I grew up in Sydney, Australia as the child of two Holocaust survivors. My mother was born and raised in Budapest, where the war came in earnest in 1944, when she was sixteen. Her father, a lawyer, had been sent to a labor camp a few years earlier, so she and my grandmother were the only ones left in Budapest.
My mother, whose story I told in my last book of historical fiction, The Light After the War, escaped from the train heading to Auschwitz and spent a year hiding on a farm in Austria. From there, she and her best friend, Edith, ventured to Naples, where my mother worked for an American captain. After that, my mother and Edith were lucky enough to be sponsored by a Rothschild and they traveled by ship to Ellis Island. Unfortunately, their sponsor died while they were in transit, so when they arrived at Ellis Island, they were turned away. Not wanting to return to war-torn Europe, they decided to settle in Caracas, Venezuela. But, tragedy found them again, and, finally, my mother landed in Sydney, Australia, where I was born.
My father was born and raised in Lithuania. When Hitler invaded in June of 1941, he and his family climbed onto Russian trucks in order to escape the Germans. The truck that his parents and one brother were on took them to Stutthof concentration camp, where they died in the gas chambers. My father and another brother climbed onto a different truck and made it to Russia. When they got there, however, my father was required to join the Red Army. He fought on the front lines for four years – including in the infamous Battle of Kursk where two hundred thousand Russian soldiers died.
After the war, he managed to escape from Stalin’s communist Russia, and was, first, a journalist in Munich, then at the United Nations in Paris, and from there, he went on to South Africa, and, finally, to Sydney, where he started a textile mill. Australia, at first, wouldn’t allow him entry because his passport said that he was a journalist and they were afraid that he would spread communist propaganda, so he was forced to change his profession, despite his love of journalism, and his years of tireless effort abroad, to businessman.
I’m writing about these things here because, growing up in Sydney and then researching the background for Light After the War, I thought I knew everything about the Holocaust. So many of my parents’ friends were also survivors, and from them I have heard stories about Jews in Poland, Jews in what was then Czechoslovakia, Jews in Germany, and Jews who had escaped and immigrated to Palestine.
But, when it came time to find a subject for my next book, Lana’s War, I discovered I was wrong; I didn’t know everything about the Holocaust at all. Lana’s War is about the daughter of a Russian émigré. When the book begins, in 1943, Lana is twenty-three and living in Paris. After her husband is murdered by a Gestapo officer named Alois Brunner, she joins the resistance on the French Riviera in order to avenge her husband’s death and save Jewish children from falling into the hands of the Germans.
When I started my research, I knew very little about the French Riviera during that period. For instance, I didn’t know that Alois Brunner, the Gestapo officer who was put in charge of the French Riviera in September of 1943, took over the Hotel Excelsior in Nice as the headquarters of the Gestapo. Nor did I know that his mission was to rid the French Riviera entirely of Jews by the following spring; an order that came directly from Heinrich Himmler.
So many Jews were affected in unique ways. They lost their homes and businesses, were separated from family members, and often had to start over with nothing.
As I continued delving into history, I came away with a new understanding of the Holocaust. So many Jews were affected in unique ways. They lost their homes and businesses, were separated from family members, and often had to start over with nothing. It was surprising to learn how many settled on new continents and never saw their homelands or the people they loved again. There will always be more people with heartbreaking stories of loss and more tales of incredible bravery and sacrifice to discover.
In Lana’s War, I attempted to tell Lana’s story, imagining what it would be like to lose everything (on the same day that Lana’s husband is murdered she miscarries their unborn child) and instead of just try to recover, find courage and a new reason to live.
Though I created Lana myself, many of the characters and locations in the story are real, including Alois Brunner, the Gestapo officer who killed Lana’s husband, and the Hotel Excelsior, which, today, is a four-star hotel on a leafy street in Nice. The beautiful Belle Epoque architecture and elegant lobby don’t give anything away about its tragic past.
In 2009, the mayor of Nice erected a plaque outside the hotel that describes the events of 1943: using it as his headquarters, Alois Brunner exterminated more than two thousand Jews during his time in charge of the Gestapo on the French Riviera. Jews were picked off the streets and sent to Drancy deportation center in Paris, where some froze to death in their resort wear before the trains arrived to take them on to concentration camps. Many others were simply killed in their beds in Nice.
I also learned about how the French Resistance operated. Lana’s cover in the novel is as the mistress of a wealthy Swiss industrialist. Being the daughter of a Russian émigré, it is easy for her to circulate in German circles because many Russian émigrés at the time supported Hitler, believing that if he won the war, he would end communism in Russia. Though Lana and her mother don’t share these sentiments, this fact helps her cover within the resistance.
In telling these stories, both the ones almost entirely based on facts, like my mother’s story, and the ones that are a compilation of real people and events, like Lana’s, I hope to keep the memory of those that saw these tragedies firsthand alive.
My own parents are dead, and so I take my role as a storyteller and as a child of survivors very seriously. I want my own children and their children to know what my parents and so many others like them experienced. The Holocaust is still one of the most shocking episodes in history. In order for it never to be repeated, it must not be forgotten.
As I begin the research for my next book, I am curious about where it will take me. The one thing I know is that I will discover more tales of courage and sacrifice, and that these stories will make me appreciate, all the more, everything life has to offer.
Anita Abriel was born in Sydney, Australia. She received a BA in English Literature with a minor in Creative Writing from Bard College and attended UC Berkeley’s Masters in Creative Writing program. She lives in California with her family and is the author of The Light After the War, which was inspired by her mother’s story of survival during WWII.