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An image of a Czech Jewish refugee in a white sari first brought me to my project centred around Holocaust refugees in British India. The photograph was unlike any of the others I had seen. In her stark-white sari, she stood against the dark reflections of the French windows. Her toothed smile made her seem at home in a land where few were given asylum. Wrapped in the fabric, she seemed to literally embrace the culture around her. It was this same portrait that I had in my mind as I ventured back to India to conduct preliminary research for my dissertation.
My first encounter with this project was through the album of photographs that this refugee’s family had left behind. However, all I knew about their lives was from these photographs and the short description of their journey from Prague to the United States by way of India. My entire doctoral project had been built around the little information I could gather from these images.
In the National Archives of India, Delhi, a quick skim of a document in a thick, deteriorating file of letters from Jewish refugees to the Indian Medical Service sparked a sense of familiarity. A Czech doctor and Jewish refugee in the tea gardens of India could only mean one person. The very top of the letter bore the seal of Dr. M. Weeg, the husband of the sari-clad refugee. I felt a burst of energy and a sense of relief. Finally, a real connection between my research two years ago in the United States and my research now.
Researching refugee populations is often a search for the barest of traces and fragments of individuals and families in transit. In more difficult archives, without the resources allocated to preservation of documents as one may find in more prominent Holocaust studies archives, nearly all such traces are lost. With endless, dusty hours spent pouring over records, it is in those moments of connection, whether between documents housed in records held in different continents or between primary source evidence and scholarly ideas, that research is exhilarating, inspiring, and motivating.
Researching refugee populations is often a search for the barest of traces and fragments of individuals and families in transit.