Holocaust Survivor Story
Organized by: Marni Zelnick
Years ago I heard a story secondhand about a young Jewish woman from Poland who survived the Holocaust hidden in plain sight as a Catholic girl working in a cafe in Vienna that catered to German soldiers. Her story stuck with me because she didn't live alone, or with a protective family complicit in her secret. She took a shared room at a boarding house and spent the entire period terrified that the two Viennese sisters she roomed with would discover her secret and turn her in. I was haunted not just by the risks she took to survive while still just a teenager herself, but by the exhaustion she must have felt living out her false identity not just during the day, but at the boarding house through every moment and activity.
I was also struck by the end of her story. After the war, this woman stayed on in Vienna. Hoping to get news of lost relatives, she frequented Jewish centers where organizations were trying to find survivors and connect them with others. Walking into one of these centers one day, she was shocked to see the two sisters she'd roomed with during the war. It turns out that they were also Jews in hiding-- as scared during that time that she might discover them, as she had been that they might discover her.
I thought about this story for years and finally this spring reached out to the person who had originally told it to me. The girl was his mother, and she is still alive at 93, still sharp and still able to talk about these things. What's more, upon finding her, I discovered that there was a second part to this incredible story. This woman had been in love as a girl with a young man who ended up in a notorious concentration camp near Lvov. German soldiers who felt sorry for him, smuggled his letters out of the camp and delivered them to his beloved in Vienna. He did not survive the camp, but in his last letter to her wrote that if she did survive, she should get married and have children-- and if she had a son, he asked, would she name it after him so that she would always mention his name? She of course did survive, did marry and did have children. And today her son bears her lover's name. The letters she kept, but has not opened them in all these years.
The loss of Eli Wiesel last week broke my heart a bit-- and also reminded me that our collective tie to these stories is ever more fragile, and ever more critical. This woman's story has never been told and it should be. I plan to write it as either a book or film. But the first step is to go and see her at her home in Canada and to record her telling her story in her own words for the very first time. For this, it seems absolutely essential that I take a documentary filmmaker with me.
The goal of this page is to raise seed money for this project. Initial funds will cover travel, accommodations, equipment and research expenses for myself, a cinematographer and sound recordist. I have not made this page public, because I would like to protect the creative material as much as possible. Instead, I'm reaching out to those of you who have supported my work in the past, or who may feel personally invested in the preservation of our collective Jewish history.
I think about this woman and her story every day. I worry that she'll start to forget or that we'll lose her before there is time to listen to her. If you can help move this project forward, now, I would be incredibly grateful. In return, you'll get a behind the scenes look at the writing process. We'll send you a private link with video clips from the recorded interview and down the road I'll send pictures, pieces of writing or other bits of interesting research as they come up.
This is a donation request, but also an invitation to join me on a journey of discovery as I unravel the story of this young woman and her lost fiancé.