‘Here comes the princess, always dressed for a ball,’ the nurse affectionately said to my grandmother-in-law as we passed in the corridors of the Montefiore Jewish nursing home.
Mindla Horowitz. The Princess of Montefiore. Her hair always perfectly set. Her lips always painted into a pretty red bow with such precision that Elizabeth Arden couldn’t have done them better herself. Victory Red her favourite shade.
We headed into the dining room, where my husband was waiting. ‘You’re getting fatty,’ she teased him, poking a manicured finger into his belly, ‘but look at me, still bewdiful!’
The diamante clip in her hair shimmered as she turned her head to be admired.
My husband often joked that Nanna’s hearing might go or her eyesight fade, but vanity would be the last thing to leave her before she died.
It really wasn’t vanity; it was dignity, the rawest essence of humanity, which she held on to with all her being. It was her way of saying to the world, ‘You’ve taken everything, but you will never take my pride.’
It was many years after I joined the family that I began to learn Mindla’s story. My husband Ralph would mimic his Nanna swearing in Yiddish, which her pet parrot did too much to our amusement, or relay a joke that his late Pop told when they were children.
Then one day he said to me, ‘I’ve told you their story, right?’ Wrong.
He shared a skeleton version, recalling how Pop would tell his adored grandsons bedtime tales of grand circuses and colourful clowns. And of how the Nazis tried to kill them all.
He described rescuing his beautiful bride who was locked up in a Russian prison, and how they journeyed halfway around the world to eventually live happily ever after in Australia.
But these were no fairy tales.
The journalist in me fired off a million questions. I was desperate to know their story but sadly by then Pop was long gone and the family consensus was that ‘Nanna never talks about it so we don’t ask in case it upsets her.’ Fair enough. I certainly didn’t want for her to relive any of the awful things I’d heard.
As Mindla got older it was clear that our time with her was running out and my sense of desperation grew. It was important for our family, for my husband and our children to know who they were and where they came from, to understand what their grandparents and indeed great-grandparents endured, and how on earth they had escaped the Germans and made it to Australia.
At the risk of upsetting Nanna, conversations needed to be had.
When we visited the nursing home, we knew not to bring Nanna cakes or sweet treats because she wanted to ‘keep her figure’, but she loved cosmetics, especially the brightest of bright nail polish, and she loved to chat while painting her nails.
So, armed with a supply of the fanciest new nail polish I could find, note pads, tape recorder and the rusty old tin of pictures trusted her daughter-in-law Meg, (my mother-in-law) to look after, and inspired by Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, my very own Mondays with Mindla began.
One by one we’d go through the tatty images together.
‘Nanna, who is this?’ I’d ask, ‘and where was this picture taken?’ always treading gently so as not to upset her.
‘Vhy do you vant to know?’ she’d say in her thick Polish accent, expertly sweeping magenta varnish across a nail.
At first, she was always more interested in talking about how her beloved ‘Collingvood’ was going and what her great-grandchildren were up to, but slowly I’d draw the conversation back to her and I began to peel away the layers of her life.
And so it went on. Each visit followed the same pattern.
After the nails were set, we’d head to the dining room for lunch, deftly avoiding the conga line of Zimmer frames. At her table, we were always joined by four or five elderly women, Mindla liked an audience, and once my notepad appeared, we’d go through the same routine.
‘Vhy do you vant to know?’ she’d ask again, ‘my story is nothing special.’
‘Vat about her, and her, and her?’ she asked, pointing a sparkling fingertip towards each of the dear, weathered faces before me, ‘we’re all the same.’
And then it clicked.
Although the past was undoubtedly painful, Mindla wasn’t necessarily re-traumatised by telling it, she just didn’t think her story was anything special because so many of the people around her had an equally horrific story of escaping the Nazis. Of losing loved ones, of family they never saw again.
Of lice-ridden bodies, of starvation. Of the stench of war and death. So much death. So much sadness.
Many of these precious elderly men and women with whom Nanna shared her final days had miraculously survived, beating Hitler at his evil game.
Despite her age and declining physical health, Mindla’s mind remained razor sharp to the very end, and during the many hours we spent together she recalled her life in surprising detail.
However, when she died in 2015 at the age of 96, many words remained unspoken and questions unanswered. So, I embarked on a five-year quest to piece together the jigsaw puzzle of their life which eventually took us to Poland where my husband and I retraced Mindla and Kubush’s footsteps.
Their story is now told in the book The Freedom Circus.
Hitler did his best to erase the existence, history and spirit of an entire people. But, ultimately, Hitler failed. Why? Because these people have not been forgotten. Piece by piece, snippet by snippet, story by story, year after year the lives of Holocaust victims and survivors and their place in society is being lovingly restored and remembered, the fabric of their lives stitched back into place, acknowledged, understood and valued.
Those souls may have been lost, but they are still loved, still treasured, still talked about.
We will honour their past, and their stories fuel our future.
We will never forget.
The Freedom Circus, published by Penguin Random House is in bookstores now.