Franci’s War: A Woman’s Story of Survival by Franci Rabinek Epstein; Penguin Books, 2020, ISBN 9780143-135579; 258 pages including timeline and afterword by daughter Helen Epstein, author of Children of the Holocaust; $16.99.
Published posthumously with the help of her author daughter Helen Epstein, Franci’s War by Franci Rabinek Epstein is a well-written step-by-step recounting of Franci’s experiences during the Holocaust.
A dress designer of good reputation in Prague, Franci was transported with her parents to Terezin, the Nazis’ “model ghetto” nearby. She was able to secretly rendezvous with her first husband, Pepik “Joe” Solar, who had been arrested and sent away earlier than she was. Soon, however, her parents were taken on another transport to their deaths, and with Joe leaving the ghetto daily to work as slave labor on a railroad spur, Franci often was left to her own devices. A healthy woman in her early 20s, she initially was assigned as a nurse’s aide in a barracks for sick and demented people. However, a former rival in the dress business recognized her, and arranged for Franci to work for her in a ghetto factory where inexpensive dresses were made for the Germans. Compared to what others went through, it was not all that unpleasant work – especially because the Czech guards at Terezin favored prisoners who could speak their language.
Although her parents were born Jewish, they considered themselves agnostics, and at the French school where they sent her as a child, Franci had been baptized Catholic. Aware of her Jewish roots, she attended a Sabbath service at Terezin, but neither it, nor a Catholic mass, held any interest for her. Nevertheless, in the Nazis eyes, someone born Jewish remains Jewish, whatever that person’s own inclinations. Rather than turn to religion for solace, she and Joe turned to “adoptive” parenthood; that is, they became substitute parents for Gisa, a nine-year-old orphan at Terezin, who kept them psychologically at a distance. Only when Gisa learned that Franci could teach her English did she begin to thaw out a little.
Franci describes diversions in Terezin. Prisoners performed Verdi’s Requiem and competed in soccer games at which spectators cheered lustily, at least for a few hours “oblivious to the reality of the camps.” Although men and women were barracked separately, Franci’s friends were able to arrange opportunities for her and Joe to be together privately. She also describes the news reel crews that, under Nazi supervision, recorded made-up scenarios for propaganda purposes, in which Jews were shown to be well treated. One group of Dutch Jews actually was assisted off the transport by the ghetto’s commandant, greeted with welcoming speeches, and given postcards to send to their friends and relatives at home.
When Joe was off working on the railroad spur, he had opportunities to acquire black market goods, which he brought back to the camp. Eventually, he was arrested and after a brief imprisonment reassigned to a different part of the ghetto and required to work on a truck that hauled coal to Terezin. Before long, they were separated for good, as Franci was put on a transport to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There she was tattooed with the number A-4116, and, perhaps because of the intercession of friends from Terezin who had preceded her, was assigned to a shop where German uniforms were repaired. Gisa meanwhile was assigned to a children’s block. At Birkenau, female Jewish supervisors known as “kapos” or “capos” were chosen by the SS based on their “pretty faces and good figures” whereas male capos were selected on the basis of how well they could play soccer. SS guards were sadistic, requiring half-starved prisoners to perform calisthenics, and punishing them when they collapsed from exhaustion.
After a short while, A-4116, as she started calling herself, was required to appear with other women naked before Dr. Josef Mengele for selection, and rather than tell him she was a seamstress, she said she was an electrician, the rudimentary skills of which she had learned from her father. Pleased, Mengele spared her life, sending her on her way to a transport that took her to Hamburg, Germany. Her adopted daughter Gisa was not so lucky; frail and underdeveloped, she soon was marched off with other children, along with the elderly, to the gas chambers.
In Hamburg, life became considerably easier for Franci. Although she had to work on a crew that cleared rubble from bombed out buildings – back breaking work – when she returned to her barracks, she, along with the other women there, were able to flirt with Italian prisoners-of-war who communicated with them through the window of the next building. One fellow tied supplies to a rope which he swung up from his window to hers. He also sent her a marriage proposal, but she explained that she already was married to Joe.
There were new terrors. Allied planes bombed the work camps regularly, and at night rats scurried through the women’s barracks. The commandant was a somewhat befuddled old man, who was pleased that Franci knew how to do electrical work, and at one point rewarded her by appointing her as a capo in her barracks – a job at which she failed miserably because no one would take her orders seriously. She was soon demoted—much to her relief.
As at Terezin, the Nazis compelled the prisoners to put on entertainments, in which the women sang, danced, vamped, and, in Franci’s case, recited a monologue from The Human Voice by Jean Cocteau.
Near the end of the war, an allied bomber scored a direct hit on one of the barracks, killing 20 and wounding others. Franci was shaken up but not seriously hurt. Before long, she and other women were transported to the Bergen-Belsen death camp where they saw a yard full of the sick and the dying. Barely living people wandered aimlessly among those who already had died from a typhus epidemic that had swept the camp. Other inmates died after eating bread that had been sadistically baked with ground glass inside.
But then a tank with a white star on its side was spotted coming through the camp – the prisoners’ first view of the British forces who liberated them. After a period of recovery, Franci moved back to Prague, where she learned from other returnees that her husband Joe was dead. The widow subsequently married Kurt Epstein, considerably older than she. When Franci was a young girl, Kurt had been her swim coach. They emigrated to the United States in 1948, escaping Czechoslovakia in time to avoid living under its new Communist rulers.
Republished from San Diego Jewish World