In memoir, they ‘share the same sky’ – Portland Press Herald – Press Herald – Press Herald

Posted By on August 15, 2021

Buried in a cardboard box filled with old diaries, crumbled letters and black and white photos, one manila folder etched with bright-red cursive caught Rachael Cerrottis eye.

On the front was a note written by her late grandmother, Hana Dubova, a Holocaust survivor, that read, For Rachael and Jesse, so youll know a little about my life when I was your age.

For Cerrotti, a photojournalist in her early 20s whod become fascinated by her grandmothers journey fleeing the Nazis starting at just 14 years old, that letter was a permission slip, a green light to dive deeper into her grandmothers 17-year odyssey as a Holocaust refugee.

So starting in 2014, Cerrotti embarked on a journey of her own that would forever change her life, retracing every step her grandmother took across central Europe, Scandinavia and the United States, and creating powerful bonds with the descendants of those who saved her grandmothers life.

Now after more than a decade consumed by her grandmothers experience, Cerrotti is publishing her first book, We Share the Same Sky: A Memoir of Memory and Migration, to be released Tuesday.

The memoir, published by Blackstone Publishing, currently listed as Best Book of August by Apple Books, is an expanded version of the award-winning podcast Cerrotti released in 2019 under the same title.

Cerrotti now works as the inaugural storyteller-in-residence for the USC Shoah Foundation, a nonprofit established by Steven Spielberg. The foundation records and collects testimony from survivors of genocides around the world, her grandmothers story included. Cerrotti says she never intended to spend so much time focused on her grandmothers story.

When she first asked her grandmother to participate in interviews about her journey for a college project in 2009, it was mainly so she could spend more alone time with her in her last few years of life.

But after she passed away in 2010, Cerrotti felt that even with the hours and hours of interviews shed conducted, and the massive archive her grandmother had left behind, it still wasnt enough.

I had so much of my grandmothers stuff that I probably could have written a biography of her life without ever leaving my bedroom, said Cerrotti, while sitting in her apartment in Portland. But I wanted to hear the language, see the landscape, and explore what it all meant in my life.

Maybe, Cerrotti says, it was the journalist in her, with an insatiable hunger to uncover everything. Or maybe it was the obligation and responsibility she felt to her grandmother, who died wondering what shed left behind for the world.

The one thing she knew was that it felt right.

At first I was really interested in my grandmothers displacement, because she was stateless for 17 years, Cerrotti said. A lot of times you learn about World War II, you get to 1945, Hitler kills himself and its over. But thats just the beginning of the survival story. My grandmother left when she was 14 and her entire family was killed. I was really interested in what it meant to be a part of a displaced community, and the power it takes to rebuild your life.

So with her camera equipment and her grandmothers diaries in hand, Cerrotti packed a bag and set her eyes on the past and the people and places around her. But in 2016, Cerrottis husband died unexpectedly. The loss turned her life upside down, and she realized just how much her story had become intertwined with her grandmothers. She scrapped her entire first draft and began to rethink the story she was telling.

During that time, Cerrotti says her grandmothers story is what saved her. She moved to the farm in Denmark where her grandmother had once lived, working for descendants of the farmers who saved her life.

I began to return to these places my grandmother went to for physical refuge, for my own life, for my own emotional refuge, she said. My grandmothers diary started to read differently, and slowly I started to see those subtle moments in my grandmothers stories in a way I couldnt have seen before.

Starting in late 2016, Cerrotti, who was now moving between the U.S. and Europe for as long as her visa allowed, began to tell the story that felt true to herself.

I really had to embrace becoming a main character in this story because it was sometimes very uncomfortable for me, she said. And then also as politics started to shift, with the migrant crisis in Europe, and xenophobia and the anti-immigrant right, it felt like it would be irresponsible to tell the story not through a contemporary lens.

In 2018, as she worked on reshaping her memoir, Cerrotti received funding with the help of the USC Shoah Foundation to put together her podcast. The podcast, We Share the Same Sky, was listed as one of the best podcasts of 2019 by Huffington Post.

For Cerrotti, the responsibility she feels to tell this story is not just for her grandmother, but also for those struggling in a similar way today, and to future generations.

I think we all have a responsibility to take a deep breath and say, OK, I understand this history, but what does it mean to me?' she said. If I look back at my family history, and why am I here, its because people who didnt know my grandmother, and who did not share her identity, cared about her.

Stephen D. Smith, director of the USC Shoah Foundation, also sees Cerrottis work as part of a much larger responsibility to bridge past and future.

As the generations pass, the legacy is handed down to those who live in a divided world with hatreds of so many kinds, said Smith. Rachael is connecting the dots between a world that was torn to pieces by hatred and the chance we all have to prevent that reoccurring. I feel like I know Rachael and Hannah through all the people we meet along the way. It is living history.

Now living in Portland since October, Cerrotti says she is thrilled to be publishing her first book as a Maine author.

Though she was born and raised in Boston, Cerrotti has vacationed in midcoast Maine throughout most of her life. Maine, she says, has provided her with a sense of consistency that becomes immensely important.

Maine has been this really symbolic space for me over the years, she said. Its been the only constant location throughout a lot of really drastic changes in my life, so I tried to infuse that into the book a bit.

Cerrotti is currently working on a monthly podcast with the Shoah Foundation called The Memory Generation, which explores testimony from its Visual History Archive, a trove of more than 55,000 interviews with survivors from Armenia, Cambodia, Rwanda and other countries.

Looking ahead, the young writer, whos spent over a decade working on her grandmothers story, is unsure whats next.

Ive actually been kind of scared of this moment, because now, Im like, What do I do now? Cerrotti said. This has been my purpose for so long, and so Im really saying goodbye to this chapter of my life.

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In memoir, they 'share the same sky' - Portland Press Herald - Press Herald - Press Herald

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