My first vivid childhood memory is of arriving by car to a beautiful home and meeting a charming family who showed me to my own bedroom with an en-suite bathroom and prepared a bubble bath for me. Something in my brain blocked any recollections from a previous time, but looking back now I can say that, with good intentions, my past was completely wiped out: my name was changed to Joan and my language from French to English.
Life was comfortable and happy in the US with the only family I knew or remembered. Then, when I was seven years old, I was shocked when my foster father told me I wasn’t their child. He explained that my real parents had survived the war, now lived in England and I had to move in with them. I just thought it was all a big misunderstanding, a big mistake. When I landed in England I was driven to an impoverished part of North London. My natural parents were severely traumatised, broken in health, spirit and mind. They were destitute, worked long hours – day and night – and lived in a small slum-like flat with gas lighting. It was the complete opposite to the life I had before and I found it very hard to adjust. I spent the next decade shuttling between my birth family in the UK and my foster family in the US, leading two parallel lives and having two completely different identities. It was unreal, I felt like an actress playing distinct roles, depending on which side of the Atlantic I was on. I was becoming more and more confused as to who I really was.
This lasted for years. All the while, normal life continued and, having progressed through my own education – I attended LSE as a mature student in the 1970s – I embarked on my career and started a family. I was well into my forties when I felt the need to properly investigate my life story.
Our escape from Nazi persecution
My family’s journey fleeing the Holocaust began before I was born. My parents were Polish Jews who had lived in Paris most of their adult lives. When Poland was invaded, my father thought France would be under risk and that they would be safer in Belgium, where he had lived before. This is how I came to be born Fanny Zimetbaum in Brussels, on 15 February 1940.
Unfortunately, three months later German forces invaded Belgium. Soon after, when police started rounding up Jewish men, my father was taken in. He managed to jump off the deportation train and made his way back to Paris, where he went into hiding with a cousin.
He wrote to my mother, who had stayed behind with my older half-sister Liliane and me. Belgian police allowed us to leave for Paris, where we lived in a bed and breakfast and regularly visited my father, who was still in hiding, until a year later when police raided the apartment he was in. Thankfully, the porter helped him escape to an unoccupied part of France.
We stayed in Paris because, while all Jews were obliged to report to their local police station every week, women and children were not then being deported. In July 1942, things started to change. A kind policeman warned my mother in time and the resistance smuggled us out.
We were reunited with my father in Vichy, France, but only for a few weeks. Roundups of Jewish men started in August and he was taken to an internment camp, where he befriended a group of Corsican guards, with whose help he escaped across the Pyrenees into Spain and eventually joined the Polish Free Forces in Britain. My father had sent someone back to rescue us, but my mother was alone with two young children and it was a long, dangerous and arduous journey ahead. We waited in France until October to join a group of US and British airmen who helped us climb over the mountains, only for us to be captured at the border. Luckily, it was by Spanish police. My sister entered a convent; because I was so young, I was allowed to stay with my mother in prison.
In Spain, the Quakers were acting as a relief organisation and told my mother the US government had agreed to help to rescue Jewish refugee children escaping the war, but that parents were not allowed to travel with them. She had a difficult decision to make: giving her children a chance of freedom or keeping us with her and risking who knew what.
Liliane and I sailed together on the SS Serpa Pinto from the neutral port of Lisbon on 8 June 1943. She became very ill on the boat and on arrival to the US was admitted to hospital while I entered an orphanage. Six months later I was taken to my foster family. I was four years old.
Keeping history alive
When I was younger, no one really talked about the Holocaust – there was a certain sense of embarrassment and people just shut down. Investigating my family’s journey wasn’t easy. My mother could never bring herself to speak about the war so I listened to my father’s stories, documented his memories, and conducted some research to put all the pieces together. I visited libraries and archives, and travelled to Poland and France, but had to overcome many barriers. Records were lost, people were reluctant to open up old wounds and, in the early 1980s, countries were still not yet prepared to admit their part in the atrocities under Nazi occupation.
History is much more complicated and nuanced than we are led to believe. When I became involved with Holocaust education organisations in the ‘90s, it was to humanise the past, put names and faces to the statistics, and help dismantle stereotypes. As I began sharing my story, I started receiving letters from people in similar circumstances. Talking openly about what we had been through and sharing the same emotions was a cathartic experience.
In 2013, a professor of history at Nottingham Trent University approached me after one of my talks and encouraged me to write my story academically. I was in my seventies and thought I was just too old but, in the end, I followed his advice: I am proud to say I recently graduated with an MA in Holocaust and Genocide and have now received funding to pursue a PhD at the very mature student age of 78.
LSE and me
I was in my mid-30s when I came to LSE. The School had started a programme for mature students without sufficient qualifications and although I initially applied to study Psychology, I was accepted to study Social Policy and Administration.
One of my starkest memories of being at LSE is Margaret Thatcher’s election. I went to bed at 3am on election night, but woke up very early in the morning to attend a lecture by LSE Professor Robert McKenzie, a renowned elections analyst and one of the main presenters of the BBC’s General Election programmes.
At LSE I made friends with other mature students who came from all walks of life – a post office worker and trade unionist, a father of the chapel at a newspaper, and a policeman who would end up being a Professor of Sociology – and we formed a close-knit study group supporting each other along the way. Four decades on we remain in touch with each other and even had a little reunion a couple of years ago.
I return to the School often, to attend alumni events and public lectures. Campus has changed dramatically for the better, and there seems to be great support for students.