Nice, France, Jan­u­ary 1st 1945

From the Arthur Peck Collection

I grew up in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia as the child of two Holo­caust sur­vivors. My moth­er was born and raised in Budapest, where the war came in earnest in 1944, when she was six­teen. Her father, a lawyer, had been sent to a labor camp a few years ear­li­er, so she and my grand­moth­er were the only ones left in Budapest.

My moth­er, whose sto­ry I told in my last book of his­tor­i­cal fic­tion, The Light After the War, escaped from the train head­ing to Auschwitz and spent a year hid­ing on a farm in Aus­tria. From there, she and her best friend, Edith, ven­tured to Naples, where my moth­er worked for an Amer­i­can cap­tain. After that, my moth­er and Edith were lucky enough to be spon­sored by a Roth­schild and they trav­eled by ship to Ellis Island. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, their spon­sor died while they were in tran­sit, so when they arrived at Ellis Island, they were turned away. Not want­i­ng to return to war-torn Europe, they decid­ed to set­tle in Cara­cas, Venezuela. But, tragedy found them again, and, final­ly, my moth­er land­ed in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, where I was born.

My father was born and raised in Lithua­nia. When Hitler invad­ed in June of 1941, he and his fam­i­ly climbed onto Russ­ian trucks in order to escape the Ger­mans. The truck that his par­ents and one broth­er were on took them to Stut­thof con­cen­tra­tion camp, where they died in the gas cham­bers. My father and anoth­er broth­er climbed onto a dif­fer­ent truck and made it to Rus­sia. When they got there, how­ev­er, my father was required to join the Red Army. He fought on the front lines for four years – includ­ing in the infa­mous Bat­tle of Kursk where two hun­dred thou­sand Russ­ian sol­diers died.

After the war, he man­aged to escape from Stalin’s com­mu­nist Rus­sia, and was, first, a jour­nal­ist in Munich, then at the Unit­ed Nations in Paris, and from there, he went on to South Africa, and, final­ly, to Syd­ney, where he start­ed a tex­tile mill. Aus­tralia, at first, wouldn’t allow him entry because his pass­port said that he was a jour­nal­ist and they were afraid that he would spread com­mu­nist pro­pa­gan­da, so he was forced to change his pro­fes­sion, despite his love of jour­nal­ism, and his years of tire­less effort abroad, to businessman.

I’m writ­ing about these things here because, grow­ing up in Syd­ney and then research­ing the back­ground for Light After the War, I thought I knew every­thing about the Holo­caust. So many of my par­ents’ friends were also sur­vivors, and from them I have heard sto­ries about Jews in Poland, Jews in what was then Czecho­slo­va­kia, Jews in Ger­many, and Jews who had escaped and immi­grat­ed to Palestine.

But, when it came time to find a sub­ject for my next book, Lana’s War, I dis­cov­ered I was wrong; I didn’t know every­thing about the Holo­caust at all. Lana’s War is about the daugh­ter of a Russ­ian émi­gré. When the book begins, in 1943, Lana is twen­ty-three and liv­ing in Paris. After her hus­band is mur­dered by a Gestapo offi­cer named Alois Brun­ner, she joins the resis­tance on the French Riv­iera in order to avenge her husband’s death and save Jew­ish chil­dren from falling into the hands of the Germans.

When I start­ed my research, I knew very lit­tle about the French Riv­iera dur­ing that peri­od. For instance, I didn’t know that Alois Brun­ner, the Gestapo offi­cer who was put in charge of the French Riv­iera in Sep­tem­ber of 1943, took over the Hotel Excel­sior in Nice as the head­quar­ters of the Gestapo. Nor did I know that his mis­sion was to rid the French Riv­iera entire­ly of Jews by the fol­low­ing spring; an order that came direct­ly from Hein­rich Himmler.

So many Jews were affect­ed in unique ways. They lost their homes and busi­ness­es, were sep­a­rat­ed from fam­i­ly mem­bers, and often had to start over with nothing.

As I con­tin­ued delv­ing into his­to­ry, I came away with a new under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust. So many Jews were affect­ed in unique ways. They lost their homes and busi­ness­es, were sep­a­rat­ed from fam­i­ly mem­bers, and often had to start over with noth­ing. It was sur­pris­ing to learn how many set­tled on new con­ti­nents and nev­er saw their home­lands or the peo­ple they loved again. There will always be more peo­ple with heart­break­ing sto­ries of loss and more tales of incred­i­ble brav­ery and sac­ri­fice to discover.

In Lana’s War, I attempt­ed to tell Lana’s sto­ry, imag­in­ing what it would be like to lose every­thing (on the same day that Lana’s hus­band is mur­dered she mis­car­ries their unborn child) and instead of just try to recov­er, find courage and a new rea­son to live.

Though I cre­at­ed Lana myself, many of the char­ac­ters and loca­tions in the sto­ry are real, includ­ing Alois Brun­ner, the Gestapo offi­cer who killed Lana’s hus­band, and the Hotel Excel­sior, which, today, is a four-star hotel on a leafy street in Nice. The beau­ti­ful Belle Epoque archi­tec­ture and ele­gant lob­by don’t give any­thing away about its trag­ic past.

In 2009, the may­or of Nice erect­ed a plaque out­side the hotel that describes the events of 1943: using it as his head­quar­ters, Alois Brun­ner exter­mi­nat­ed more than two thou­sand Jews dur­ing his time in charge of the Gestapo on the French Riv­iera. Jews were picked off the streets and sent to Dran­cy depor­ta­tion cen­ter in Paris, where some froze to death in their resort wear before the trains arrived to take them on to con­cen­tra­tion camps. Many oth­ers were sim­ply killed in their beds in Nice.

I also learned about how the French Resis­tance oper­at­ed. Lana’s cov­er in the nov­el is as the mis­tress of a wealthy Swiss indus­tri­al­ist. Being the daugh­ter of a Russ­ian émi­gré, it is easy for her to cir­cu­late in Ger­man cir­cles because many Russ­ian émi­grés at the time sup­port­ed Hitler, believ­ing that if he won the war, he would end com­mu­nism in Rus­sia. Though Lana and her moth­er don’t share these sen­ti­ments, this fact helps her cov­er with­in the resistance.

In telling these sto­ries, both the ones almost entire­ly based on facts, like my mother’s sto­ry, and the ones that are a com­pi­la­tion of real peo­ple and events, like Lana’s, I hope to keep the mem­o­ry of those that saw these tragedies first­hand alive.

My own par­ents are dead, and so I take my role as a sto­ry­teller and as a child of sur­vivors very seri­ous­ly. I want my own chil­dren and their chil­dren to know what my par­ents and so many oth­ers like them expe­ri­enced. The Holo­caust is still one of the most shock­ing episodes in his­to­ry. In order for it nev­er to be repeat­ed, it must not be forgotten.

As I begin the research for my next book, I am curi­ous about where it will take me. The one thing I know is that I will dis­cov­er more tales of courage and sac­ri­fice, and that these sto­ries will make me appre­ci­ate, all the more, every­thing life has to offer.

Ani­ta Abriel was born in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia. She received a BA in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture with a minor in Cre­ative Writ­ing from Bard Col­lege and attend­ed UC Berkeley’s Mas­ters in Cre­ative Writ­ing pro­gram. She lives in Cal­i­for­nia with her fam­i­ly and is the author of The Light After the War, which was inspired by her mother’s sto­ry of sur­vival dur­ing WWII.