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InterviewTestimonies of sex and sexual violence were often sanitized

Sexually explicit memoir of women’s abuse in Nazi camps finally sees light

Second-generation trauma expert Helen Epstein publishes late mother Franci Rabinek Epstein’s manuscript, initially rejected in mid-1970s for being ahead of its time

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Franci Rabinek Epstein and daughter Helen Epstein, New York, c. 1950s. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
    Franci Rabinek Epstein and daughter Helen Epstein, New York, c. 1950s. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
  • Franci Rabinek (left) and her cousin Kitty in Celle, Germany after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen, July 1945. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
    Franci Rabinek (left) and her cousin Kitty in Celle, Germany after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen, July 1945. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
  • Franci Rabinek at her wedding to Kurt Epstein, Prague, December 21, 1946. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
    Franci Rabinek at her wedding to Kurt Epstein, Prague, December 21, 1946. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
  • Franci Rabinek Epstein and Kurt Epstein's exit document from Czechoslovakia, 1948. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
    Franci Rabinek Epstein and Kurt Epstein's exit document from Czechoslovakia, 1948. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
  • Helen Epstein and her mother Franci Rabinek Epstein, 1974. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)
    Helen Epstein and her mother Franci Rabinek Epstein, 1974. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)

When Czech-American Holocaust survivor Franci Rabinek Epstein wrote a frank, sexually explicit memoir of her wartime experiences in the mid-1970s, no one was interested in publishing it. Told from a decidedly female perspective, Epstein’s memoir was well ahead of its time.

Franci observed that women in the camps had same-sex relationships, and also engaged in sexual barter to help themselves and their mothers survive. It was also made clear to Franci that being beautiful was not a guarantee. If women were to leverage their beauty, they would have to also be smart about it — lest they wind up raped or murdered.

She candidly wrote about unfortunate pregnancies she witnessed in the camps, and the infanticide necessary to give postpartum women a chance to survive.

Frank, female-centric memoirs like Franci’s — especially ones recalling systematic sexual violence perpetrated against women under Nazi occupation — weren’t given attention in the first decades after the war, when readers didn’t want to hear this kind of testimony or couldn’t conceive of the extent of the atrocities that had been committed.

‘Franci’s War’ by Helen Epstein (Penguin)

It was an era in which open discussions of sexuality were still generally taboo. Later testimonies were often sanitized of sex and sexual violence. While charting its pervasiveness, Franci herself did not recount being a victim of sexual violence in her memoir.

“Survivors didn’t talk about anything having to do with sex because they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to know what had happened to them,” said Beverley Chalmers, author of “Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices Under Nazi Rule.”

Deeply disappointed at the lack of publishers’ interest, Franci put her manuscript aside and returned her focus to her long-time work as a couturière, designing and sewing clothes for rich and famous women at her salon in New York’s Upper West Side neighborhood.

Forty-five years later, Franci’s memoir has finally been published as “Franci’s War: A Woman’s Story of Survival” thanks to the efforts of her children, especially her daughter Helen Epstein. Epstein is a journalist and author known for her work on second-generation trauma, beginning with her groundbreaking “Children of the Holocaust.”

Epstein told The Times of Israel that she found the manuscript, typed in English on onionskin paper, while sorting through her mother’s papers after her death from a brain aneurysm at age 69 in 1989. Epstein later used selections from Franci’s recollections for her 1997 family memoir, “Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History,” on the Rabinek family women and the social history of Jews in the Czech lands.

Then she filed it away and didn’t look at it again for 20 years.

Franci Rabinek and her mother Josefa, August 1922. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)

Ghosts from the past

The much-belated publication of Franci’s memoir earlier this year is in part thanks to a serendipitous email Epstein, 72, received in 2018 from the stepson of a woman who was imprisoned together with Franci by the Gestapo in Prague in June 1939. The man’s inquiry prompted Epstein to reread her mother’s 150 pages with a fresh perspective.

“For me and my brothers, it was merely the written record of stories we had heard all our lives… [But] I realized how timely and unusual it was, especially its candor about sexuality in the Holocaust,” Epstein told The Times of Israel in an email interview from her home in Massachusetts.

Epstein said she was struck by her mother’s “contemporary voice, perceptive observations and lack of sentimentality, as well as any judgmental attitude.”

Wedding photo of Franci Rabinek and Joe Solar, 1940. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)

When Nazi Germany invaded Prague in March 1939, Franci Rabinek was a young career woman. An only child in a secular Jewish family, she was educated in French and German schools before dropping out to apprentice at her mother’s haute couture salon in Prague. In 1938, when she was only 18, Franci became the salon’s owner.

In August 1940, Franci married a spirited young Jewish man named Joe Solar. As laws against Jews became harsher, Franci was forced to relinquish ownership of her salon to one of her Czech workers (who refused to return it to Franci after the war).

In August 1942, Joe was deported to the ghetto-concentration camp Theresienstadt. Franci and her parents Emil and Josefa followed a month later. Emil and Josefa were sent on to Maly Trostinets (now in Belarus), where they were shot to death.

Franci and Joe survived relatively well at Theresienstadt thanks to their skills and Joe’s black market know-how. The young couple unofficially adopted an orphaned girl named Gisa, and Franci had her second cousin and closest friend Kitty with her. Close friendships developed among the Czech young adults, who built secluded areas called kumbals in the barracks where friends could meet or couples could have some private space for sexual relations.

Franci Rabinek (left) and her cousin Kitty in Celle, Germany after their liberation from Bergen-Belsen, July 1945. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)

Kitty was deported to the Czech Family Camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau in December 1943, and Franci followed in May 1944.

In between, Joe’s luck ran out when he was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo. Franci learned of his death in a concentration only after the war.

Franci openly admits in her memoir that she did not love Joe enough and did not consider him long-term husband material. She says she would have divorced Joe had he survived.

Cablegram from Franci Solar (née Rabinek) in Prague to her cousin Peter in the US informing him that she is the only member of the family who survived, October 25, 1945. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)

In one part of the memoir, she referred to herself only by her tattooed number and in third person.

Franci wrote in the section about her time imprisoned in Birkenau: “Other nights, she spun out endless fantasies she had at the age of 17 that ended with the emigration of a young man. Now, she imagined the wildest love scenes that had never taken place, feeling his arms around her, even smelling the scent of his pipe. Strangely enough, her husband never played a role in these sexual fantasies.”

Stroke of lightning

It was Franci’s quick thinking that spared her from death at Birkenau. During a selection, she decided in a split second to declare her profession as electrician, rather than dressmaker. The unlikely ruse succeeded, and Franci and Kitty were transferred in July 1944 with some 500 other women to the Dessauer Ufer camp in Hamburg, which was part of a network of more than 85 concentration camps in northern Germany. There they were forced to clear rubble caused by Allied bombings; the women themselves had no protection from the terrifying nightly raids.

Franci Rabinek Epstein as a fashion designer in New York, 1950s. (Courtesy of Helen Epstein)

At Dessauer Ufer, the young women met up with Italian prisoners of war on the sly. One of the young Italians took a liking to Franci, and though he shares with her items he received in care packages from home, she ultimately declines his romantic overtures because she believes she is still married.

In September 1944, Franci, Kitty and the others were transferred to Neugraben, where Franci had to think on her feet when the camp’s sadistic, yet oddly paternalistic, commander expected her to actually perform her role as an electrician. Miraculously, Franci was able to use basic electronic knowledge she learned from her engineer father to install telephone lines, fix wiring and electrify new parts of the camp.

On April 5, 1945, Franci and Kitty arrived at the even more hellish Bergen-Belsen. Ten days later, the British liberated the camp. Both young women were sick, and after being nursed to health in a hospital, they spent time in  the German town of Celle getting back on their feet.

Helen Epstein (Courtesy)

Franci returned to Prague a different person. She was at a loss for direction, and initially couldn’t see herself reverting to couture, which seemed frivolous in light of what she had experienced in recent years. She sought solace from men she knew she wasn’t serious about marrying.

At the urging of former clients, she did eventually open up a new salon, and she also married Kurt Epstein, her former swimming coach and fellow survivor. Franci gave birth to Helen in Prague, and soon after the couple fled Czechoslovakia for New York when the Communist regime took over in 1948.

According to Epstein, her mother rarely if ever spoke about feelings. Although she did return to her beloved profession, the war had changed her.

“My mother brought an unsentimental pragmatism to her work… Franci nursed a kind of contempt for the naïve girl she had been before the war and now, for the customers who believed the version of love they saw in Hollywood movies,” Epstein wrote in a passage in her book, “The Long Half-Lives of Love and Trauma.”

“Her message to me seemed clear. Being female meant being vulnerable. Matters of life and death could be determined in a split second,” she wrote.

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