Saved documents help local survivor recount saga

When Denise Elbert graduated from medical school in 1968, her grandmother gave her a gift. In a box. But it wasn’t a typical graduation gift. Far from it.

Inside was a cache of carefully preserved documents from the 1940s and earlier that bore witness to her family’s history — from the good times to the very, very bad. There were Nazi and Holocaust-related documents, and postcards sent from the death camp where her mother and father perished.

The material inside was so politically sensitive and personally precious that when Denise snuck out of communist Czechoslovakia shortly after her graduation, she dared not take the box with her on the train, instead making arrangements for its safe-keeping.

Denise eventually got the box back, and last week she shared some of its keepsake items — along with her own saga as a Holocaust survivor and a political refugee — with a group of 100 middle school students at Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School in Palo Alto. The April 29 talk was in commemoration of Holocaust Remembrance Day two days later.


Dr. Denise Kopecky shows facsimiles of the Holocaust-era documents and photos her grandmother saved. photo/renee ghert-zand

Now Dr. Denise Kopecky, 69, she told the students how she had lost her parents in the Holocaust, was forced to live in hiding with her grandma in the mountains and sent to a concentration camp.


She also told them about 1968, when she was 27 and Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia to squelch an attempted uprising against communist rule. She decided to make an illegal escape and hopped on a train to anywhere.

“I had no idea where I was going,” she told the students. She ended up in Yugoslavia and then Italy, where the Jewish community helped her eventually reach Israel. She continued her medical training in Israel, then moved to the United States in 1972 to marry a fellow Czechoslovakian Holocaust survivor, whom she had met on a trip to New York. They moved to Sunnyvale in 1975.

Of the gift box of documents and pictures, Kopecky said she had been unaware that her grandmother had been keeping it before it was handed to her.

“I’m not really sure how she preserved all the documents from before World War II,” Kopecky said. “It isn’t clear to me whether she entrusted them to Maria, the gentile woman who was my godmother, or whether she had hidden then somewhere in our house in [the small town of] Partizanskej L’upce, which was returned to us by the postwar government. What is clear is that document-keeping was obviously her passion.”

The collection includes every order and receipt the Elbert family received from the Nazis and their Slovakian collaborators. Though the originals have been donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Kopecky showed facsimiles to the students.

One of the documents was a stamped receipt for the items that were taken when the Elbert home was ransacked by authorities one night at 3 a.m. Even seemingly innocuous items, such as a pair of long johns, were listed.

She also showed the students Nazi orders that were delivered directly to her family, and clippings from the local Jewish newspaper about prohibitions against Jews from working, owning property or having a radio at home.

The most heartrending items Kopecky shared were the final  postcards sent by her mother — one from the Poland-Slovakia border and the other from Sobibor death camp (describing how her husband was no longer with her). That was the last time she was ever heard from.

“They encouraged people to send the postcards to loved ones at home to create a false impression,” Kopecky explained to the students.

When her parents were deported by the Nazis in 1942, a 9-month-old Kopecky was with them at the train station. But she was secretly handed off to family friend Maria, who smuggled the baby out of the station by wrapping her in fur coats. A non-Jew, Maria told the guards she was simply taking valuables confiscated from Jews.

Taken in by Maria, Kopecky was baptized, but her grandmother gained her back by renouncing her Judaism and agreeing to let Maria and her husband act as godparents. But then the grandmother’s house and property were seized, forcing the pair to head for the mountains, where they lived in underground bunkers with seven other families for a year, surviving on whatever food local farmers would give them.

Eventually, they were found and sent to the Thereisenstadt concentration camp, but both she and her grandmother made it out safely after being liberated in 1945 by the Soviet army.

“My earliest memory is of the trip home” from the camp, Kopecky told the students.

Although her grandmother had continued to perform some Jewish rituals in secret, Kopecky basically grew up Christian, reconnecting to her Jewish roots only in her 20s, when she was studying medicine in the city of Brno.

While in Brno, she met an elderly woman, to whom she ended up entrusting her grandmother’s box. On a trip to Austria, the woman secretly carried the box with her, then mailed it to Kopecky in Israel.

At the end of her presentation, Kopecky warned the students to “always be aware of what is happening in the world, because people have short memories.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.