Stone, D.Z. “Vallentine Mitchell; None edition, 2019.
Two Czech Jews
“No Past Tense” is not an easy book to read yet it is very important in terms of history. It is the biography of Katarina (Kati) Kellner and William (Willi) Salcer, two Czech Jews who as teenagers lived through the Holocaust in Hungary and survived Auschwitz and Mauthausen, respectively. Their stories are about their childhoods, their education in Budapest, and 16-year-old Kati meeting 19-year-old Willi in the Jewish ghetto in Plesivec, a Slovak village annexed by Hungary in 1938. After they were liberated from the camps they returned to learn that most Jews were gone and the villagers that remained did not want them back. As an act of defiance, Kati took up residence in a shed on her family’s property, and reclaimed what was hers and won Willi’s heart. They lived as smugglers in post-war Europe until 1946 when they illegally immigrated to what was then known as Palestine. They describe Palestine frankly and speak about issues that are rarely addressed, especially prejudice against ‘newcomers’ from other Jews.
Willi built tanks for the Haganah, the underground Jewish army that eventually became the Israel Defense Forces and supported the War of Independence but he refused to move into homes that had been abandoned by Palestinian Arabs. After he was discharged from the Israeli Air Force, Willi founded the country’s first rubber factory and headed the association of Israeli manufacturers when he was only 28 years old. In 1958, because he did not want his children to know war, Willi convinced Kati to move to America. What he did not tell her was that punitive tax fines, imposed when the government needed money due to the crisis in the Sinai, shook his faith in Israel. This is an aspect of Israeli life that we rarely hear about. In America, due to a few bad investments, Willi lost all their money and Kati suffered panic attacks for the first time. Willi was able to eventually rebuild his fortune, while Kati was able to rediscover her courage, and start living again.
Holocaust memoirs can be very depressing and I know people who have totally sworn them off. This does not mean that they have done the same with the Holocaust but that it is time to take a break. What makes this different from other memoirs is that it motivates us through the courage seen by Willi and Kati. We have two distinct stories that come together about two people who always looked forward even during the bleakest of times. Through their resilience, they were able to reinvent themselves when it was necessary to do so. The Holocaust, of course, hovers over their lives but it does not stop them from achieving their lives’ goals. Most of us would be unable to bear being broken once but they were able to do so several times and some came back stronger as a result.
Today anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial seem to be more in the air than ever before and it is so important that we never forget the past. The Salcers did not share with their children that they have been in the camps and had it not been for Ron Salcer’s sense that his parents had experienced something terrible, this story would have gone untold. As Ron learned more through the interviews that he pushed his parents to record. their experiences. It was then that he decided to contact D.Z. Stone to write down their life stories. In 1999, Stone conducted over 100 hours of interviews that eventually became this book.