Madelaine Zadik


Helga is with me in New Mexico

On a trip to New Mexico last year, I visited a Pueblo village that has been continuously inhabited by native peoples for over a thousand years. Seeing the Taos Pueblo provided an amazing view into that people’s survival, despite centuries of others trying to kill them and steal their land. We toured around with guides who generously shared information about how they live. They patiently answered our myriad questions, but were also clear about things that are private. Seeing their spirit and pride in their culture, as well as the love of their way of life, was uplifting.

Being there gave me hope, even in the face of history that clearly illustrates the ugly side of humanity—war, genocide, hate, and endless lists of atrocities done in the name of religion or ethnicity. There appears to be a universal need to conquer. Yet, in defiance of these evil forces, people persist, resist, and live, providing a smiling fuck-you to their would-be murderers or conquerors.

I thought of my Jewish ancestors and all they endured, and how I am here today, proof that they didn’t kill us all, that the human spirit is ever powerful. I recalled a boat trip in Germany in 2014, where, running into a group of touring Israelis, together we sang and danced our way down the Rhine River. The Germans on the boat were clueless about our triumph.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t pain or deep wounds, or that everyone survives. There are casualties, like my Aunt Helga. She had an exceptionally strong spirit and a determination to survive and find new life. That fierceness of hers was so palpable in letters she wrote from prison in Nazi Germany while serving a sentence for high treason. However, I don’t know what happened to that spirit once she found herself in a death camp, where women regularly disappeared, making room for the large numbers of new arrivals. Despite my not knowing, I feel her spirit. It lives on in me. Just as my mother, dead now for 7 years, is with me. When I look up into the expansive New Mexico sky, I feel my mother’s joy in the cloudscape. The beauty of every tree embodies my mother, and I imagine Helga there too. Perhaps Helga’s spirit is skiing down the slopes in Taos. Her resistance work involved smuggling anti-Hitler newspapers in her ski poles over the mountains and across the border from Czechoslovakia into Germany. No doubt, she would be unbelieving of today’s modern skis and lifts, but her spirit no longer needs to worry about those earthly details.

I like to think of her spirit being free. I don’t want the responsibility of being the caretaker. I have to confess that I don’t really believe in spirits or an afterlife, so how is it I’m speaking of Helga living on? Is it just a way to explain my obsession, my need to tell her story, my need to tell my story about my relationship with this woman I never knew, and my stubborn persistence in not letting her go? It is up to me whether I let myself feel trapped by the face staring at me out from a picture frame or feel the blessing of having her as my mentor and guide. Perhaps one day she will come out from that frame, envelope me in her arms, and plant a kiss on my cheek. I am always ready.

What is spirit anyway? I can’t answer that question any more than I understand spirituality. Connection is what it is really all about. I am connected to Helga through blood and DNA, through the letters she wrote, through the photos I have of her, through my trying to decipher her handwriting. That connection is real, and I feel it intensely. For me Helga is a force of nature. She provides fuel and energy and proof that they cannot kill her elusive spirit. She resists erasure. She will live on no matter what they do. She is with me in New Mexico.

After the tour, we chat with one of the Pueblo guides about our shared history of genocide. We marvel at his people’s perseverance, how they continue on despite all the losses. This is clearly a sacred place. I can feel it. My eyes well up.

I carry Helga’s legacy of resistance with me. She is a role model for me. I want to measure up. I want to be as good and as honorable. Helga was a naïve idealistic teenager, who believed she could make a difference. I long to possess that stubborn belief. I am determined to channel Helga’s words and give them a chance to enlighten, shock, awaken, and bring action.


Madelaine Zadik lives in the wooded hills of western Massachusetts. She is at work on a memoir about her relationship with her Aunt Helga, whom she never knew except through letters Helga wrote from prison in Nazi Germany. This piece is an excerpt from that book. Her work has appeared in Ode to the Dead Writers Collection, WriteAngles, Public Garden, and Roots. She has a piece forthcoming in the Straw Dog Writers’ Guild Pandemic Poetry and Prose Project.

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