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  • Roads, Runaways and Recollections
  • Yael A. Sternhell (bio)

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by history. As this is such an elemental force in my life, I can’t pretend that it had anything to do with books. It had to do with pictures.

I grew up in Jerusalem of the 1980s, the child of two academics – my father a historian of political thought teaching at the Hebrew University, and my mother an independent scholar of art history. My father was (and still is) an extraordinarily cheerful and extraordinarily loving husband and parent. He has always enjoyed telling my sister and me elaborate stories about his time in the Israeli army and his life as a student in Jerusalem and Paris during the ’60s. He rarely spoke about his childhood and barely ever, as far as I can recall, mentioned anything that could have scared or saddened his children. Yet there were always signs that something terrible had happened to him when he was young. He had no parents or siblings, only one cousin and two elderly aunts. The aunts, Clara and Clementine, lived in the northern city of Haifa, and we would often spend our Saturdays driving in a car without air-conditioning to visit them. When I complained about the heat, and the lengthy trip, my mother would tell me that they had saved my father’s life and we were perennially indebted to them.

And then there were the pictures. The only wall space in my father’s study that was not covered with books was where he had hung a series of black and white photographs: his parents, shortly after their wedding; his grandfather; and his sister, a girl of sixteen. Looking at this picture, it was impossible not to notice the physical resemblance between us. Here she was, a girl looking like an older version of me, smiling beautifully, her eyes lit up. While the details remained shrouded in mystery, in time I gathered enough information – some from my mother, some from my great-aunts – to figure out how the story ended. Two years after the picture was taken, she was lying dead in a gas chamber at Auschwitz.

Framed in black, the pictures convey a sense of impending doom. Yet they were actually taken when my family’s life in the town of Przemyśl, Poland, was still intact. Everyone is well dressed and looks good. This confirmed the little I knew about my father’s earliest years, namely that he had enjoyed a happy and sheltered existence as the youngest child of a well-to-do [End Page 249]

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Fig 1.

My grandparents, Ida and Adolph Sternhell, Przemyśl, Poland, 1920.

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Fig 2.

My aunt, Eda Sternhell, Przemyśl, Poland, year not known.

[End Page 250]

Jewish family, and that the outbreak of war came as a terrible, inconceivable shock. One of the few things I can remember ever having heard him say about the war was that it had taught him that nothing is certain in life, that everything can fall apart from one day to the next. This tension, between the seeming normality of the photos and the fate that awaited these people only a few years down the road, brought me back, time and again, to stare at their images and try to understand.

My father’s primary field of study is the history of fascism. And long before I knew what fascism was, I realized that his infatuation with history had something to do with those pictures too, that in some way this was the question he was trying to answer. If one wanted to figure out how the life of a happy family could suddenly implode and why human beings would possibly send unsuspecting girls into gas chambers, one became a historian.

In the summer of 1983, when I was seven, we moved to Princeton, New Jersey, where my father held a fellowship at the Institute for Advanced Studies. I barely spoke a word of English when we arrived and the first few weeks of school were disorienting and...


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pp. 249-257
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