Hepple WI was pleased to welcome Fran Elson to their October meeting.
Fran told the captivating and very moving story of her family’s experience in Hitler’s Europe during the Second World War, as recounted in a series of letters between her mother Ilse, her grandmother Hulda, and her great-grandmother Gisela, written between 1938 and 1945.
Fran knew nothing of this part of the family history until the letters were discovered in 2004 when she was clearing her parents’ house.
Her great-grandmother Gisela was of middle-class Jewish background and lived in Vienna. Gisela was married and had two daughters. One of them, Hulda, then married and settled in Prague with her husband and two children.
Subsequently, when Hulda’s marriage broke down, she moved back to Vienna with one of her daughters, Ilse, to live with her mother Gisela, who then ran a guest house.
By 1938, Gisela was living on her own in Vienna, having had to give up her guest house to the German army. Hulda was in Paris, and Ilse had fled Vienna and come to England, where she was a member of the ATC and drove vehicles and ambulances.
Gisela felt isolated and alone in Vienna and was unable to get the travel documents necessary to travel to Paris to be with her daughter.
In 1942, she became ill and was in hospital and was subsequently arrested and deported to a holding camp in Latvia, where she was shot and buried. When the German army entered Paris, Hulde fled to Nice.
In 1943, the Germans invaded Nice. Hulda managed to survive at first with the help of the church, but was arrested in 1944 as she was about to board a train to Switzerland.
She was taken to Paris and then to Auschwitz, where she died in the gas chambers. She was 54 years old. Nice was actually liberated five months later in August 1944, but it was too late for Hulda.
In 1945, Ilse heard from the Red Cross about her mother’s fate. She remained in England, and later that year she met and married her husband, Fran’s father, and they subsequently had three children.
Fran’s sister wrote the book, Escape to Auschwitz. It was originally intended for the family only, but then because of so much outside interest, it was put out on Amazon and can also be ordered through WH Smith. A percentage of the sales has been donated to the Red Cross.
Fran quoted from the letters throughout the evening, giving a very poignant and moving talk, which was further highlighted by a series of photographs and illustrations of the telegrams and letters between the three very strong, brave women.
The competition for the evening for a piece of First World War memorabilia was won by Francine Needham, with Margaret Laidler second and Barbara Hunter third.