The story of an Orinda woman whose mother 'persevered'
By Lou Fancher
The power of a mother's love for her soon-to-be-born child is the basis of the unbelievable but true story told in author Wendy Holden's new book, "Born Survivor" (HarperCollins), and an Orinda woman is a central character.
The 386-page account of events in 1944 Germany tells in sometimes gruesome but often graceful words the remarkable story of three Holocaust victims -- Priska, Rachel and Anka. The young, newly pregnant women suffered in concentration camps at the hands of the Nazis and nevertheless, bore their "miracle babies." Holden's triple biography is packed with enough contextual information to qualify as a history lesson but makes its impression as a tale of undeniable courage and astonishing love in the face of incredible cruelty and evil.
The book's celebratory climax isn't solely the birth of the three children. Sixty-five years after the American Liberation at Mauthausen, Hana Berger Moran, Mark Olsky and Eva Clarke came to know each other. Reunited for the first time in one book, "Born Survivors" became for Orinda resident Moran a way to honor her mother's legacy.
"I told my story for my mom -- I'm honoring what she went through," Moran said. "She was beaten, starved, nearly killed a number of times, but her favorite expression was, 'I'll get it done.' This is a final thank you to close the loop."
Moran, now 70, grew up in Bratislava, Slovakia, where her mother Priska returned after the war in hopes of reuniting with her husband, Tibor. Sadly, Moran's father didn't survive, and Holden's book details Priska's lifelong devotion, remaining a single mother and harboring his letters that had miraculously been saved.
"My mother's best friend had been friendly with someone in the Swedish Embassy and they held the letters. After the war, my mother got them back and I have them, about 20 letters," Moran said.
At age 6, she also shared with her mother the injury of racism. "I was called a derogatory word for Jewish and asked my mother what it meant. She said it meant we were Jewish and since I admired the people in our family, it was OK with me."
But six years later, when her mother sat her down to explain the full story behind the "born in Germany" stamp on school reports, Moran was horrified. "I had heard all about the Holocaust, of course, but suddenly, we were a part of that. And there was guilt: I had put my mother at tremendous risk."
Among the many facts detailed in "Born Survivor" was that the perilous act of hiding or aiding a pregnancy was forbidden. Villagers at Horni Briza who fed the three women while they were passengers on a train, or Edita, a woman who befriended and protected Priska, risked their lives.
"Thanks to the kindness of strangers and random acts of courage and compassion, these three women and ultimately their babies survived," Holden writes in an email. "Even in the cruelest of circumstances, the milk of human kindness provides a counterbalance."
Moran says meeting Edita (when Moran was 19 years old) was "indescribable." Years later, sitting face-to-face with LeRoy Petersohn, the then 22-year-old medic who'd whisked Moran off for lifesaving surgery when his division liberated the prisoners at Mauthausen, was a moment of "tremendous peace." He told Moran that a request for forgiveness Priska had made to her daughter, who couldn't imagine what her mother's words meant, referred to the moment when Priska had handed Moran to the young soldier without knowing if he would give her back.
"I wouldn't have lived without the surgery, and she knew that," Moran said. "She rose to every occasion. Even when we returned to Mauthausen later, she wanted the townspeople and journalists with us to be at ease. She told me to smile a bit. I had a very difficult time with that place."
Like her mother, although with effort, Moran has found the "positivity in the darkest of times." She recognizes evil in the past and present realm of politics and world affairs, but said, "I'm my mother's daughter." Meeting with Holden for interviews, Moran said the author was kind and would offer to postpone a discussion when it became too difficult.
"It was the horror of it. The older I get, the less I can understand how those women survived and kept their humanity in the atrocities. The goal was to reduce them to garbage, to dehumanize them."
The salve, Moran's healing balm, has arrived like new life, born in part by meeting her "siblings of the heart." After working for GD Searle as an organic chemist, bearing a son, Thomas, and marrying Mark Moran, her husband of 25 years, Moran said there is no pretending, anger, or "baggage" in the now-frequent emails, letters and Skype visits she enjoys with her fellow survivors.
In bookstores, when people learn her story and say "wow," Moran tells them, "I didn't do anything. I was born in a concentration camp and I survived. This is a story of love. Those mothers persevered. I won the biggest lottery in life."