Nashville Holocaust survivor finally forgives her mom for doing the right thing
Holocaust survivor Frances Cutler Hahn talks about difficult decisions her parents made to keep her safe before the Nazis killed her parents during WWII Larry McCormack / The Tennessean
As a girl, Frances Cutler Hahn thought her mom abandoned her by taking her to a children’s home when the Nazis occupied their home country of France
She was only five years old when the Nazis killed her mother in the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Frances Cutler Hahn remembers feeling really, really angry – at her mother.
The way she saw it then, her mom dumped her in a children’s home in Paris, abandoned her, left her sitting on a cold floor, confused, alone and scared.
The painfully shy little Jewish kid was surrounded by a bunch of children who crossed themselves during prayers each night in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary, stealing glances at the new girl and wondering why she wasn’t doing the same.
The girl cried often. Her mother – in the months before the Nazis shipped her to Germany – would visit her baby at the children’s home, visits that became harder and harder.
The sobbing girl would latch on to her mom and beg her to take her back. The girl became so hysterical that the home’s leaders limited the visits to once a week.
“One of the things I had to deal with as an adult, I understand what my parents did was for my benefit,” said Hahn, 79, one of only a handful of Holocaust survivors living in Middle Tennessee.
“But the feelings I had as a three-year-old and four-year-old was anger. And it took me a long time to let go of that.”
Hahn – set to speak Sunday, Oct. 8 at the 10th anniversary ceremony for the Nashville Holocaust Memorial – has come to realize child survivors of the Holocaust also suffered real trauma.
Many avoided concentration camps or torture, but those children, too, carry deep scars from World War II.
Hahn was 48 years old when she finally, and fully, forgave her mom. That’s when she saw the translation of a postcard her mom had written to her family about her little girl, Fanny.
Father and daughter go into hiding
Hahn’s parents – Cyla Lindenberg and Shlomo Kahane – grew up lower-middle class in the same town of Ciechanów in north-central Poland, where her dad became a resistance fighter against the country’s fascist regime.
After he was arrested several times, the family moved to join relatives in Paris in the late 1930s, where the father became a tailor – and a member of the French Resistance, battling against Nazi occupation of France.
Hahn was born March 16, 1938 at Fanny Lindenberg.
Her only memory of her parents together is of her crying in her crib, and her mom and dad, in bed, arguing over who would get up to comfort the child.
Hahn was 3 when her parents – in their early 20s – took her to La Maison des Petits Enfants (House of Small Children) to hide the girl from the Nazis. Her father went into hiding to work fulltime for the Resistance.
A year or so later, the children’s home wrote to the girl’s father to say it was no longer safe for her to be there.
So Hahn was taken to a farm outside the city, to be raised by a strict couple with their own children who had taken in 10 or so other children.
Bomb raid drills
Feeling sad and abandoned, Hahn often wet the bed, infuriating her caretakers, who once stripped her of her pants outside so the geese could bite the girl’s buttocks. Hahn said she remembers running around screaming in hopes of scaring away the geese.
“The child rearing attitude was very strict,” she said. “I didn’t feel loved. They fed me, but it was a discipline type of environment.”
The caretakers often ran bomb raid drills for the children, who were taught to run into the basement if the village came under attack.
Hahn later learned her mother had been killed during that time, and her father had gotten sick and moved into a sanitarium.
When the war ended, a woman with a purse hanging from her forearm came to get Hahn and take her to an orphanage in Paris, closer to her surviving relatives.
The caretakers and some of the other children shouted at the little girl to come back and visit, and Hahn remembers smiling and waving.
As soon as she and the woman were out of earshot, Hahn, then 7, insisted she would never ever go back to that farm.
The little girl saw her father twice at the sanitarium before he died. Her father told her at the second visit that he was dying, but it didn’t register with her.
“Right after,” Hahn said, “I was picking my nose and he told me not to pick my nose. ‘Aren’t you going to come with me?’ I asked. He said no. I didn’t really understand what he meant by ‘dying.’”
She kept talking to her father after he died
She ended up on a boat to live with relatives in Philadelphia shortly thereafter.
In America, Hahn kept saying aloud and in her head where she was in hopes that her father would find her and come get her.
Meanwhile, Hahn’s great uncle and aunt – owners of a Kosher butcher shop – eventually adopted this angry 12-year-old girl, enrolled her in school and helped her learn English.
Part of what made the girl angry was legally changing her last name, which she felt was a betrayal of the father she still thought maybe, possibly, just might come get her.
And the girl still couldn’t shake the feeling that her parents had abandoned her.
Slowly, in pieces, Hahn began to accept her parents were dead, and she learned more and more about them and the Holocaust. At 16, she spent lots of times with her mom’s sisters, who told her a little about what happens in concentration camps. The images of gas showers stuck with the girl.
By 19, Hahn started looking away from pictures from concentration camps, afraid she might see her mother’s face.
‘I didn’t feel so weird or different’
She ended up working at University of Miami, getting married at age 30 and going to therapy. Hahn had her one child, a daughter, Cynthia Cutler Moon, now a lawyer in Goodlettsville.
Hahn took her biggest steps toward wellness in her late 40s when she joined a Holocaust children’s survivors support group.
“This group was a very healing experience because I didn’t feel so weird or different. This group understood what feeling abandonment was like, and that we were feeling guilty about this anger,” she said.
“And it was safe to say you had these feelings.”
With help from the group, Hahn reached out to the American Red Cross to see what documents she might find about her mom.
The letter she got Oct. 23, 1997, hit her hard.
“The attached document from the French Red Cross Society informs us of the following: Mrs. Cyrla (sic) Lindenberg, born May 15, 1914 of Polish nationality, resided at 19 Cite Dupont in Paris and was deported to the Concentration Camp Auschwitz on July 27, 1942 on Convoy No. 11.”
Again, with the group’s support, Hahn decided to decipher one more document, one that she had been holding onto for more than 30 years.
She had a postcard translated into English that her mother had written to her family back in Poland in 1941, shortly after she brought her daughter to the children’s home in Paris.
“Now Fanny is three years old,” the postcard says.
“I’m meeting her every week because today she is close and by Metro I can be with her. It was very difficult for me not to be with her every day…
“She speaks so nice. She speaks like an adult. It is really nice to talk to her…
“I am terribly sad without Fanny.”
Hahn, reading the translation for the first time in her late 40s, started to cry.
“It was so devastating,” she said, tearing up at the memory. “I think I was able to put myself in her place and feel how painful it was for her. It’s very sad to do that.”
From the sadness emerged joy – Hahn also realized fully for the first time how much her parents loved her.
“I really feel whatever strength I have and whatever made me endure or cope, I feel I could because of this love from my parents,” she said.
“I had no parents, but I had their love.”
Reach Brad Schmitt at firstname.lastname@example.org or 615-259-8384 or on Twitter @bradschmitt.