on the intercom they were not dangerous. He buzzed them in.
Karin walked up the worn stairs, stroking her handmade butterfly necklace. She never leaves the house without it around her neck. Butterflies represent hope. She knocked on the door of a third floor apartment. An elderly woman opened up. Karin tried to sound confident as she explained she’d been hidden here during the war and was hoping to see the apartment. After a brief call with the apartment’s owner, the woman welcomed in her unexpected guests. Karin stepped foot in the living room, in a daze. Memory had not failed. It was exactly how she remembered.
Karin suspected the current tenant was surprised to see so many people squeezed into the one-bedroom apartment. But Karin had only ever seen this apartment packed with people. She’d been hidden in this very room with her parents and seven others. For nine months they couldn’t leave and had to remain as quiet as possible.
When Karin saw the bathroom, she gasped. The camera men were setting up in the living room, and she was glad to be alone for a moment. She remembered squeezing into this latrine when bombs rained down. It had no windows, so it was the safest place for Karin, who was 13 at the time, her parents and the others to wait out the attack. Her father had nearly been hit by shrapnel in the main room. Even when the scary memories resurfaced, she could only think about how lucky she was to be alive.
In the main room, Karin noticed the walls had been painted over. But the layout of the apartment was exactly as she remembered. “My memory is like a young person!” she said to the closest film crew member.
But then she noticed a balcony off the kitchen. In these intervening decades, she had never thought about that patio. When she pushed open the door and felt the brisk air on her face, the memories rushed in. At 14, she’d been so ill that her family feared for her life. They could not call a doctor, so her mother let her crawl onto this balcony. In the fresh air, her fever broke. But she had to stay on her back, hidden by a concrete barrier. She’d risk being sighted if she stood up.
Karin milled about, trying to ignore the cameras. The director didn’t ask her questions. That would come later. He wanted to let her take it all in. She thought about her parents. To herself, she recited a Hebrew prayer for the young lawyer, the apartment’s owner, who’d risked his life to save nine Jews. Karin was not overcome with bitterness or sadness. She found herself smiling, especially as she stood on the balcony and gazed at the city without fear.