Back between the two world wars was a great time to be a Czechoslovakian citizen. The republic had been born in 1918, headed by president Tomas Masaryk, who was not only a democrat but a feminist. Czech had become the national language, blossoming after its second-class status to German under the Austro-Hungarian empire. The new country had both industry and agriculture, and its citizens jubilantly renamed streets and monuments and revised school curricula.
You could almost forget you were a Jew.
Especially if you were Franzi Rabinek–young, pretty, multilingual, running a fashion salon with your mother in Prague, traveling to Paris and Berlin on business trips, enjoying the cafes, gardens, and theaters at home–and had been baptized at birth, a common practice among assimilated Czech Jews.
Much of Czech Jewry was secular in the 1930s, says Helen Epstein, Franzi’s daughter. Epstein has recorded the lives of her forebears in Where She Came From: A Daughter’s Search for Her Mother’s History, a multigenerational memoir of the women of her family published last year. “We think back through our mothers if we are women,” Virginia Woolf wrote, and Epstein agrees; she uses the quote as an epigraph. She began to research her family history in 1989, soon after her mother died at age 69 in New York City. Epstein’s father had died 15 years earlier, and with Franzi’s death she felt alone in the world, even though she had a family of her own and two brothers. Epstein had the stories she’d been told and her mother’s writings–a short family history and a memoir of the Holocaust years–but little of a “tangible past.” There were only a few dozen photos and three porcelain figurines that friends had saved when the Rabineks were taken to a concentration camp.
Epstein, a cultural journalist, had written about the war in her first book, Children of the Holocaust: Conversations With Sons and Daughters of Survivors, which grew out of a 1977 New York Times Magazine cover story and is still in print. As a child of survivors, Epstein wrote, she felt like she carried an iron box inside her containing all the frightening family history and its accompanying emotions. From interviewing other survivors’ children, she says, she found her first real sense of community as an adult.
In researching Where She Came From, Epstein’s most personal work, she found another community. As she traveled in the Czech Republic, Austria, and Israel, she was helped by friends, family, strangers, and professional and amateur historians. “Everybody I met wanted to help me do this,” she says.
Epstein retraces the life of her great-grandmother Therese Furcht, born in the middle of the 19th century in the quaint Czech market town of Brtnice, who loved a Czech Christian, married a Jewish peddler, and killed herself in Vienna after the death of her favorite and oldest son. She was the first of several seamstresses in her family. Therese’s daughter Josephine, or Pepi, orphaned at nine, was raised by an aunt who taught her religion and sewing. Pepi found work as a dressmaker, loved a Czech Christian, married a Jewish man, divorced him when she discovered he had syphilis, ran her own dressmaking business, and carried on a ten-year affair with Emil Rabinek, a debonair Jewish-born convert to Catholicism who had served in the army. They married in a civil ceremony in 1919. Franzi was born a year later.
In the 1920s and ’30s Jews were accepted, not just tolerated, in Czechoslvakian society, and thus the problems of the Rabineks were modern ones: Franzi’s German-speaking father, marginalized in the new country, felt constrained in a marriage with a child; he often berated his wife and had affairs. And Pepi was slowly turning from an independent woman into a “clingy, complaining wife.”
The era came to an end in March 1939 when Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. In September 1942, still considering themselves Czechs above all, Franzi, her husband, and her parents were summoned to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp near Prague. Her parents were transported east and executed in Riga, Latvia. In May 1944 Franzi was sent to Auschwitz, wearing a camel coat from her salon. She survived one of Josef Mengele’s infamous selections by saying she was an electrician. She was transferred to a labor camp in Hamburg, Germany, and later to Bergen-Belsen, which was liberated by the British army in April 1945.
Upon returning to Prague, Franzi learned that her parents and husband had been killed. She married former Olympic water-polo player Kurt Epstein in 1946, gave birth to Helen a year later, and left with the family for the U.S. in 1948 after the communist coup.
“The most important thing this book gave me,” Epstein says, was a sense of kinship with her grandmother, Pepi. “In researching the facts and social background of my grandmother’s life, I came to see a real person.” Though Epstein had felt an intense bond with her mother, she was unlike her in many ways, citing as an example that her mother was disappointed that her daughter did not inherit her impeccable taste in clothes: “I was not the fashion plate. My younger brother is.”
Epstein also sees similarities between her life and Therese’s. Since she’s become closer to Judaism through her Holocaust research, she says, her religious life is more like Therese’s than Pepi’s or Franzi’s.
Epstein says she has no trouble understanding Madeleine Albright, whose Jewish background made news last year when she was nominated for Secretary of State. Albright was born in Czechoslovakia and raised as a Catholic, and has said she was unaware of her heritage. “It’s not Madeleine Albright’s family that’s peculiar,” says Epstein. “It’s Czech Jews who are peculiar as a group.”
Epstein will speak about her book and read from it Saturday at 8 at the Holocaust Memorial Foundation of Illinois, 4255 W. Main Street in Skokie. Call 847-677-4640 to reserve a seat. It’s free. –S.L. Wisenberg
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Helen Epstein uncredited photo; book cover.