In May 2020 my mother, Dr Gertrud Friedmann, died. Born in Slovakia, she survived the Holocaust in hiding with her family. You can read a summary of her experiences here. On April 28, 2022, when I finally could face going through her possessions, I found a manuscript she had written. Although she spoke a lot about the Holocaust, she had not told me that in 1994 she sat down and wrote down her memories. The manuscript recounts her childhood in Piestany and wartime experiences in great and sometimes harrowing detail. It related experiences I had never heard about, even though my mother's story was familiar to me both as a family member and through my work as an oral historian, especially for the AJR Refugee Voices Holocaust Testimony Archive. Gertrud was expertly interviewed for the archive by my colleague Dr Jana Buresova. But the experiences outlined in her manuscript were a revelation.
As my mother had been battling with dementia in the last years of her life, it was amazing to have found such a long text which she wrote when she was in her sixties. I felt that her voice had suddenly been restored and it took some time for the implications of this last message from my mother to settle. In truth, they haven't settled yet. I am still working out what I should do with the material, both as a family member and as a historian. But, in June 2023, I took a trip to Slovakia to visit and revisit the places described in the manuscript. For now, I'm calling this journey 'Project Papulka', and I will be documenting it here.
Why does it seem a good idea for this new venture to be called 'Project Papulka'? Project is easy, this is an ongoing journey with no certain end. 'Papulka' is less obvious. I was wondering how to refer to my mother. Should I call her 'Gertrud' or 'mum', 'mother' or 'Oma'? Then I remembered her nickname 'Papulka', lovingly given to her by her childhood friends. She told me it means 'our little chatterbox' in Slovak. My mother certainly liked to talk—and also, as I discovered after her death—to write. The other reason why I like the name 'Project Papulka' is because it transcends the period of the Holocaust. Although my mother's experiences and losses in the wartime have undeniably shaped her, working with her memoir means for me to look at her entire life and to celebrate her sense of agency, independence and adventure.
— Bea, July 7, 2023