Helen Epstein: One real skill and one fake one helped my mother survive the Holocaust

Franci’s War, photo: Mladá fronta

Franci’s War is the gripping and illuminating memoir of a young Prague woman who passed through several concentration camps but somehow managed to survive the Holocaust. Franci Rabinek Epstein’s family had lived on Spálená St., where they ran a thriving dress making business until – after being designated Jews by Nazi racial laws – they were sent in summer 1942 to the Terezín concentration camp and ghetto north of Prague. I discussed Franci’s story with her daughter Helen Epstein, a US writer who has succeeded in having Franci’s War published in several countries.

Franci’s War, photo: Penguin Books

Your mother and her parents were sent to Terezín. I must say I learned a lot about Terezín from reading Franci’s War, for instance that the adults would sometimes “adopt” children who were unaccompanied. And your mother and her then husband adopted a child.

“Right, they did. And that was one of the moving parts, for me, of my mother’s memoir.

“Because she was a young women then – she was 23, 24 – she adopted a 12-year-old.

“I was always curious about this person and when I was annotating and researching my mother’s memoir I went online and asked on various Facebook groups if they had ever heard of this young, orphan girl in Terezín; her name was Gisela.

“And much to my surprise somebody turned up with photographs of her, and they are in the book.”

Another thing that also struck me about the life in Terezín is that Catholic masses were conducted there – because I presume several or many of the interned prisoners had been baptised, as had your mum.

“I think one of the unusual things about Czech Jews is how many of them, by the 1920s, were not only secular, but how many of them had converted to either Catholicism or Lutheranism, or the Czech church, because they no longer felt any attachment to Jewish tradition.”

“Yes. I think one of the unusual things about Czech Jews is how many of them, by the 1920s, were not only secular, but how many of them had converted to either Catholicism or Lutheranism, or the Czech church, because they no longer felt any attachment to Jewish tradition.

“Here in the United States when Madeleine Albright came out as having Jewish heritage it was considered this huge scandal.

“Nobody believed her when she said she didn’t know she was Jewish, but in fact it was very common among Jews in Czechoslovakia in the ‘20s and ‘30s not to pay attention to their Jewish heritage.”

One of the most powerful stories in the book is about Franci’s separation from her parents in Terezín. I guess they all knew they wouldn’t see each other again. But then her parents learn that she has done something, done a switch, to try to help them, I presume. Could you tell us what she did?

Terezín, photo: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, public domain

“It actually was in conjunction with my mother’s and her parents’ arrest in Pankrác [prison].

“They were arrested because somebody had been trading in jewelry; her boyfriend’s mother had been trading on the black market in jewelry and they were hauled in as a result of her doing so.

“When my mother was released from Pankrác she went home and she went through her father’s desk, looking to see if there was any incriminating information about jewelry or anything else there.

“And she found a vial of pills.

“Both my grandparents apparently were suicidal – quite dramatically suicidal – and were always threatening to kill themselves.

“So my mother took the pills and took them to a pharmacist and found out that they were indeed cyanide pills – and she had them exchanged for saccharine pills.

Helen Epstein, photo: Epstanzer, CC BY-SA 4.0

“Unfortunately, her father took these pills with him when they were deported, convinced that he had the means to kill himself.

“And at the moment when they were separated at Terezín – my grandparents were sent further east and my mother was meant to stay in Terezín with her husband – my mother revealed to her father that she had done the substitution.

“So their last time together was really marred by this terrible sense of betrayal that my grandfather felt.”

Was that something she could ever get over? It’s so unimaginable that somebody could go through that kind of experience.

“It was a really, really horrendous, traumatic experience and I think she never got over the fact that she had denied her father control over his death.

“In fact that story has haunted our family and I myself feel very strongly that I want to be in control of my death.

“I have told my children this, I have told my husband this, and it’s very, very important to me because of what happened there.”

Auschwitz, photo: archiv Yad Vashem, Public Domain

In the book, when your mum is transferred from Terezín to Auschwitz she switches to the third person. Instead of speaking in her voice, she tells the reader about the fate of prisoner A4116. Why do you think she did that?

“I think that many people who have experienced trauma have experienced this state that’s called disassociation, or splitting.

“What that means is that when you are under great stress or in great danger, your consciousness just removes itself from your body and looks at yourself as though you were another person.

“And that’s what happened to my mother in Auschwitz.

“Her cousin Kitty, who had preceded her to Auschwitz, had just told her what was going on there, that they were actually gassing and then burning human beings, and my mother was in such shock, and she had just been tattooed with the Auschwitz tattoo, and so she looked at her arm and looked at that number on her arm – and as she did so, her arm became two arms and body became two bodies.

“And for the rest of the book, for the rest of her memoir Franci’s War, she describes as prisoner A4116.

“Czechs really stuck together. She was with a group of Czech women who stayed together, from Terezín to Auschwitz to Hamburg to Bergen-Belsen and were ultimately liberated by the British Army.”

“She doesn’t go back to narrating in the first person until she wakes up after surviving typhus after being liberated by the British Army at Bergen-Belsen – and only then does she return to herself.”

Did she ever tell you about how she felt she had managed to survive? The things that she describes in the book are beyond hellish. Obviously there was a good degree of luck – but did she ever tell you what it was about her personality that helped her to get through that hell?

“No, I don’t think she ever told me one thing. But there were very many, many things.

“The first – very important for Czech Jews – was that the Czechs really stuck together.

“Her real skill was that she could sew anything. That was an incredibly valuable skill, because not only was she assigned to workshop duty – she was assigned to workshops, which definitely prolonged her life.”

“She was with a group of Czech women who stayed together, from Terezín to Auschwitz to Hamburg to Bergen-Belsen and were ultimately liberated by the British Army.

“And these women had incredible relationships with each other. Some of them were related to each other, as my mother was with her cousin Kitty, some of them were just good friends, some of them made friends in the camps.

“They really supported each other. When one was down, the other was up, and they really shared things with each other – both material and spiritual things.

“Another big factor was that my mother had one real skill and one fake skill.

“Her real skill was that she could sew anything.

 Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz (in the middle), photo: Karl-Friedrich Höcker/Yad Vashem, Public Domain

“In the camps that was an incredibly valuable skill, because not only was she assigned to workshop duty – she was assigned to workshops, which was indoor activity, which definitely prolonged her life.

“And also outside of her official work she could turn things into clothes, or she could repair things. That was a valued activity that she could exchange for other services or goods, like bread.

“But her second skill, which was totally made up, was because her father was an electrical engineer, she had grown up with a lot of electrical equipment in the house.

“Her father had always treated her like a boy, and instead of playing with dolls he gave her electrical equipment to play with.

“So when she was selected for work camp by Dr. Mengele at Auschwitz, she was asked what her profession was. And she had the guts and the presence of mind to say, I’m an electrician.

“That wouldn’t fool me, and I don’t understand how it could have fooled Dr. Mengele in 1944. However, it did and she was registered as an electrician.

Bergen-Belsen, photo: Wikimedia Commons, public domain

“And when she was sent to work camp in Hamburg, she actually worked as an electrician.

“For me some of the funniest parts of my mother’s book are her descriptions of doing electrical work, without a clue as to how it should be done.”

She was saved by the British at Bergen-Belsen. But it must have been quite touch and go, because she had typhus at that stage. I presume she might have died if they had come even a few weeks later?

“Correct. She was ill for at least a month and finally she came out of whatever it was she was in; I don’t know if it was a coma or whether she was just completely out.

“At any rate, she was saved – and she recuperated under the surveillance of the British Army, for which her cousin Kitty was an interpreter, and eventually my mother was too.

“They stayed there until August of 1945 and didn’t return to Prague until then.”

“My mother was very, very elated to return to Prague – and she was devastated by what she found there. First of all, her parents were dead. Second of all, her husband was dead.”

How did she find the return to Prague?

“My mother was very, very elated to return to Prague – and she was devastated by what she found there.

“First of all, her parents were dead. Second of all, her husband was dead. All three had essentially been murdered. Many of her friends were dead. She had no place to live.

“Her salon, the business that she and her mother had conducted since my grandmother founded it in 1920, was completely gone. Their sewing machines, all their equipment, their material – everything was gone.

“When she went to visit people with whom they had stashed precious things – books, glass, carpets, clothing – sometimes people would return these things to her, and some.

“And other people would just pretend that they had never received these things.

“She describes this peculiar sensation that she had when had dinner with old friends and they would serve the dinner on china that had belonged to her mother, and on a tablecloth that belonged to her mother. And they really didn’t seem to realise her discomfort with this.”

Kurt Epstein, photo: public domain

At the insistence of your father [Kurt Epstein], who was also a survivor, your parents moved to the US in 1948. Did they ever see Prague again?

“My father never returned to Czechoslovakia.

“First of all, we had very little money in America. Czechs have this idea that people emigrate to America and become rich. Well, my father was unemployed for a decade.

“My mother supported the family as a dressmaker and we really had no money at all, so there was no question of travel. That was the first thing.

“But the second thing was that my father was from Roudnice nad Labem. He was very, very much a son of Roudnice and he was an Olympic athlete who had represented Czechoslovakia [in water polo], so he was very, very tied to the Czech nation. He was considered a Czech patriot.

“So after the war he went back to Roudnice and HE was so devastated that he said he could never return to Czechoslovakia.

“However, my mother in 1964 received German reparation money and she took it and went to visit her cousin Kitty in Prague.”

Your mum wrote the book that became Franci’s War in the 1970s but it’s only recently come out in the UK, the US, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and is coming out in several other countries later in the year. Why is it only being published now?

Photo: Facebook of Stolpersteine Prague

“I’m not really sure. I think in 1974, when she wrote it, it was so unconventional, so ahead of its time. My mother was extremely candid about everything, including love and sex, and she was also candid about the degree of Jewishness that she grew up with.

“I think when an agent sent out the manuscript in America in the early 1970s the mostly male editors must have been offended by the way she talked about sex and the way she talked about being Jewish.

“Because she was a Holocaust survivor who had been baptised – and there was no room for that concept in people’s minds.

“In general, women writing about the camps did not do very well in book sales initially. There were maybe 10 memoirs by women published in the late ’40s and early 1950s that sold anything.

“In the United States in particular it was very, very difficult for women survivors to have a voice.”

I saw a previous interview with you in which you said that sometimes during the Holocaust daughters would sometimes trade sex just to keep their mothers alive.

“Because it was very hard to survive the camps, if you were over 40 years old, many daughters just bonded tightly with their mothers and saved their mothers really by establishing relationships with their guards or with kapos.”

“Right. I don’t know how prevalent this is across Europe, but I have been struck by how many mother-daughter pairs I see in Czech families.

“Because it was very hard to survive the camps, if you were over 40 years old, many daughters just bonded tightly with their mothers and saved their mothers really by establishing relationships with their guards or with kapos.

“And via this arrangement, whether it was overtly sexual or covertly sexual or platonic, several women managed to save their mothers.

“My mother actually did not exercise any critical judgement about this. She thought that it was the obvious thing to do if you had your mother with you, as she did not. And this is what you did – because you could save a life this way.”

In this video testimony, Franci Rabinek Epstein, who died in the United States in 1989, describes an encounter with the notorious Dr. Mengele during an Auschwitz selection.