Four Decades Gathering Dust: Why a Daughter Decided to Publish Her Mother’s Holocaust Memoir

Franci Epstein peers out of her New York City apartment, which also served as her fashion salon, with her 16-year-old daughter, Helen, in the foreground, circa 1964. —Courtesy of Helen Epstein

Forty-six years ago, New York business owner and Holocaust survivor Franci Epstein wrote her memoir, which described surviving selection at Auschwitz and other concentration camps from a woman’s perspective. Despite the efforts of a prominent agent in 1975, her manuscript was never published. Franci gave it to her daughter, author Helen Epstein, who used it as source material for her own work through the decades.

When Helen first read her mom’s memoir, nothing surprised her, as Franci had never censored herself. She had heard some of the stories as young as two and a half years old, when she started asking about the numbers tattooed on her mother’s arm — a reminder of Franci’s trauma and survival in Auschwitz.

While Helen does not know why publishers rejected the memoir, she speculates it may have been a victim of the times. “Franci’s manuscript made nonjudgmental observations about a wide spectrum of women’s relationships in camp,” she said. “I think it was perceived as unsellable.”

Franci wearing a dress of her own design in New York, circa 1950s. —Courtesy of Helen Epstein

In 2017, as the #MeToo movement catapulted women’s unique experiences into a global discussion, Helen reread her mother’s writing (Franci had died in 1989.) Perhaps the world was now ready for her frank memoir, which discussed the roles played in the camps by sexual barter, abortion, gender identity, lesbian relationships and more. Earlier this year Penguin Books published Franci’s War: A Woman’s Story of Survival.

“In 1974, when my mother wrote her memoir, survivors of almost everything were called ‘victims,’” explained Helen. “That has changed over the decades. We now have Holocaust survivors, cancer survivors, and survivors of sexual assault.”

About Franci’s War

The resourceful and business savvy Franci Rabinek was born on February 26, 1920, in then-Czechoslovakia. Her mother owned Salon Weigert, a fashion boutique in Prague, and her father was an electrical engineer. Her father, who had wanted his wife to have an abortion when he discovered she was pregnant or, failing that, a son, and got neither, would bring electrical appliances home for his young daughter to play with instead of dolls — an early experience that would help Franci during the Holocaust.

When the Nazi Party came into power in Germany and began occupying surrounding countries, Franci was a teenager and only interested in fashion, boys, skiing, and dancing. With dreams of becoming a fashion designer, she dropped out of school and started working for her mother’s business. Though she would later call this stage of her life “frivolous,” it would be this love of fashion that would support her in the years to come.

Jewish women selected for forced labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 1944, the same time period that Franci was deported to the camp. She stayed there for two months before being sent to Dessauer Ufer, a subcamp of Neuengamme, located in Hamburg, Germany. —US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Yad Vashem

In 1941, deportations began of thousands of Czech Jews to concentration camps. A year later, Franci and her parents were deported to Theresienstadt, where Franci was selected to stay at the ghetto and her parents were sent to Maly Trostinets near Minsk in the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, where they were murdered.

Throughout Franci’s imprisonment in ghettos and concentration camps, she was assigned to sew indoors — protecting her from harsh winter conditions — and she unofficially exchanged her sewing skills for food and favors.

Her professional skills might have saved Franci when she was standing in line for selection by one of the most notorious SS physicians, Josef Mengele, who also conducted inhumane medical experiments on prisoners in Auschwitz.

Helen explained this pivotal moment: “Because she had this incredibly intense body consciousness developed in her profession, she noticed when she was standing naked in line with hundreds of other naked women for that selection, exactly why some women were selected for work and others for death. One of the things that she noticed was that Mengele didn’t like scars. Franci had an appendectomy scar and she decided on the spot that she had to get his attention away from her scar with something that would startle him.”

When Mengele asked what her occupation was, she responded in German, “electrician.” Franci observed that he hesitated, slowing the efficient cadence of the selection for a few seconds, and directed her to the forced labor group. Franci’s quick thinking saved her life that day.

Franci sent a telegram dated October 25, 1945, to her cousin in America stating, “I am the only one left from the whole family.” —Courtesy of Helen Epstein

Her decision to lie would determine her experience in Neugraben, a concentration camp where Franci worked as an electrician from the autumn of 1944 to winter 1945. The work was mostly indoors and protected her from the harsh winter conditions.

During Franci’s nearly three-year imprisonment across six camps, she was surrounded by prewar friends and new ones whom she bonded with in the camps. Her memoir highlights how luck, connections, and friendships — including her cousin Kitty Vohryzek — were key to survival.

Helen added, “Not only did she have close friends in the camps, but she had a culture and society that was totally familiar to her. When things got really tough in Auschwitz and in the work camp, she and Kitty took turns caring for each other.”

Kitty Vohryzek and Franci Epstein worked as translators for the British after liberation in July 1945. —Courtesy of Helen Epstein

Both Kitty and Franci were liberated from Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945. Franci, who had contracted typhus fever, was sent to a British hospital. After she healed, “she and her cousin were immediately able to find work as translators with the British, which gave them a privileged position,” said Helen.

After World War II, Franci owned a fashion salon in New York City, where she designed dresses for American socialites and actresses. She’s pictured (left) with her business partner, Edna Chappell, in the 1950s. —Courtesy of Helen Epstein

Their experiences during the Holocaust would forever bond Franci and Kitty. Franci immigrated to New York City with her husband and baby daughter Helen in 1948, while Kitty remained in Prague, but they never lost touch.

Nearly 100 years after what would have been Franci’s birthday, her story is now available from Penguin Books. Readers can explore women’s experiences in the Holocaust through the eyes of a very modern woman who survived through extraordinary circumstances.

“In 1974, my mother was seen as very unusual because she was a businesswoman and breadwinner of our family, but I think now, maybe, most women in America are more like my mother,” shared Helen. She hopes her mother’s memoir inspires a new generation of women. “No matter where you are, you have choices and you can make a decision. You have agency.”

To learn more about women’s experiences in the Holocaust, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Memory & Action

Explore the Museum’s online magazine to be empowered with…