Image cour­tesy of the author. 

The email that sparked the idea of pub­lish­ing my mother’s mem­oir came from a man in Berlin. He wrote:

Dear Helen,

A friend of mine in Prague just read the Czech trans­la­tion of your book Where She Came From in which you men­tion your moth­er hav­ing a dis­course in a prison cell

with Mar­i­anne, my father’s first wife. As your descrip­tion appears to be based on some kind of facts that you have, I would real­ly be inter­est­ed to learn the source.”

I’ve been receiv­ing per­son­al mail from read­ers since I wrote about chil­dren of Holo­caust sur­vivors in a 1977 issue of the New York Times Mag­a­zine. Most of the feed­back is appre­cia­tive; some inquir­ing, some angry, but no one had ever sug­gest­ed that my jour­nal­ism was based on some kind of facts.” I dug into my files and found the source” – three pages of an unpub­lished type­script that my moth­er had writ­ten in New York in the ear­ly 1970s. They described her arrest by the Gestapo in June of 1939 when she was 19 and a young fash­ion design­er in Prague. My moth­er described Mar­i­anne as an old­er female pris­on­er who advised her on how to deal with inter­ro­ga­tion. I scanned the pages, and emailed them to the man in Berlin. He sent back a glam­orous pho­to of Mar­i­anne Golz and, intrigued, I reread my mother’s memoir.

Fran­ci had nev­er aspired to be an author but this was — at the very least — her fourth iter­a­tion of her Holo­caust expe­ri­ence. She wrote the first while a pris­on­er in a Nazi slave labor camp in 1944, where she stole a note­book and kept a diary in the form of let­ters to her moth­er. After a guard dis­cov­ered it, the camp Kom­man­dant made her burn it page by page, in his stove. In New York City in 1955, Fran­ci told her expe­ri­ences to a psy­cho­an­a­lyst. In 1974, I inter­viewed her for the Amer­i­can Jew­ish Committee’s col­lec­tion of Holo­caust sur­vivor audio tes­ti­monies, now archived at the New York Pub­lic Library. Her nar­ra­tive was, by then, well thought-through.

Fran­ci had nev­er aspired to be an author but this was — at the very least — her fourth iter­a­tion of her Holo­caust experience.

She had typed her account in Eng­lish on thin onion-skin paper with the title Roundtrip, a sar­don­ic ref­er­ence to her jour­ney to and from Prague with a group of Czech Jew­ish women dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. It began with her depor­ta­tion in the fall of 1942 to the Terezin ghet­to. From there, she was trans­port­ed to Auschwitz-Birke­nau, and sub­se­quent­ly to work camps in Ham­burg and Bergen Belsen. Ill with typhus, she was tak­en to a British Army hos­pi­tal in Celle, Ger­many. Ulti­mate­ly, she returned to Prague in the fall of 1945.

Franci’s war was a world cen­tered around girls and women. She had been run­ning a fash­ion salon in Prague in March of 1939, when Hitler invad­ed. Her moth­er, Jose­fa Rabinek, had estab­lished it in 1920 and, Fran­ci decid­ed to drop out of her elite high school and study dress design, even­tu­al­ly becom­ing her mother’s busi­ness part­ner. In 1938, at the age of 18, she became the salon’s pro­pri­etor and devel­oped the skills that would repeat­ed­ly save her life.

In Terezin, she was quick­ly recruit­ed to the cloth­ing work­shop. My moth­er’ mem­oir was filled with spe­cif­ic details that only a metic­u­lous craftsper­son would remem­ber: the weath­er on the day the Ger­man Army marched into Prague; how the Nazi who aryanized” her salon sized up his prospects of prof­it; how she decid­ed to have a nose job dur­ing the Occu­pa­tion; how she became addict­ed to cig­a­rettes after she was forcibly sep­a­rat­ed from her par­ents in Terezin; how she decid­ed to lie to Dr. Men­gele dur­ing a selec­tion at Auschwitz and tell him she was an elec­tri­cian rather than a dress design­er; how she nursed her cousin Kitty’s boils in Ham­burg by steal­ing yeast cakes from a Ger­man bak­ery; how her sis­ter pris­on­ers formed alliances, fell in love and/​or bartered sex for food with men and women, got preg­nant, got sick, died.

…how she decid­ed to lie to Dr. Men­gele dur­ing a selec­tion at Auschwitz and tell him she was an elec­tri­cian rather than a dress designer…

My moth­er died unex­pect­ed­ly in 1989 of a brain aneurysm, when she was 69 and I was 41. Read­ing her text near­ly 30 years lat­er, I heard her voice again: can­did and con­tem­po­rary. In 1975, that can­dor might have been the rea­son no pub­lish­er accept­ed her mem­oir; by 2018, the world had caught up with my moth­er. Books and tele­vi­sion shows like Orange is the New Black lift­ed the cur­tain on rela­tion­ships between women in prison. In acad­e­mia, Women’s Stud­ies and Holo­caust Stud­ies were delv­ing into the expe­ri­ences of women in war and queer his­to­ri­ans were sift­ing sources for doc­u­ments of these expe­ri­ences. The #MeToo move­ment was pro­vid­ing a vocab­u­lary for an inter­na­tion­al con­ver­sa­tion about the con­nec­tions between sex and power.

Thir­ty years after my mother’s death, my rela­tion­ship to her had also changed. I was now old­er than Fran­ci was at the time she died, a moth­er of two sons, and a grand­moth­er. I was able to take in what I had been unable to under­stand as a child, ado­les­cent, or even a younger woman. As a jour­nal­ist, I knew a good nar­ra­tive when I read one; and as a read­er of women’s his­to­ry, I knew her mem­oir was unusu­al­ly rich source material.

Fran­ci and Helen and her broth­er David Epstein at the apart­ment house on River­side Dri­ve in the 1960s. 

I had already used some of it as resources in Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s His­to­ry, a fam­i­ly his­to­ry of three gen­er­a­tions of women in my Czech Jew­ish fam­i­ly. With the growth of Holo­caust and Women’s Stud­ies, sev­er­al of the peo­ple Fran­ci described have become famous. They include not only my mother’s 1939 cell­mate Mar­i­anne Golz, but Jew­ish pris­on­er Lotte Win­ter and Lotte’s lover, guard Anneliese Kohlmann – and the Kom­man­dant who forced her to burn her jour­nal: Friedrich Kliem was tried for and con­vict­ed of war crimes by the Allies.

I asked friends who were aca­d­e­mics whether they thought – 75 years after my mother’s lib­er­a­tion from the camps – read­ers would still be inter­est­ed in her sto­ry. Their answer was an over­whelm­ing yes. Pub­lish­ers agreed.

I grew up very close to my moth­er as well as in awe of her, impressed not only by what she had sur­vived but by the lessons she drew from the war. Fran­ci often referred to the con­cen­tra­tion camps as her uni­ver­si­ty,” where she had received a unique edu­ca­tion in human behav­ior. She nev­er stopped mourn­ing those who did not sur­vive, and had not a shred of self-pity. Her great­est con­cern was that due to human nature, what hap­pened to her could hap­pen again in a dif­fer­ent form, to any­one, any­where in the world.