Life after death: Holocaust survivor tells her story

May 3, 2015

A nearly 70-year-old doll stands in a quaint Forest Hills ranch-style home as one of its owner’s most prized possessions.

In a neighborhood known for its affluence, prized possessions typically look like exotic cars or gilded pens—not dolls.

Especially not dolls whose arms have long since fled their body or whose skin has for years looked faded and exhausted.

But this doll’s significance lies not in its monetary value, but in the powerful story it tells.

A profound life story plays out behind its lifeless, plastic eyes—that of its owner, a child survivor of the Holocaust named Frances Cutler Hahn.

When Hahn lived in a French orphanage to shelter her from the terrors of war and the even greater terror of being parentless, this doll, named Julliette, lived with her.

When Hahn traveled across the ocean to live in Philadelphia with a great aunt—the closest thing to a mother she ever had—this doll traveled with her.

When Hahn married her husband, lost her husband, rediscovered love and then married again, this doll loved and lost with her.

And now, 67 years later, when Hahn wakes up every morning to the Nashville sun, this doll wakes up with her.

Throughout a life marked by upheaval and trauma, a toy has served as a constant. And even as Hahn enjoys a stable community in Nashville—helped by the Gordon Jewish Community Center and her synagogue, Congregation Micah—the doll still plays the same role, a stirring portrait of the girl Hahn once was, the dark childhood she overcame and the bright life she made in spite of it.

“That doll is very precious,” Hahn said.

Looking at her now, it would prove near impossible to guess what Hahn came from. The short, sunny-faced woman with the French/New York hybrid accent and the age-defiant rich, black hair suggests warmth and kindness, not childhood trauma or a war-torn family.

Because of this, she says people she meets often get taken aback whenever they unearth the full story behind her accent or her country of origin.

They don’t expect a Holocaust survivor story. But that’s exactly what Hahn is.

Born in Paris in 1938, Hahn enjoyed only three years of peace before the Germans began to invade—slowly, she says, so as not to anger the French, but surely. Her parents were Polish Jews who immigrated to France in 1936 to search for a better life.

What they found was anything but.

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When the dark nature of the invasion dawned on Hahn’s parents, they quickly sent her away to a children’s home. They instructed Hahn to hide the Jewish identity there–the very identity one of her parents would later get murdered for.

The home, as Catholic as its country, proved eventually to be “not safe” for Hahn, she said, so she relocated to a farm owned by another Catholic family. In this farm, the family sheltered and cared for 10 children whose parents were displaced during the war.

But try as they might, they couldn’t shelter the children from everything.

The Nazis initially only captured Jewish men, political opponents and other objectionable people groups like homosexuals and Romanis. When 1942 came around, however, women and children joined that grim rank in what historians now call The Big Roundup.

In the safety of the farm, Hahn was spared the fate shared by 1.5 million other Jewish children, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.

Her mother was not so lucky.

Upon her capture, Hahn’s mother was interred in a detention camp in the Parisian suburb of Drancy, France. From there, she was transported to Auschwitz.

At the age of 28, pregnant with a sibling Hahn would never meet, she was gassed immediately upon arrival.

At the age of 4, Hahn lost her mother.

The story of Hahn’s father played out slightly differently, albeit with a similar end. He joined the French resistance and ultimately survived the war—but not without consequence.

Hahn visited her father numerous times in the hospital after the war’s conclusion. And although the bombs had ceased to fall, Hahn, at her final visit with her father, was dealt a comparable blow when he told her he was dying.

At the age of 7, Hahn lost her father.

From that time on, she bounced around from orphanage to orphanage until finally landing in a Jewish one which felt something like a home–a concept she could only speak of in hypotheticals.

At this orphanage, Hahn finally began to find her voice, she said. She recalls a time when she spoke out against an uncouth caretaker as being a milestone.

“It showed I had moved in terms of my comfort level. I was comfortable enough to say something that I would never–I would have been too fearful to express anything like that prior to that,” she said.

At this orphanage, Hahn said she, for the first time, started to feel like she fit in, like she was loved.

And at this orphanage, Hahn received her doll.

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But in spite of all the growth Hahn experienced, the country in which she experienced it still faced decay. She wouldn’t learn the depth of the destruction until much later.

Because she never witnessed World War II’s atrocities firsthand, as far as she knew, they only lived in a time of conflict, not a time of horrific genocide or anti-Semitism.

“I knew we were at war,” she said. “I knew the Germans were the enemy.”

She was informed about her mother’s passing through letters written to her by her father. But as for the true nature of her death, Hahn didn’t discover it until much later.

“It’s very painful to realize how your mother died. And it’s an extremely—it’s a topic that I approach extremely gently and carefully, because it’s very painful,” she said with uncharacteristically tear-filled eyes.

Similarly, the reality of her father’s death did not sink in until one night when another orphan told her, point blank.

“In the orphanage I was told when my father died, but I blocked it out of my mind,” she said. “And one night in the orphanage the children were talking about the future, and I said my father would come and get me as soon as he felt better. One child said my father had died. I got hysterical.”

Many children adopt this sort of irrationally hopeful thinking in the fallout of a parent’s death, a thinking which followed her across the Atlantic Ocean, she said.

At the age of 10–eight years after she was wrenched from her home at the onset of the German invasion–Hahn finally left the war-torn shores of Europe behind to live permanently with a great aunt in Philadelphia.



Despite thousands of miles of oceanic separation, she remained convinced her father–who had died three years earlier–would find her.

And two years later, following her official adoption, she worried her father wouldn’t be able to do that because her name changed from Fanny to Frances.

As worrisome as she considered the situation, however, it still represented something positive—the blossoming of a playful personality Hahn exudes today.

With a mirthful smile, Hahn shared a story of how she thought her family started calling her Frances because she was French. Following the cue, she thought it only appropriate to call all the Americans she met “American.”

Before she found a permanent home, Fanny Hahn struggled with feelings of abandonment—another typical child’s response to trauma, she says—and with estrangement, even from her fellow orphans. Fanny Hahn never fit in and never felt loved.

But Frances Hahn began to speak up for herself. She started to interact with kids her age. And when she arrived in America, her first elementary school teacher empowered her to share her story.

Fast forward to 2015, and Hahn continues to do just that.

Although she never set foot in a concentration camp, Hahn falls into a group known as “child survivors” or “hidden children.” Their story often doesn’t get told, as attention gets mainly directed towards the more vocal adult survivors.

The relative silence also indicates a more broad problem surrounding children’s responses to any trauma, which Hahn says has only recently received serious attention and study.

To help rectify these situations—and to address injustice in general—Hahn devotes much of her time to public speaking, sharing her story in front of packed audiences.

She says many students don’t have much knowledge of the Holocaust or of anti-Semitism. Some of them ask if she ever met Hitler—the answer’s no, of course.

But other people truly resonate with Hahn’s story. While their situation may differ in context, the universal pain of losing a parent or loved one at a young age often leaves attendees in tears, she said.

“I feel that if you can raise people’s awareness to the treatment of others, how to treat others who are different or whom you don’t like, hopefully one of these days we’ll have a better world where we don’t have Holocausts and genocides,” she said.

Between her speaking engagements, Hahn says she likes to play mahjong, that she’s recently learned how to play bridge and that she’s in a book club. But, because of a self-described addiction to iPhone games like Words with Friends, her books spend a lot more time on the shelf.

There’s a Boggle game that I play. It’s taking too much time. I would like to read, but these games are taking the time away from reading, so I’m not reading like I used to. It’s pretty addictive.”

She and her second husband George—she never shared her late husband’s name—are getting ready to celebrate their sixth anniversary. They’ve traveled to Israel for sight-seeing and Hawaii for her daughter’s wedding.

By all counts, Frances Hahn does not let her Holocaust history define her. Instead, she lives by the lessons learned and the love she found afterwards, keeping her memories close at hand but never taking them straight to heart.

They may be used in a PowerPoint presentation she utilizes in speaking engagements. They may pop up in a random encounter with a stranger. Or, they may look like a little doll sitting in a wooden high chair, her constant companion in a decades-long odyssey of redemption.

“Even though you’ve had a horrible childhood, life can get better,” she said. “I went to college, got married. I have a daughter, I got married again, and, despite that childhood, that traumatic childhood, one can overcome these things.”

Frances Hahn