In the summer of 1942, twenty-two year-old Franci Rabinekdesignated a Jew by the Nazi racial lawsarrived at Terezin, a concentration camp and ghetto forty miles north of her home in Prague. It would be the beginning of her three-year journey from Terezin to the Czech family camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau, to the slave labor camps in Hamburg, and Bergen Belsen. After liberation by the British in April 1945, she finally returned to Prague.
Franci was known in her group as the Prague dress designer who lied to Dr. Mengele at an Auschwitz selection, saying she was an electrician, an occupation that both endangered and saved her life. In this memoir, she offers her intense, candid, and sometimes funny account of those dark years, with the women prisoners in her tight-knit circle of friends.
Franci's War is the powerful testimony of one incredibly strong young woman who endured the horrors of the Holocaust and survived.
About the Author
Helen Epstein is a veteran arts journalist and author or translator of ten books of non-fiction including the trilogy Children of the Holocaust, Where She Came From: A Daughter's Search for Her Mother's History; and The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma. Born in Prague, she grew up in New York City. Her reviews and articles have appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and websites.
Read an Excerpt
It was a hot day in the first week of September 1942, and the Industrial Palace of Prague was teeming with people. Most were lying or sitting on the loose straw on the floor; others were wandering around in a stunned daze. Gone were the shiny displays of Czechoslovak industry that had given the place the air of a happy carnival.
I had often come to the Industrial Palace when I was a child and my father's electro-technical firm, Korálek & Rabinek, had a booth. It had always been a treat. I returned home with free samples, balloons, and stacks of glossy catalogs. This time I would not return home because the Industrial Palace had been converted to the assembly point for the deportation of undesirables, i.e., Jews, by edict of the Nuremberg race laws.
None of us should have been surprised. The trap had been closing for three years by then, but the systematic humiliation and brainwashing had been gradual and only partially successful. Our humanity was still intact. Our situation had somehow not fully registered until now. It was quite a shock to be suddenly treated like so much cattle.
I was twenty-two and lying with my head in my mother's lap in a sort of stupor. I had just had a tonsillectomy. I had not eaten for a few days and was having trouble breathing the air that was filled with straw dust. My mother kept stroking my hair and trying to make me drink a little water. My father was walking around from one acquaintance to another, hoping to find out what was in store for us. Groups of SS men were storming in and out, yelling orders and rounding up groups of Jewish men to clean the latrines. They made a point of picking out the most distinguished-looking older men in the crowd, the men wearing glasses. My father was one of them.
When they told me in the hospital that my parents and I had been called up for a transport, the nurse, who was a friend of ours, said We can get you out of it because of the surgery. I thought this over for a few minutes and then said I'm not letting them go alone. They're too old and they don't have anybody else. My mother was sixty and my father was sixty-five. I couldn't visualize those two people going alone anywhere. And there was a little egotistical motivation too. My husband was already gone. I would have been left all alone. Besides, by September 1942 I was so fed up with all the restrictions in Prague that I thought any change of scene would be a relief, no matter what was waiting on the other end. I was always like that, unfortunately.
Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939, a bit over two weeks after I turned nineteen. My interest in politics was nonexistent, and I was only vaguely aware that all four of my grandparents were Jewish. A year earlier, I had become the owner of my mother's haute couture business. I was carefree, slightly spoiled, and mainly interested in dancing, my business, flirting, and skiing, in that order.
My father, Emil Rabinek, was born a Jew in Vienna in 1878. He was the youngest son in a family of Austrian civil servants and a firm believer in assimilation. At the age of twenty, he had converted to Catholicism in order to circumvent the numerus clausus-the Jewish quota-at the University of Berlin. Emil Rabinek had fought with the Austrian army during the First World War without much enthusiasm, and welcomed the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic in 1918. He had lived in Prague for many years. While he remained-emotionally and culturally-an Austrian, he saw the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic as a new experiment in social democracy, a sort of Switzerland in the heart of Europe with equal rights for all minorities. He chose to be a Czechoslovak citizen.
The next twenty years justified his choice. My father lived as a member of the German-speaking community of Prague, patronizing German clubs, theaters, and concert halls. One of his favorite statements was I am a Czechoslovak citizen of German nationality. He never learned proper Czech. Our extensive library was almost entirely German, with translations from French, English, and Russian literature. He led me to admire everything German or, at least, filtered through the German language. There was not one Czech book in the house until I was in my teens and began to buy them for myself.
Though my father had had plenty of warning about Nazism, he dismissed the news that came from Germany as propaganda. He believed in German decency, justice, honor, and civilization. He was also absolutely certain that Czechoslovakia was a strong country, its sovereignty guaranteed by its French and British allies. Not even the occupation of Austria in March 1938 had shaken his convictions, and he considered his cousins who had fled Vienna to be cowards. His eldest sister, Gisela Rabinek Kremer, and some of her children had remained there. That gave him further evidence that it was a mistake to panic and run.
There were, in addition, financial considerations. In February 1920, when I was born, my father had been a rich man-co-owner of a shipyard and an electro-technical wholesale house. Following the American Crash of 1929 and the depression years, his wealth had shrunk. We still had our beautiful apartment, with all its books and paintings, and were living very comfortably. But by the time the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia, our income came mostly from my mother's and my haute couture business, which, in earlier years, he had considered the caprice of a liberated career woman. Now, my father kept busy as its bookkeeper. Business was good, but most of our capital was tied up in it, and not readily available to convert into foreign currency on the black market. My father often said At our age we are not emigrating without capital.
Unbeknownst to me and in spite of all his brave talk, my father was writing letters to his cousin in England with the purpose of getting me out of the country. Nothing ever came of it, and only twenty-five years later did I learn from this guilt-ridden relative how my father had pleaded with him to do something, anything, to save me. He must have done it under pressure from my mother, who felt that a major catastrophe had befallen the Czech nation in general and our family in particular.
My mother, Josefa "Pepi" Sachsel, spoke excellent Czech and had a very deep allegiance to the Czech people, although she, too, was born in Vienna. Both her parents had died when she was nine, and in 1891, she and her two older brothers were taken in by Aunt Rosa, her father's sister, and moved to the Czech town of Kol’n.
Rosalia Sachsel Lustfeld, according to my mother, was desperately poor and deeply pious. A regular at Kol’n's synagogue, she preferred to discuss the Talmud with itinerant Chasidim to running her used clothing store. The brothers soon ran away: Emil Sachsel joined the Austro-Hungarian Navy and eventually settled in Bratislava; Rudolf Sachsel became a peddler and eventually a rich wholesaler in Prague. Pepi, being a girl and only nine, remained in Kol’n, learned Czech, attended grammar school, and was stuck with Aunt Rosa's overpowering love, religious fervor, and rigidity. This combination of traits managed, over the years, to sour my mother's connection to observant Judaism and turn her into an agnostic.
The Hilsner Affair was also a factor. In 1899, when Pepi was seventeen, a Czech Catholic seamstress was found dead in a pool of blood during Passover. A Jewish vagrant named Leopold Hilsner was the chief suspect and accused of ritual murder. My mother told me there had been pogroms all over the country, including in Kol’n. And another factor that soured her on Judaism: her first love had been a wealthy Jewish boy in Kol’n, and his parents had shipped him out of the country to prevent him from marrying a poor orphan.
Aunt Rosa had taught her niece how to assess used clothing and how to sew. At twenty, Pepi followed her brothers' lead and left Kol’n. She moved in with her brother Rudolf in Prague and found a job at one of the city's best-known dress shops, Moritz Schiller. Within two years, she became its directrice and buyer. My mother had no wish to marry, but to allay Aunt Rosa's fears for her virtue in the big city, she married a former Kol’n schoolmate, and became Mrs. Oskar Weigert.
During that first decade of the twentieth century, Pepi traveled to Paris every year and became a sophisticated businesswoman. But her marriage was miserably unhappy because Oskar had syphilis, then an incurable disease. In 1908, she had a nervous breakdown. Her boss conferred with Aunt Rosa and Pepi's prosperous brothers, and they were able to get her marriage annulled on the grounds that it was never consummated. Josefa Weigert moved into a boardinghouse, where she met electrical engineer Emil Rabinek. After a decade-long affair, and the death of Aunt Rosa and his mother, Fanny Rabinek, they married in December 1918.
Emil Rabinek did not object to Pepi's career, but did not want her to work for anyone else. So she opened her own haute couture house, Salon Weigert, in a space adjoining their apartment on 53 Spálená in Prague. My mother was equally at home with Czech and German clients, perhaps leaning a little more to the Czech side. Many of them adored her and were often friends as well as customers. She had excellent relations with her Czech employees. I was born in February 1920, and as I grew up, she balanced my father's Germanophilia quite nicely.
My own allegiance was entirely with the Czechoslovak Republic. I was, after all, a child of the Republic, only two years younger than the state itself. I considered myself a Czechoslovak citizen. My parents tried to bring me up as a citizen of the world. German was spoken at home, Czech was spoken everywhere else, and I was sent to Prague's French school, baptized a Catholic, and attended church and confession. I knew I had Jewish family members because I visited Aunt Rosa's grave in the Jewish cemetery once a year with Mutti (my mother). But religion did not interest me very much. By the time I was thirteen, I began to question Catholic dogma and soon afterward asked my father to have my papers changed to read "without religious affiliation."
Those were the kind of Jews I and my parents were when the Germans occupied Prague on March 15, 1939.
In April, a tall, sandy-haired man with a Prussian crew cut had appeared at our door and identified himself politely as the commissar appointed by the Reichsprotektor to "aryanize" our Jewish business. After inspecting our records and watching how the workroom operated, he must have come to the realization that our salon was entirely dependent on the taste and work of its owners and their relationship to its customers-not a potential gold mine for him. Hinting broadly that his wife needed new clothes, he advised us off the record to sell the business pro forma to one of our employees and perhaps stay on as hired help. After he left, Mutti and I went into the workroom to discuss the situation with our staff. Our seamstresses and one tailor were all under thirty, and our belief in their loyalty was so strong that it never occurred to us to worry about a possible leak to the authorities about the proposition we were about to make to them.
They did not seem to be surprised. This sort of thing was going on all over Prague, but somehow none of us had expected it so soon. A lively discussion began about who should become the pro forma owner. We decided to sleep on it. My parents had misgivings about putting our livelihood into the hands of an employee-no matter how loyal-while I thought the idea simple and brilliant. Actually, we had no choice. We could close the business completely, but that would entail living on our savings for an unforeseeable length of time and also deprive more than a dozen people of their jobs.
The next day Marie, who had been working for us the longest, offered to be part of the transaction. A secret contract was drawn up by a reliable attorney and member of the Czech underground who had arranged more than one similar transfer. Marie and I would draw the same salary and divide the profit in half. To make the transaction plausible, the lawyer made a loan to Marie, enabling her to buy the business from us. We repaid him. The contract was buried on the grounds of the attorney's country house. A sign painter changed the names over our entrance door.
After this, life went on more or less unchanged, except that the staff began to call Marie "Miss Marie," instead of by her first name. Our customers, including the German customers, accepted the situation without much comment. Some inquired discreetly whether my mother was getting her fair share.
Then the systematic harassment of the Czechs in general and the Jews in particular began. First came the definition of who was considered a Jew: anyone with at least two Jewish grandparents. I discovered that I had four. Then Jews were barred from public places, and signs to that effect were put up at all restaurants, coffeehouses, playgrounds, swimming pools, theaters, concert halls, etc.: jews unwanted. Only the river was still accessible to us.
Jews were dismissed from all the universities; Jewish doctors were allowed to treat only Jews, and their offices were confiscated one by one. Eventually all Jewish-owned businesses were aryanized and the National Bar Association disbarred all Jewish lawyers. But some Czech organizations and businesses procrastinated. The Czech Philharmonic resisted the longest, almost one year. The national gymnastic association, Sokol, complied, but a large number of regional groups let it be known privately that its Jewish members were as welcome as before.
We were ordered to wear a yellow star with the word jude in the middle. This had to be sewn on the left side of every outer garment, over the heart. Anyone circumventing this order was subject to immediate arrest. My father and I considered this the ultimate insult; Mutti accepted it much more philosophically, maybe as a punishment for our disregard of our ancestry.
Next came the confiscation of all jewelry, which had to be brought to appointed places in person. Then radios. Then Jews were only allowed to ride in the last car of the tram and only allowed to sit in the event that no Aryan was standing. The following year, only Jews who worked and had a special pass could ride the tram. The ones who did not have a pass had to walk everywhere.