My mother’s Holocaust memoir is guiding me through lockdown

Franci Epstein’s extraordinary book follows her story from life as a young fashion designer to a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp, before her escape in 1945. Here, her daughter Helen reflects on what we can learn from her indomitable spirit.

Helen Epstein
A collage of tickets, imagery and black and white photos of Franci Epstein.
Courtesy of Helen Epstein

My mother spent two years in lockdown, but not because of a pandemic. I grew up with her near-daily stories of having survived the Nazi occupation.

First Franci, then a young dress designer from Prague, had lived on lockdown for more than two years after the German Army invaded Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939. In the fall of 1942, she, her husband and parents were deported to a series of concentration camps. Finally, on 15 April 1945 – 75 years ago today – she was liberated by the British Army from Bergen-Belsen.

She wrote about her experiences in a manuscript she sardonically titled Roundtrip, because it began and ended in Prague. It began as my mother had just turned 19 and had inherited the management of her mother’s fashion salon in the center of Prague.

The plague that had been unleashed upon the world then was political rather than viral. As a Czech, she was part of a subjugated nation; as a Jew (as defined by having four Jewish grandparents), she was soon prohibited from going to work, to the movies, using public transportation, shopping for food, seeing a doctor, or her friends. Cooped up with her boyfriend and aging parents in a small apartment, she was bored, angry, frustrated and subject to ever-more-restrictive regulations.

How did Franci and the rest of them cope? Reading her memoir during these days of being locked down in my Massachusetts home, I pay attention to their strategies. Routines and strict organisation of time was key. My grandfather’s first priority, she writes, was knowing exactly what was going on. He combined his need for exercise and need to know the latest news by walking miles across Prague every day to listen to the BBC at the homes of friends whose radios the Nazis had not yet confiscated. When he got back home, he updated his family as well as the war maps he tacked to a wall, showing the progression of the Allied armies.

'How did they cope? Routine was key'

Franci’s enterprising boyfriend spent his time hatching anti-Nazi plans with his Czech army buddies and picking up useful items and food where he could. He soon bought Franci a puppy. Walking the dog – then as now – provided not only diversion but a necessary, recurrent and welcome reason to escape confinement, no matter the weather. The entire family became dogwalkers.

Since owning radios and phonographs was forbidden to them, Franci and her family had to generate their own music. They sang operatic arias and favourite popular songs with one another, vying to remember the lyrics. And they still had their books: volumes and volumes of literature that they could read and reread.

‘Somehow, we became accustomed to our strictly circumscribed existence’, Franci writes in her memoir. ‘At a loss for what to do with my abundance of free time, I began to clean house, waxing and polishing everything in sight. I also learned to cook a little, as much as our severely limited supplies allowed – mainly vegetables. I never again want to eat a carrot cake, or potato goulash, or any of the other concoctions of that time. Everyone started dying sheets and pillowcases dark colours so as to save on soap in the uncertain future. We all acquired large duffel bags and knapsacks at black market prices, to be packed within 24 hours if necessary’.

By September 1942, Franci was so fed up with all the restrictions in Prague that she thought any change of scene would be a relief, no matter what was waiting on the other end. She missed going to the movies, seeing her friends, going for walks in the park. Of course, she could not then have imagined Terezin or Auschwitz, or Bergen-Belsen.

Today, Franci’s matter-of-fact memoir of involuntary confinement can be read as a guide to getting through our own difficult times. How did she survive? Let me count the ways.

'She took one day at a time and clung to the conviction that she would get through whatever happened.'

She refused to take her situation personally. She saw herself and her family as part of a far larger group of people whose lives had not only been disrupted but threatened by death. She refused to feel sorry for herself. She followed her father’s lead and kept her eyes and ears open, assessing the news she heard, reading situations and people as best she could, and acting accordingly.

She kept her friends close and was lucky – when she was deported to the concentration camps – to find herself with old friends and find new ones while imprisoned with a group of young women who shared a common culture. She formed alliances where she could, even adopting and taking care of an orphaned child.

Franci and her husband chose a young girl of 12 named Gisa, separated from her parents after the annexation of the Sudetenland and never heard from again: ‘She was suspicious of everybody, and it took me weeks to coax a smile from her. When we gave her a piece of chocolate, we discovered that she had never seen or tasted chocolate before. I made over some of my clothes for her, because the outgrown things she was wearing made her look even tinier than she actually was’.

Trying to find meaning in feeling useful and performing work she knew how to do, Franci adapted her sewing skills as needed. Instead of designing glamorous evening gowns, she applied herself to the task of repairing blood-stained Nazi uniforms in the forced labour workshops she was assigned to and, after hours, patched together clothing for herself, her friends, and for favours and food.

In the absence of an internet, she sought diversion and solace in her store of favourite memories, memories of her parents, of her first unrequited love, of her favourite poems, stories, plays, and songs.

Among the Czech prisoners the tunes and sketches of The Liberated Theatre of Voskovec and Werich were very popular; one lyric Franci sang often was: ‘The world is ours; There’s room for everyone, and on the ruins of the ghetto we will laugh’. It was a favourite adapted and paraphrased for Terezin. Franci would also hum the works of favourite composers Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and Verdi and Puccini arias.

She took one day at a time and clung to the conviction that she would get through whatever happened.

Franci often referred to the concentration camps as her ‘university’, where she had received a unique education in human behaviour. 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.

She would have been dismayed but not devastated by Covid-19 and lockdown. She would have told her children and grandchildren that they had to pay attention and never lose hope that they’d get through it. I am finding her legacy invaluable now.

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