Left: Annette Zazou. Albert Harlingue/​Sonia Mosse © Gas­ton Paris — Roger-Viollet.

Right: Annette in the court­yard of the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Cred­it­ed to Sal­va­tore Baccarice

All images cour­tesy of the authors

Here is Annette Zel­man, just nine­teen … Her mane of thick, dark blond hair gleams in the sun­light, pinned in a fash­ion all her own. Curls akim­bo. A head­band hauls them back off her face, almost. She is still a teenag­er; the baby fat has not yet fall­en from the cheeks of her face. Her eyes squint in the win­ter light and crin­kle in a full-on smile.” Here is a lost girl of the Holocaust.

Annette wasn’t always lost. She was the sun around which her fam­i­ly revolved. The leader of the chil­dren. First mate of the Zel­man Cir­cus, as her fam­i­ly was lov­ing­ly called. The Zel­man apart­ment had a revolv­ing door pol­i­cy; no one knocked. When mass­es of chil­dren (Zel­mans, as well as neigh­bors) weren’t run­ning in and out on roller skates or blow­ing the har­mon­i­ca, Madame Singer was grac­ing the apart­ment with a new corkscrew hair­style to accom­pa­ny the watery grand sym­pho­ny of a friend­ly lit­tle cry,” and Madame Bessara­bie was sleep­ing on a pal­let under the din­ner table. The only way nine­teen-year-old Annette could find any time or space for her­self was at the famed Café de Flo­re, where she spent after­noons bond­ing with oth­er young stu­dents, intel­lec­tu­als, and artists.

In the 1940s, Annette stud­ied at the pres­ti­gious Acad­e­mie des Beaux Arts, France’s pre­mier art school, and the Café de Flo­re was just a stone’s throw away. On any giv­en after­noon, one could find writ­ers like Simone de Beau­voir and Jean Paul Sartre, and painters like Picas­so and Solange try­ing to keep warm by the cafe’s coal stove. It was the sur­re­al­ists to whom Annette felt most con­nect­ed, and she grav­i­tat­ed to their humor, whim­sy, and abstract per­cep­tions. She moved from learn­ing clas­si­cal art to exper­i­ment­ing with sur­re­al­ist and auto­mat­ic writ­ing. An auto­di­dact, she tend­ed toward any­thing new, strange, and exper­i­men­tal. She and her friends rebelled against the occu­pa­tion by fre­quent­ing the jazz clubs and dance par­ties that the Nazis were try­ing to shut down. Among her crowd were intel­lec­tu­al women and men — philoso­phers, writ­ers, musi­cians, and artists. She fell in love with a cou­ple of them, but it was Jean Jau­sion, the sur­re­al­ist poet, who cap­tured her heart. As the noose around Parisian Jews tight­ened, the Zel­man fam­i­ly pre­pared to flee for the Free Zone, the part of France that was gov­erned by the Vichy gov­ern­ment rather than Nazi-occu­py­ing forces. Laws were dif­fer­ent for Jews in the Free Zone, so it was safer there. Annette told her fam­i­ly she would close up the fam­i­ly apart­ment and fol­low in a few days. Instead, she moved in with her lover.

Entriez sans Frap­per­or (Enter with­out knock­ing), Gouache and ink, 1941, by Annette Zelman

Jean and Annette believed that by get­ting mar­ried, they would pro­tect her from Nazi author­i­ties. She would replace the Zel­man name and become Mrs. Jean Jau­sion, daugh­ter-in-law to a famous Parisian doc­tor, and friend of anti­semite and col­lab­o­ra­tionist Jean Cocteau. She was in the fam­i­ly apart­ment when there was an omi­nous knock on the door. Min­utes lat­er, Annette was in a pad­dy wag­on with the Turfs,” or street­walk­ers. She was cart­ed through the night to Le Citadel, the Palais de Jus­tice: the mon­strous lime­stone fortress made famous in Les Mis­érables.

Here was Boubi, an Alger­ian red­head arrest­ed in her evening gown for mak­ing a phone call. Here was Tama­ra Isserlis, a med­ical stu­dent who didn’t get in the Jew­ish car at the back of the metro. Here were Elise Mela and her moth­er, arrest­ed for going to the mayor’s office to pick up their yel­low stars with­out wear­ing them on the way. And here was Annette Zel­man, guilty of try­ing to mar­ry a non-Jew. Her crime was love.

The tragedy of being a lost girl of the Holo­caust, whether she vol­un­tar­i­ly sub­mit­ted to gov­ern­ment ser­vice, as the young women of the first offi­cial Jew­ish trans­port to Auschwitz did, or whether she was arrest­ed for pet­ty crimes, is that she was com­plete­ly inno­cent. She act­ed like any teenag­er or young adult would, try­ing to have fun despite the war and believ­ing her­self immortal.

There are so many young women lost to his­to­ry. Names on lists with­out faces or sto­ries, until some­one comes along and opens up a ran­dom box in an archive, reads a foot­note in a mem­oir, or finds an obscure account that men­tions those names. Maybe Yad Vashem has a pho­to. Or, if not Yad Vashem, maybe Memo­r­i­al de la Shoah, or the Państ­wowe Muzeum at Auschwitz-Birke­nau, or the Unit­ed States Memo­r­i­al Holo­caust Muse­um, or the Ser­vice his­torique de la Défense in Caen, France. Maybe. Too often there is no fam­i­ly mem­ber search­ing for a lost girl because there is no fam­i­ly left – they are a lost fam­i­ly. But occa­sion­al­ly, some­one is out there, looking. 

For exam­ple, Elise Mela — who joined Annette in the first trans­port of French Jew­ish women — had a sur­viv­ing cousin who asked if any­one had infor­ma­tion on what hap­pened to his aunt and her daugh­ter. His plea is dat­ed 1978, thir­ty-six years after they dis­ap­peared. And only now can we answer his query. She arrived at Auschwitz on June 22 and died on the same day as her moth­er, prob­a­bly as part of a selec­tion. Arrest­ed togeth­er. Died togeth­er. War is a fam­i­ly disease.

On the fifti­eth anniver­sary of Annette Zelman’s mar­riage announce­ment, Annette’s lit­tle broth­er, Cami, hadn’t for­got­ten her. He asked the Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Doc­u­men­ta­tion Cen­tre, Why weren’t the peo­ple who denounced Annette tried in a court of law and ruined?” 

It has tak­en eighty years for Annette’s only still liv­ing sib­ling, her lit­tle sis­ter Michele, to know the truth. At nine­ty-four years old, Michele final­ly knows that Annette was last seen car­ing for two ill friends at Auschwitz-Birke­nau. She knows that Annette was alive for at least eight weeks after she and her friends arrived in camp. She knows that Annette’s sto­ry, let­ters, and her art are for­ev­er record­ed, so that she and the oth­er women of her trans­port can be remem­bered. And she knows that Annette’s last known words are no longer lost to his­to­ry: Mer­ci. Thank you.”

Heather Dune Macadam is the author of the inter­na­tion­al best­seller and Pen Award Final­ist 999: The Extra­or­di­nary Young Women of the First Offi­cial Trans­port to Auschwitz, trans­lat­ed into 18 lan­guages, and the producer/​director of its com­pan­ion doc­u­men­tary film, 999. Her first book was the best­selling mem­oir Rena’s Promise: A Sto­ry of Sis­ters in Auschwitz. A New York State Coun­cil of the Arts Fel­low and recip­i­ent of a Soci­ety of Authors Research Grant, she is a board mem­ber of Cities of Peace: Auschwitz and the direc­tor and pres­i­dent of the Rena’s Promise Foun­da­tion. Her work in the bat­tle against Holo­caust denial has been rec­og­nized by Yad Vashem in the UK and Israel, the USC Shoah Foun­da­tion, the Nation­al Muse­um of Jew­ish His­to­ry in Bratisla­va, Slo­va­kia, and the Panstowe Muse­um of Auschwitz in Oswiec­im, Poland. She and her part­ner, Simon Wor­rall, divide their time between East Hamp­ton, New York, and Here­ford­shire, England.

Simon Wor­rall is the author of two high­ly acclaimed books, The Poet and the Mur­der­er (Dut­ton & Plume/​Penguin Put­nam USA, 2002; Fourth Estate UK), which William Sty­ron called, A grip­ping tale, done with great style and elegance…it held me in its spell from begin­ning to end,” and the nov­el­ized true sto­ry of his moth­er in World War IIThe Very White of Love (Harper­Collins, 2018). A Fran­cophile since his Parisian child­hood, Simon is flu­ent in French and speaks five oth­er lan­guages. He was the cura­tor and inter­view­er for Nation­al Geographic’s Book Talk” pro­gram for many years. He has been pub­lished in The Inde­pen­dent, The Guardian, The Lon­don Times, Marie Claire, GQ, and numer­ous oth­er pub­li­ca­tions world­wide. His fea­ture, Emi­ly Dick­in­son Goes To Las Vegas,” was the first piece of non­fic­tion ever pub­lished by George Plimp­ton in The Paris Review. Wor­rall is an expe­ri­enced broad­cast­er, whose com­men­taries have aired on the BBC and NPR.