About the Author
Diane von Furstenberg entered the fashion world in 1972 and two years later introduced her famous wrap dress. Her luxury fashion brand, DVF, is now available in more than fifty-five countries all over the world. Codirector of the Diller-von Furstenberg Family Foundation, she is an active philanthropist and supporter of emerging female leaders and social entrepreneurs. She is the author of Diane: A Signature Life.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
The Woman I Wanted to Be 1
There is a large frame on the bookshelf in my bedroom in New York. In it is a page torn from a German magazine of 1952. It is a photo of an elegant woman and her small daughter in the train station of Basel, Switzerland, waiting for the Orient Express. The little girl is nestled in her mother’s tented coat and is eating a brioche. That was the first time, at the age of five, that I had my photo in a magazine. It is a sweet picture. My mother’s older sister, Juliette, gave it to me when I was first married, but it is only recently that I realized its true importance.
On the surface, it is a photograph of a glamorous, apparently wealthy woman en route to a ski holiday with her curly-haired little girl. The woman is not looking into the camera, but there is a hint of a smile as she knows she is being photographed. Her appearance is elegant. Nothing would indicate that only a few years before, she was in another German-speaking railroad station coming back from the Nazi concentration camps where she had been a prisoner for thirteen months, a bunch of bones, close to death from starvation and exhaustion.
How did she feel when the photographer asked her name to be put in the magazine? Proud, I imagine, to be noticed for her style and elegance. Only seven years had passed. She was not a number anymore. She had a name; warm, beautiful, clean clothes; and most of all she had a daughter, a healthy little girl. “God has saved my life so that I can give you life,” she used to write me every New Year on my birthday. “By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch, my flag of freedom.”
My voice catches each time I speak publicly about my mother, and I do in every speech I make, aware that I wouldn’t be giving that speech if Lily Nahmias had not been my mother. Sometimes it feels odd that I always bring up her story, but somehow I am compelled to. It explains the child I was, the woman I became.
“I want to tell you the story of a young girl who, at twenty-two years old, weighed fifty-nine pounds, barely the weight of her bones,” I say to a seminar at Harvard about girls’ health. “The reason she weighed fifty-nine pounds is that she had just spent thirteen months in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz and Ravensbrück. It was a true miracle that that young girl didn’t die, though she came very close. When she was liberated and returned to her family in Belgium, her mother fed her like a little bird, every fifteen minutes a tiny bit of food, and then a little bit more, making her feel as if she was being slowly blown up like a balloon. Within a few months her weight was close to normal.”
There are always murmurs in the audience when I get to that point in my mother’s story, perhaps because it is so shocking and unexpected or maybe because I am living history to a young audience that has heard only vaguely about Auschwitz. It must be hard to imagine the high-energy, healthy woman speaking to them having a mother who weighed fifty-nine pounds. Whatever it is, I want and need to honor my mother, her courage and her strength. It is what made me the woman she wanted me to be.
“God has saved my life so that I can give you life.” Her words resonate with me every day of my life. I feel it is my duty to make up for all the suffering she endured, to always celebrate freedom and live fully. My birth was her triumph. She was not supposed to survive; I was not supposed to be born. We proved them wrong. We both won the day I was born.
I repeat a few of the lessons my mother drummed into me that have served me well. “Fear is not an option.” “Don’t dwell on the dark side of things, but look for the light and build around it. If one door closes, look for another one to open.” “Never, ever, blame others for what befalls you, no matter how horrible it might be. Trust you, and only you, to be responsible for your own life.” She lived those lessons. In spite of what she endured, she never wanted others to feel that she was a victim.
I didn’t used to talk nearly as much about my mother. I took her for granted, as children do their mothers. It was not until she died in 2000 that I fully realized what an incredibly huge influence she had been on me and how much I owe her. Like any child, I hadn’t paid much attention. “OK, OK, you told me that already,” I’d brush her off, or even pretend not to hear. I bridled, too, at the unsolicited advice she persisted in giving my friends. In fact, it annoyed me. Now, of course, I feel I have had the experience and earned the wisdom to hand out my own unsolicited advice, and I press every lesson my mother taught me on my children, grandchildren, and anyone I talk to. I have become her.
I didn’t know, as a very little girl in Brussels, why my mother had two lines of blue tattooed numbers on her left arm. I remember thinking they were some sort of decoration and wished I had them, too, so my arms wouldn’t look so plain. I didn’t understand why the housekeeper often told me not to bother her when she was lying down in her bedroom. I instinctively knew my mother needed her rest and I would tiptoe around the house so I wouldn’t disturb her.
Sometimes I’d ignore the housekeeper’s instructions and, gathering my beloved little picture books, I would sneak into her darkened room in the hope she would smile and read them to me. More often than not she did. She loved books and taught me to cherish them. She read my little picture books to me so many times I memorized them. One of my favorite things to do was to fake reading them, carefully turning the pages at the right time and showing off, pretending that I could read.
My mother was very strict. I never doubted that she loved me, but if I said something she didn’t approve of or failed to live up to her expectations, she would give me a severe look or pinch me. I would be sent to the corner, my face to the wall. Sometimes I would go to the corner by myself, knowing I had done wrong. She spent a lot of time with me, sometimes playing, but mostly teaching me anything she could think of. She read me fairy tales and would tease me when I got scared. I remember how she amused herself by telling me that I was an abandoned child she had found in the garbage. I would cry until she took me in her arms, consoling me. She wanted me to be strong and not be afraid. She was very demanding. Before I had learned how to read, she had me memorize and recite the seventeenth-century fables of La Fontaine. As soon as I was old enough to write, she insisted I write stories and letters with perfect spelling and grammar. I remember how proud I was when she praised me.
To train me never to succumb to shyness, she made me give a speech at every family gathering, teaching me to be comfortable speaking in public no matter the audience. Like many children I was scared of the dark, but unlike most mothers, she shut me in a dark closet and waited outside so I would learn for myself that there was nothing to be afraid of. That was just one of the times she’d say “Fear is not an option.”
My mother did not believe in coddling children too much or overprotecting them. She wanted me to be independent and responsible for myself. My earliest memories are of traveling with my parents and being left alone in the hotel room while they went out to dinner. I did not mind nor did I feel lonely. I was so proud that they trusted me to stay alone. I liked entertaining myself and feeling grown up. To this day, I have the same feeling and sense of freedom when I check into a hotel room alone.
When my parents allowed me to join them in a restaurant, my mother often encouraged me to get up and check out the room, and sometimes, even to go outside and report to her what I’d seen, who I had met. That instilled curiosity in me—watch what other people do, make friends with people I do not know. When I was nine, she sent me on the train from Brussels to Paris all by myself to visit her sister, my favorite aunt, Mathilde. I felt so proud to be responsible for myself. I think, deep down, I was a bit nervous, but I would never admit it and pride overcame the fear.
I still like to travel alone, and at times prefer it. Even on business trips, I don’t like traveling with an entourage because it limits my freedom and reduces the fun of the unpredictable. I love the adventure, that feeling of excitement and satisfaction I had when I was a little girl. To be alone on the road, in an airport, with my bag, my passport, my credit cards, my phone, and a camera makes me feel so free and happy. I thank my mother for always encouraging me to “go.”
Independence. Freedom. Self-reliance. Those were the values she was drumming into me, and she did it with such naturalness that I never questioned or resisted her. There was no other way but to be responsible for myself. As much as I loved and respected her, I was certainly a little frightened of her, and never wanted to displease her. I understand now that she was processing all of her past frustrations and unhappy experiences and putting them into a package of strength and positivity. That is the gift she prepared for me. It felt occasionally like a heavy burden, but I never questioned it, even if I sometimes wished I belonged to some other family.
Happily she let up on me somewhat when I was six and my baby brother, Philippe, was born. I adored him. To my surprise, having never played with dolls, I felt maternal, and to this day I think of him as my first child. As the older sister, I played with him and sometimes tortured him a bit, but as my mother had done to me, I taught him everything I knew and was very protective. When we played doctor, I asked him to urinate into a little bottle, only to then laugh at him that he had actually done it. We also used to play travel agency with my parents’ airline brochures, scheduling and booking imaginary trips all over the world.
Philippe says he realized that I loved him the day I transcribed all the words from a Beatles record while I was at boarding school in England, and sent them to him. There were no computers then, no Internet, no iTunes, just a doting sister with pen and paper, listening to the lyrics and transcribing them. We’re still extremely close, and he is still my baby brother, whom I always try to impress and tease. Philippe is a successful businessman in Brussels, has two amazing daughters, Sarah and Kelly, and his wife, Greta, launched and runs DVF Belgium. Philippe and I talk on the phone every weekend and whenever I miss my parents, I call him.
I don’t think my mother was half as hard on him as she’d been with me. He was a boy, after all, and we are much softer and less demanding toward boys in our family. It was I she related to, the daughter she was determined would survive whatever life threw at her. As I grew older, I understood. Independence and freedom were key to her because she had lost both. Self-reliance had kept her alive.
My mother was twenty and engaged to my father in 1944 when the Nazi SS arrested her on May 17 for working in the Belgian Resistance. She was living in a “safe house” and her job was to go around Brussels on her bicycle to deliver documents and fake papers to those who needed them. Immediately after her arrest, she was thrown onto a crowded truck, which took her and many other suspected saboteurs to a prison in Malines, Flanders, a city twenty-five kilometers from Brussels. To avoid being tortured into giving information about others in the resistance, she said she knew nothing and that she was hiding in the safe house because she was Jewish. The woman who was interrogating her advised her not to say she was Jewish. She ignored it and was deported on the twenty-fifth transport, which left Malines on May 19, 1944. She was sent to Auschwitz and given prisoner number 5199.
My mother often told me how she’d written her parents a note on a scrap of paper and dropped it from the truck onto the street. She hoped but had no idea whether anyone ever picked it up and delivered it. It wasn’t until after her death that I found out that the message had been delivered. I’d loaned the house she’d owned on Harbour Island in the Bahamas to my first cousin Salvator. Salvator left me a thick envelope full of family photographs, in the midst of which was a sealed envelope marked “Lily, 1944.” Inside was a piece of torn paper with faint handwriting. I stared at it until I finally made out the words:
Dear Mommy and Daddy,
I am writing to tell you that your little Lily is leaving. Where, she does not know, but God is everywhere isn’t he? So she will never be alone or unhappy.
I want you both to be courageous, and not forget that you have to be in good health for my wedding. I am counting more than ever in having a beautiful ceremony.
I want you to know that I am leaving with a smile, I promise. I love you very very much and will soon kiss you more than ever.
Your little daughter,
I couldn’t breathe. Could I be holding the actual note my mother had told me she had written to her parents on that truck, using a burnt match for a pencil? On the other side of the note was a plea for anybody finding the piece of paper to please deliver it to her parents’ address. Somebody had found it and delivered it to her parents and my aunt Juliette, Salvator’s mother, had kept it in a sealed envelope all these years!
I was in shock; I’d only half-believed her story of the note. All these stories about her arrest and deportation seemed surreal, more like a movie script, and yet they were true. She had always told me that she was more worried about her parents than herself. I held the proof in my shaky hands.
I walked out of the house in a daze and across the beach into the clear blue water. “This explains who I am,” I said out loud to myself. “I am the daughter of a woman who went to the concentration camps with a smile.”
The sayings she had drummed into me as a child and which had sometimes annoyed me took on whole new meanings. She had often illustrated one of her favorites—“you never really know what is good for you; what may seem the absolute worst thing to happen to you can, in fact, be the best”—by her story of the inhuman train ride to Auschwitz and her arrival.
No food. No water. No air. No toilet. Four days jammed in a cattle car. An “older woman” in her forties who spoke a little German comforted my mother and gave her a sense of protection. My mother made sure never to leave her side, especially when they arrived at Auschwitz and were unloaded onto a ramp. Women with children were immediately separated from the rest and sent toward long, low buildings while the others were forced into a long line. At the head of the line, a soldier directed the prisoners into two groups. Looking on, from the top of the ramp, was an officer in white.
When it came her turn, the older woman was directed to the group being formed on the left and my mother quickly followed her. The soldier did not stop her, but the white-coated officer, who had not interfered until then, did. Striding down the ramp, he walked directly to my mother, yanked her away from her friend, and threw her into the group on the right. My mother always said that she’d never felt such sheer hatred for anyone as she felt for that man.
That man was Dr. Josef Mengele, she found out later, the notorious Angel of Death, who killed or mutilated many, many prisoners in medical experiments, especially children and twins. Why did he go through the trouble of saving her? Did she remind him of someone he cared about? However evil or not his intentions were, he s...
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