Courtesy Photo

This was written in December, as the Thomas Fire threatened our homes, and our things, but not our lives. On January 9, a cataclysm of biblical proportions struck our community. Quite literally “the mountain melted like wax,” and people died, and others were left naked in the mud, with nothing. Loss, fear of loss, and the guilt of survival are reshuffled in the moment. But the need to mark individual memory remains even while the larger story continues to unfold.

When we packed for our evacuation, we took only clothes, medicines, passports, our financial records, and a few small objects. Although we had evacuated from fire three times before and this time, as the firestorm approached, I had days to think about what to take, I found I was paralyzed.

I grabbed a 19th-century cobalt glass plate and wine carafe from Prague. It had been a present to my grandmother Elsa from her friend and bridge partner, the parish priest in Kroměříž, Moravia. Our antique clock —the “family heirloom” as my mother called it —stood reproachfully next to it, but its ornate heaviness overwhelmed me, and I left it to fend for itself.

As we left town, I wrote about my feelings of panic and paralysis to Simona, in Prague, because she is the only one who fully understands them. Her father and mine had the same trajectory in the war: Prague to Terezín to Auschwitz to Gleiwitz. They both survived and remained lifelong friends. So, Simona is my soul sister in anxiety. I told her I felt as if I were packing for deportation to the Terezín ghetto.Simi immediately responded, saying that my feelings were exactly what she would have experienced herself.

My mother had written about that experience in her memoir:

The deportation day was June 27, 1942.

Our town was called in two groups. We were in the first one; the next followed in a few days. At this time we knew that most of the transports were going to Terezín, the so-called “family” camp. As far as the things we could take with us, it was mainly not more than 50 kg. per person, except for what you carried on your person. Therefore, even though it was June when we left, we all put on our heaviest winter clothing and shoes. Many, many thoughts and lots of work went into the preparation. To avoid extra weight, we didn’t take suitcases, made rolls which served as bedding and blankets, summer and winter clothing, medication, some pots and pans, a little folding chair (not knowing how far we’d have to walk) for Alfred the smallest, basic instruments, and some food. We knew by heart the weight of every handkerchief and so we packed and unpacked hundreds of times. Around the neck was our transport number, mine was AAG 252.

We, in contrast, believed that our family would be safe, and we had the means to replace what we needed. And yet we were falling apart, or at least I was.

As I passed Oxnard, I regretted leaving the antique clock behind. I tried to console myself that given its history, and all the things that the clock had survived, perhaps it would summon my mother’s spirit to stand guard over our house like a goddess of the hearth and stop the fire from consuming it.

At the beginning of World War I, the clock was already considered a family treasure.When the war broke out, my mother was with her parents inKroměřížand never went back to Bucharest, where her father had been working for a Viennese firm:

I only know that my parents’ friends in Bucharest packed our household goods and stored everything in a warehouse. This was later burned down (in the revolution of 1917), and we never saw anything again, except our antique clock, which my mother’s friend took into her house. After the war they jointly arranged to bring the clock across the border, hidden under a coal pile, a few pieces at a time on a train, which regularly ran between Czechoslovakia and Romania. Although I am not a person who attaches herself to things, I am glad that we still have the clock, hoping that later it will stay with you, Jana, and that you don’t have to smuggle it in and out anymore.

I later learned from my mother that the clock was dismantled again and buried in a neighbor’s yard in 1939 when the Nazis occupied Kroměříž. It was recovered after the war when my mother returned home, alone, from the camps. And Iknow that it was destroyed, and my father restored it, a third time after it was snuggled again —out of communist Czechoslovakia to Canadain 1948.

When we returned home from our evacuation, the clock was there, as we had left it.It hasn’t functioned as a timepiece for decades, because the inner workings are all gone.

My children have not indicated any desire to have it. So our heirloom will continue to stay with me, as my mother had hoped. I expect the connection to our family will be severed and the memory of its story will fade and end when I end. Unless, of course, someone reads this. Time will tell.


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