My Jewish Grandfather, Handpicked by Hitler to Curate the Museum of Extinct Races?
Bram Presser on Unraveling the Unlikeliest of Family Histories
Two years after my grandparents died, I opened the Australian Jewish newspaper to find a photo of my grandfather staring up at me. It wasn’t entirely unusual to see him there from time to time—he had been a prominent and much-loved member of the Melbourne community. Mostly, it would be in passing comments from former students about his encyclopedic knowledge of Hebrew and the influence it had on them. Or someone would recount a colorful episode from his 41 years teaching at Mt. Scopus College, the largest Jewish day school in the southern hemisphere. However, this time it was different. This article was a two-page feature claiming to tell his Holocaust survival story, one that he himself had never told. For the first time in my life, I learned that my grandfather, Dr. Jan Randa, had been hand-picked by the Nazis to curate the literary collection of Hitler’s Museum of the Extinct Race.
Anyone who has visited Prague and toured the old Jewish quarter will likely be familiar with the museum. The Nazis, it is said, had planned a grand display of Jewish life in all its degeneracy so that, for generations to come, visitors could come and offer thanks to Hitler for ridding Europe of its vermin. In a perverse twist, the museum was to be housed across the disused synagogues of Prague. Although stories about it flow freely in the spoken history of occupied Czechoslovakia, there is no documentary evidence of the plan. No official edicts, no correspondence, no memos. No survivor testimonies. Nothing. We who are interested in particulars of the past, who yearn for more than rumors and hearsay, are left to wonder about the details. What we don’t expect is that they might have been found on our own doorsteps, if only we’d known to ask.
My grandparents, however, were not the kind of survivors to entertain questions. Theirs was a carefully guarded silence, designed to stop them transmitting trauma to their family and friends. Which isn’t to say it didn’t occasionally slip out. My mother remembers waking in the middle of the night to her parents’ sobs and screams. My grandmother’s various anxiety and depression medications were a permanent fixture on the kitchen bench, stacked neatly beside the electric frying pan in which she cooked her signature garlic lamb chops. My grandfather would disappear into his study for long periods of time, only the clacking of his typewriter and the waft of tobacco from his pipe letting us know he was there.
But no matter how apparent the scars, my grandparents never actually spoke about what happened. And so, we were left to create stories of our own from what we knew of them after the war: his renown as a teacher, her remarkable physical strength. By our reckoning, he had taught children in Prague, in Theresienstadt and in Auschwitz-Birkenau before they were fed into the machinery of death. She lay track sleepers for trains that brought Jews to their slaughter. It was a neat narrative that fit into accepted survivor templates. In it, we found comfort and, to a certain extent, answers.
That all ended with the article. It took me a while to shake the confusion, the sense of betrayal, brought on by what I read. I wrestled with my memories of this man who I had loved so deeply, and who I thought I knew better than anyone. We had shared a special bond from the outset. I was born with severe heart defects and he bargained with God for my survival: he would return to faith if I was spared. Once I recovered, he took it upon himself to watch over me. Throughout my school years, I would go to his office almost every lunchtime. As I matured into adulthood, we spent countless hours talking, reveling in our common interests: law, literature, Jewish philosophy, WWE wrestling. And when he died, on a night that I had taken a break from my vigil by his hospital bed, I felt that I had lost a part of myself. Now I had to contend with the likelihood I hadn’t really known him at all. And that it was up to me to change that. So began my eight-year quest.We spent countless hours talking, reveling in our common interests: law, literature, Jewish philosophy, WWE wrestling.
At first, there was little to go on. A museum about which I’d long heard stories, and three other names mentioned in the article. Rabbi Adler, Rabbi Murmelstein and Dr. Eppstein. The curators of the other exhibits. Unsure of where to start, I visited Yad Vashem in Israel where I was told what I already knew. There were no records of the museum or my grandfather. I was sent further north, to a kibbutz that housed an archive center specifically dedicated to Theresienstadt, the Czech concentration camp. They were able to shed a little more light on the story—Murmelstein had been the last elder of the camp, and Eppstein the one who preceded him. They couldn’t possibly have worked on something that took them back to Prague, as the article suggested. And there was any number of people called Adler. As for my grandfather, they had no record of him beyond his transport into the camp and, later, to Auschwitz. Had he been a Privileged Jew, as anyone working on such a specialized project must have been, something would have been written down. Less than a fortnight after I had begun, the trail was already cold.
On my way back to Australia, I decided to visit Prague and catch up with my cousin, Ludvík. Although 20 years older than me—his mother, Hana, was my grandmother’s youngest sister—we’d always had a friendship that transcended age. We sat at a café and talked about our family and its strange history. I told him about the article and the futility of my search. He seemed sympathetic but distracted. I called for the bill and, while we waited, he pulled out an envelope from his pocket. “I’m sorry you find nothing about grandfather,” he said in broken English. “But maybe this interests you.” He carefully slid out some paper from the envelope and flattened it against the table. “This is letter from your grandmother, Daša. It is from the camp. Maybe Auschwitz. I try with translate.” Running his fingers along the faded pencil scratchings, he paused at a single phrase. “Here. We have escaped with our lives… I tell you gas is used on a large scale.”
I knew my great-grandmother Františka had been a convert to Judaism and, as such, was not sent to the concentration camps. I’d never stopped to consider what that meant for the others. Ludvík explained that Františka’s husband and two eldest daughters, including my grandmother, were arrested and transported to Theresienstadt and, later, to Auschwitz. The two younger daughters were allowed to stay. The family kept in contact through letters that were smuggled out of the various camps, and Františka made sure to get them crucial supplies to stay alive. Ludvík had heard some of this from Františka herself in her dying days, but it wasn’t until recently that he’d found the letters while cleaning up his mother’s house after she died.I knew my great-grandmother Františka had been a convert to Judaism and, as such, was not sent to the concentration camps. I’d never stopped to consider what that meant for the others.
Encouraged by my interest, Ludvík began to tell me more. That my grandmother’s family had lived next door to the house in which the paratroopers hid after assassinating Reinhardt Heydrich. That my grandmother had arrived in Birkenau the day before the Sonderkommando uprising and was imprisoned in the barracks closest to the action. That one of the letters had been intercepted.
Back in Australia, I began to build on this scaffolding of stories that framed my family history. In the absence of hard evidence, I turned to fiction and found that I was hitting upon a different truth, a knowledge and understanding of my grandparents as people that no record could provide. Indeed, as reconceived, my book would have been a work of imagination, drawing on anecdotes to guide the narrative, and casting them through a prism of Jewish legend and fable, had a series of extraordinary coincidences not changed its course.
Out of the blue, I received an email from an octogenarian survivor who had heard about my search for this man called Jakub Rand. He was pretty sure it was the same man he had been trying to track down for over 30 years—his teacher in occupied Prague. He sent me the class photo and there, clear as day, was my grandfather. Around the same time, the Jewish Museum of Prague uncovered records pertaining to a secret project that, while not supporting the theory of a Museum of the Extinct race, provided a basis for understanding why people came to believe it existed. My grandfather’s name was in all of them. Listening to his former student, and reading through the Nazi records, I came to realize that the truth was just as strange as any fiction I was writing. And that the line between the two might not be so clear.