I am Katerina

Katerina SidonovaPrague
My father’s father was Jewish.
I never met him. He died during World War II when my dad was only two years old.
He was killed in the Small Fortress in Terezin, the Nazi camp.
That was all I knew about my grandfather.
There was a portrait of my grandfather, an oil painting. It hung in my dad’s study.
Visitors would point at the painting and ask: "Who is that man?”
My dad would answer, “He is my father.” And after a while he would add, “He died in Terezin. He was Jewish.”
For me the picture became synonymous with being a Jew.
When I was about four years old, my father’s aunt – my dead grandfather’s sister Manci from Hungary – , came to see us.
“Do you know who this man is, Katka?” she asked when we were all gathered in front of the portrait.
“A Jew,” I answered.
Her nose sharpened and the smile vanished from her face. She was angry. She turned to my dad and she said: “Is that how you’re bringing her up, Karol?”
I was growing up in the time of Communism.
Everything was gray. People looked as if they were hidden in a mist.
When I looked out at the street from the window in my dad’s study, people looked like mice hurrying home.
That was where we could be ourselves, where we could talk about what we liked to: where we could live. In our homes. There we could feel relatively safe.
Living in Communism was living under a lid.
But I was a child and I didn’t understand most of the things my parents discussed. I liked going to school, and I believed what the teachers told us.
My dad tried to lessen the influence of school on me by telling me what was true and what was only Communist propaganda. He could speak hours about historical events.
He has an enormous memory – and also a big imagination. So I often learned more than was even known about a subject.
My father became a salesman in a tobacco kiosk. I liked to be there with him. I was about six or seven, and sometimes helet me help him sell newspapers. There were a lot of magazines and newspapers. So many words to read!
Once a very nasty article about my dad’s friend Ludvik Vaculik, a writer, was published in a newspaper. My dadbrought scissors from home and cut the articles out of all the papers he was to sell. So he was fired.
He could only get work outside Prague. He used to spend one week in the woods and one week at home. In the woods he lived in a trailer, and when my sister Magdalena and I visited, we would go with him on his daily round checking something that had to do with water.
He told us he was “measuring water.” He would come to a place, look at a strange apparatus, and write down a number. Then we would go to some other place in the woods where he would do the same. After the checking was done he would sit in the trailer and write.
Then one night during the winter when we were in the mountains, staying with friends of my dad’s, he said “There’s something new happening in Prague.”
Magdalena was already asleep. But I was twelve, so I was sitting at the table with the adults listening to their conversation.
“What is it?” Tom asked.
“A petition: an open letter to the government. We call it Charta 77,” my dad answered.
“Do you think it could change anything?” asked Tom’s wife.
My dad shrugged his shoulders. “I hope so.”
A few weeks later I was ill and stayed home from school. My mom and granny were at work. and I was alone with our dog.
By noon I started to feel better and switched on the radio. I dressed and pretended I was a singer, using a skip-rope for a microphone and cord.
But the song was over, and an announcer started reading the news. I went to the kitchen to get something to eat, but froze in the middle of the hall.
“A group of unsuccessful writers have signed an open letter to the Government of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic. The letter, which is bears the title Charta 77, is an anti-socialist imperialist action by unsuccessful people who have nothing to offerour socialist system….”
I went back to my room, sat on the bed and shivered with cold. I could feel that this was a turning point. I knew too well that this moment would change our life. I don’t know why I was so sure. It must have been something in the announcer’s voice.
The Communists were angry.
I was a daughter of a forbidden author.
Later, after Charta 77 I was a daughter of a dissident.
And when my dad had to leave the country, I was a daughter of an emigrant.
I was very proud to be a daughter of my father.
And when I came to think about it, I was also a daughter of a man whose father had been killed in a concentration camp because he was Jewish.
All these things gave me a feeling of being different, obviously better than others. It gave me a kind of superiority complex.
I was happy to be someone exceptional, thanks to my father.
My mom never spoke about God or anything like that.
I remember us walking together along the road, returning to our cottage after shopping in a nearby town.
We walk hand in hand singing Czech songs. She is young, very pretty and joyful. I am proud of my mom. She is beautiful.
We would often sit on the floor over a book of paintings by Hieronymus Bosch or Leonardo da Vinci or Sandro Botticelli. Botticelli was my mother’s favorite. I preferred Bosch.
We would look at details and speak about the pictures. That was wonderful.
I was a Pioneer, a member of the Communist youth organization.
I liked being a Pioneer, though I knew there was something odd about being one.
I never had a uniform because my mom would never buy me a light blue pioneer shirt and a dark blue skirt with a belt.
Not because she disapproved of my being a Pioneer, but because we had no money. She could only give me twelve crowns for a red scarf made of some kind of artificial fabric.
My grandmother, great-grandmother and great- grandfather were Christian, and the whole family on my mother’s side was very patriotic.
My grandmother often said to me—maybe about once a week: “I am a patriot, Katja. I can’t help myself: I love this country, I love Czechoslovakia. It is my country.”
So I was proud to be Czech. It seemed to me very good to be a member of the Czech nation.
My dad would tell me stories about Jesus.
I don’t know if I believed in him or not. That’s still a problem for me today. But I loved him as a hero: as a person, a human being. He definitely is one of my many idols.
My dad also told me that there was no reason to be proud of being Czech. Czechs were cowards. What had they done to stop the Germans? What had they done to stop the Communists?
So I stopped being proud of being Czech and started to be proud of being partly Czech and partly Jewish.
My parents divorced when I was twelve and my sister was six. I stayed with my mom, grandma and sister.
We had a female dog, Zuzka. My father left with our male cat, Macek.
Then Charta 77 came along and completely changed our situation: my father became a dissident.
I can’t tell you how proud I was!
Yet from then until 1989 I lived in constant fear and stress.
It had been taken for granted that I would study. But children of dissidents were not admitted to secondary schools.
I had an advantage, though. I lived in quite a normal family. My mother was an English teacher, and had no contact with dissidents – if you don’t count my father, who came every Sunday to take my sister and me out.
My grandmother repeated to me almost every day that I had to struggle to be one of the best at school. I had to show them that I deserved an official education. And I had to make compromises. Though of course there were certain limits to collaboration.
I decided that it would be best if I did only what they ordered, but not any more. Maybe I did more than was necessary, though. And I was stupid enough to yearn for their official education and diploma.
In fact only the diploma was important to me, not the education.
Soon after signing Charta 77 my dad started to study Hebrew and stopped eating pork.
And because my dad likes to talk about what he’s thinking about, he would spend hours and hours explaining to me the Bible or the Talmud or Jewish history.
Unfortunately I don’t remember much from these lectures.
He started going to synagogue every Saturday, and I often went with him. At that time he had a new family and I had a brand new brother. I felt at home in the synagogue and I liked going there.
Once when we were walking from the Old-New Synagogue along the Paris Street, my dad told me that it is bad to believe in Jesus. Jesus is an idol.
“It’s bad to believe in idols,” he said.
But I was in grammar school then and had more important things to think about.
There were so many things in front of me. I felt as if I were walking through a huge castle with hundreds of rooms. Each room was full of new things. One was stocked with books. Another was full of music. In another there were films and pictures. And at the end of each room there was another door leading into unknown territory. It was fantastic.
My family stopped being the only influence: I began choosing my own idols.
I fell in love with the English language. This gave me a chance to see the world outside our covered pot. I had pen pals in America, and they kept feeding me books and records I would never get here.
Soon I had a bunch of idols – writers, actors, singers. There were so many that I can’t name them all. But the very first American I admired when I was still small was Huckleberry Finn.
At school we were getting an atheist education.
We were told that the material world came first, not thought. Thought is function of matter.
That was logical, so why not believe it?
But you have to believe in something. Life makes no sense if you have no faith.
I believed in humanity. I believed that man is good. And I still believe that today.
My father was having serious problems with the secret police. They were trying to force him out of the country.
Finally he left. He moved to Germany, where he began studying Judaism.
After he had to leave I went to the Old Jewish Cemetery, to the grave of Rabbi Loew. It was believed, and still is, that if you put a message on the grave, your wish would come true. I hurriedly wrote two sentences: “Rabbi Loew,please let the Communist regime end. And let my father come back home.”
I rolled up the paper and put it into a crack between two stones.
My dad and my two little brothers went to Israel. My father had to finish his studies there to become a rabbi. The Czech Jewish Community needed a rabbi, and there was nobody else able to do the job.
So he was in Israel when the Gulf War started.
At the same time I had to undergo an operation on my vocal chords.
When I woke up from the anesthesia everything was white and foggy. The professor who had done the operation was sitting on my bed. His hair was gray and he had a beard. His name was Kasparek: that means “Joker” in Czech.
When he saw that I was conscious, he leaned over me and said in a low voice, “You can never be a teacher again.”
I wanted to ask him what had happened, but he put a finger to his lips and said that I was not allowed to speak for at least two weeks. And he left me there, confused and silent.
The next day I was released. I went home and sat down in front of the TV to watch CNN broadcasting the war.
I spent several days in bed, my eyes stabbing the screen, tense, silent, scared and dumb. I was afraid that nothing would stop the Iraqi missiles, and that they would reach their destinations.
There was something disgusting too about watching the war live. At times I felt as if I were watching a perfect war movie. I can still remember how beautiful it was, the picture of missiles over Baghdad. But people were dying.
I went to the hospital for a check-up.
Because I couldn’t speak, I showed the nurse a paper with my doctor’s name on it. Her eyes widened: “Didn’t you know that Professor Kasparek died a week ago?”
No. I didn’t know that. Probably I had been his last operation.
The new doctor told me that something had gone wrong. The Joker. He had ruined the operation.
I assumed that it had been God’s will. What else could I do?
My new doctor told me that I was allowed to talk now.
I tried. But no sound came out of my throat.
The doctor was perplexed. What had happened?
Another month went by, but I still couldn’t make a sound.
I studied medical books, but there was nothing that matched my case. I found only a short comment saying that a loss of ability to form sounds is usually caused by hysteria.
Me hysterical?! No way.
I was sent to another doctor. She told me that even though the operation had been unsuccessful, the damage to my vocal chords was not serious enough to deprive me of speech.
“You’re a little bit nervous,” she said. “Your problem is in your mind.”
My God: I AM hysterical!
The Gulf War ended at last, and I slowly learned how to make sounds again. My voice was weak and uncertain.
But it was a voice.
I wanted to study English at the Faculty of Philosophy. I tried to get in three times. They finally told me I would never be admitted. They gave me a choice: either I could study economics or become a teacher of handicapped children.
I chose the latter, and spent four terrible years at the worst school I can think of.
My dad was very angry.
Whenever I left Czechoslovakia to visit my dad, my grandmother kissed me, held my hand in hers and insisted: “Katja, you must promise that you will come back! You mustn’t stay abroad. It would kill your mother.”
I nodded.
But she wanted me to promise. So I did.
My dad lived in Heidelberg. One day we were sitting in a café discussing my future life and the Communist regime.
“There’s no point any more in fighting Communism,” I told my dad. “I’ve decided to live a normal life and have no problems.”
My dad looked at me in surprise.
“Communism will go on forever,” I continued. “All the struggles of you dissidents were in vain. You were naïve. I have to learn to live under Communism.”
“When you think this way you lose all hope!” my dad burst out angrily.
“There is still hope,” I disagreed “But one has to be more modest.”
“So what do you hope for?”
“I hope to find a job I will like. I hope to find a husband I will love. And I hope to have healthy children.”
“Nothing more?”
“I think that’s enough.”
It was very hot when we were going home, and my dad was sweating and breathing heavily. He stopped to wipe his forehead. “You must study,” he suddenly said.
“Don’t tell me: tell them,” I answered.
“That’s not what I mean. You can never get a real education in Czechoslovakia,” he said. “You should study here. In the West.”
I gazed at him and didn’t know what to say. I could hear my grandma’s voice: “It would kill your mother. But it was tempting. “I can’t speak German,” I objected.
“You don’t have to stay here. You can study in Britain or in the USA.”
Oxford. Cambridge. Harvard. Berkley. Universities I had only dreamed of! (“Promise that you will come back!”)
Only now could I feel how terrible it was to be separated from the rest of the world by the Iron Curtain.
Shall I leave my mom there?
Shall I stay with my dad here?
My father sent me on a trip to West Berlin, and I met my friend Klara there. She had been living in Germany for eight years.
“I’m grateful to my parents for bringing me here,” she said. “I see so many opportunities for my future. And I’m free to choose my way of life.”
Then she took me to see her friends, who were all Czech. I spent three days in a flat with them drinking vodka and beer.
“I hate Germans,” said Klara.
“How can you live here?” I wanted to know.
“I have only Czech friends,” she replied.
In the evening when we were all drunk, a girl asked me: “Do you think that we have a responsibility to our mother country?”
“Why should you be responsible? You left. Your life is somewhere else.” I said with a heavy tongue.
“So you think that we are cowards?” she shouted at me. “You think we have no fatherland at all?”
I was too drunk to be able to answer.
I returned to Heidelberg and told my father I didn’t want to stay abroad.
On the evening before I was to leave for Prague, my dad drank too much wine. We didn’t go to sleep. Dad talked and talked.
When it was almost morning he said, “You don’t like life.”
“I do like life!” I objected vehemently.
“No, you don’t,” he insisted. “If you did, you would appreciate it. You would be grateful for it.”
“I am grateful. I am very happy that I’m alive.”
“If you were, you would give thanks for your life.”
“Why should I? I’m alive, I’m happy to be alive. That’s how I give thanks.”
“You should thank the one who gave you your life: the one who created everything.”
“If he exists, then he surely knows that I’m grateful and that I love life.”
“That’s not enough.” And he kept on speaking on and on.
It was dawn. There were reddish clouds appearing on the dark background. I watched the picture through the window.
Suddenly a huge red finger appeared in the sky. My eyes opened wide, and I pointed at the window. “Look! There is a big finger in the sky!”
My dad glanced out the window, and then at me. He started to laugh. “I talk so much that I make you hallucinate! Let’s get some sleep before you have to leave.”
I loved my dad, and wanted to be as close to him as possible. If it wasn’t possible to be physically close, I wanted to be close to his mind, to fulfill the hopes he had for me, to be a daughter he could be proud of.
I started to learn Hebrew, read the Old Testament, and swallowed books by Buber and Maimonides.
I bombarded my father with letters asking for explanations about religious matters.
I remember one remark I wrote him: “Now I can understand Abraham and his will to kill Isaac when God ordered it.”
That seems to me unbelievable today, now that I have children. But I was doing my best to understand my father.
I had to settle my matters with Jesus.
One night I had a dream in which I had to make a final decision. It seemed to me that it was a point of no return. Either I would accept Jesus and his help, or I would carry the burden of my sins alone.
In the dream I told someone whom I couldn’t see: “I have to abandon Jesus. I promise not to plead for his grace anymore. I don’t want him to die for my sins.”
Then I saw a white rose disappearing in a fog. I woke up and sat on the bed.
I was afraid of what I had done.
In the beginning of 1989 people in Prague started to gather and demonstrate against the Communist regime.
They were excited. They talked about demonstrations. They talked about policemen with clubs and water cannons. They talked about police dogs.
Police dogs.
I was so frightened of the dogs that I could not make myself go to a demonstration.
And I felt ashamed.
At the time I was twenty-four and lived with my boyfriend in my own small flat.
Not much has changed since then. I still live in the same flat with the same man. Though there are three more people with us: our children.
Friends would come to see me and they would ask : “Are you going to the demonstration tomorrow?”
And I had to say “No, I’m not. I’m afraid.”
Then a friend would nod. “Yes, of course I understand. They’d throw you out of the University.”
I didn’t give a damn about the University. Of course I wanted to finish and get the diploma my mother and grandmother yearned for.
But I didn’t want to pay such a high price for it. I wanted to be someone who fights for human rights and freedom.
But I was very scared.
The first demonstration I went to was on the seventeenth of November: the revolution began the next day.
For the first time I was glad that I was a student.
And my dream came true. I was a revolutionary, but the revolution was velvet.
I remember, though, how shocked and terrified we were in December when we saw what was happening in Romania.
We students were sitting in a very small room on the floor, embracing our knees to make space for others with our eyes stabbing the screen and shivers going down our spines.
We couldn’t understand it. Nothing had happened to us in Czechoslovakia. Everything had gone so well that it was hard to believe.
But people in Romania were dying. Kids were being killed. We saw pictures of corpses. How was it possible? How come we had got our freedom so easily and they were suffering?
Then suddenly we were living in an open world. Everything had changed completely, but the change was so natural that we often didn’t notice that something was changing.
Matter had stopped coming first. We all started to be interested in faith, in religion. Esoteric literature, shamanism, Indians, Buddhism, Catholicism, Mormons, Islam, Judaism, aborigines, Inuits, Celts, pagan Slavic gods, ecology, magic, astrology, numerology, Chinese, Japanese….. We wanted to know everything.
Now that we were free we could choose which path to follow. One day we were Buddhists, and the next day we were celebrating some pagan festival. We were full of good will. We were overflowing with hope and enthusiasm.
But I was confused.
What should I chose? What should I believe in?
Who am I?
Why am I here?
There were no answers to my questions.
My dad came back.
I got married.
My dad became a Rabbi.
My first son was born.
And with the birth of my child, all my questions vanished. I had better things to think about. Suddenly I realized that I would never find the meaning of life.
I would never know what comes after death, not until I died.
Who was I then?
I was a mother, and that was the most important task for me in this world.
For a long time I thought that being a mother was enough.
Then my children grew up a little, and I had time for my own things.
I started to see friends again. And one day I noticed that the question “Who am I?” no longer bothered me.
I know that I am a Czech with a Jewish grandfather. But I don’t find that too important. There are other things that seem more important to me than nationality or faith.
I’ve stopped searching for my identity. I’ve stopped asking questions that can’t be answered.
It is enough for me to know that I am human. My task in this world is to act and feel as a human being.
I am Katerina. That is my identity.
[Katerina tells a bit more of her story in “Jews, Jews, Jews: and I didn’t want to be one of them” in the menu Meeting Others on this Web-page. Visit her there too and tell her what you think!]

11 Responses to “I am Katerina”

  1. Katerina,
    I think this is one of the best stories I have read. You should know there are those in the west who feel as you about your identity and I wish we could all think a bit more about being human and a liitle less about trying force others to be more like what we think they should be or to think how they should think.


  2. Hey Katerina,
    I just entered your name into google and back popped this story! I am misusing this forum to get back in touch with you after more than 10 years. I am writing you from Melbourne, Australia. Please drop me an email so that we can get in touch.

  3. I must say I loved your story. I lived in Prague for a year and heard similiar stories from people I would talk to. You are part of a rich cultural tapestry, and your story reflects what it is to be all the things that you are…czech,jewish, etc. Thank you for your story.

  4. Katerina, I have had the pleasure of reading some of your writings from the Neil Young forum. This story is exquisite in its description and feeling. I almost felt like I was watching a movie as I was reading your words. You have tremendous talent but more importantly, you have a tremendous spirit.

  5. Katerina –

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us thru your beautifuly writings.
    I hope you never cease to write.

  6. I am so surprised. It is so beautiful to hear/see your words…I would have never dared expect something like that… Well, I am happy that you like what I write. Thanks a lot. You give me courage. Katerina

  7. You have a tremendous gift as an author. Your ability to evoke feelings and thoughts is remarkable. Thank you for sharing your life and the lives of your family in such a poignant and evocative manner.

  8. Dobry Den Katerina!

    I’ve found your heartbreaking and uplifting story by searching to get some information on Charta 77 on the internet. I think we’re both of the same generation. I just got back from Praha last week. I was there to show my friend the golden city not only from a tourist view but mainly from my personal experiences. I’ve many Czech friends….mostly all children from my parents’ friends they met around 1966-67…the relations with our Czech friends became more intense after the Stalinist coup in 22 august 1968 and the end of Prague Spring…reading your story was so real for me. All my friends en my parents friends were dealing with the same thoughts, idealism, dreams, etc…just like you and your father. Just wanna tell you that! I can go on for ages…success and na shledanou!

  9. Dear Katerina,
    Your story is very impressive. Like your Father, you are an author.
    I am glad you finally found yourself. Having been there myself, I know how miserable and senseless the search can be. Eventually, most of us resign ourselves to just being ourselves.
    Unlike your Father, I knew your Grandfather for a few years before the war. Also, I spent about a week with your Father in Bratislava in 1946 (or 47). I doubt whether he remembers it, though it is the only time we ever met.
    Please give me your E-mail address. Maybe we can correspond a little, although I must warn you, I am the worlds laziest correspondent.
    Your Uncle, Julius.

  10. I am studying abroad in Prague now for 3 months and one part of my program is an independent study project. I have been searching the internet for inspiration, and have finally found it. Your words are beautiful and tell a story i would love to know more about. If you could email me i would greatly appreciate it. Looking forward to further discovery, Sarah.

  11. Katarina,
    I enjoyed your story very much; both of them. When you said that without faith, life has no meaning I couldn’t have agreed with you more. I am facinated by your spiritual journey; you were very honest about your own uncertainties and I appreciate that.
    The dream you described where you felt a crisis of decision to choose Christ or to “carry your own sins” touched me especially. I truly hope that you come to a real peace with this issue in your life.
    I don’t believe we should bear our sins if we don’t have to do so. I’ve been a follower of Christ for a number of years , and I can honestly say that I can’t imagine life without Him. I believe that only Jesus can give a person complete rest and fufillment. You are probably well aquainted with the beleifs of Christianity already, but I would encourage you to read the book of Romans – it might help you answer questions you have.
    Thank you again for your story.

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