The Holocaust ended nearly 70 years ago, and the group of people who can talk about it firsthand is getting smaller and smaller. There are a little over a dozen survivors still living in Nashville, according to the Tennessee Holocaust Commission.
Frances Cutler Hahn, 76, is one of them. Born in Paris in 1938 to Polish-Jewish parents, she was one of thousands of children hidden during the Holocaust — given to friends, neighbors or strangers of different faiths. Her parents first put her in a children’s home and then, when that became too dangerous, hid her with a Catholic family on a farm. Her mother was deported and killed in a gas chamber in Auschwitz, according to Nazi documentation that Cutler Hahn obtained decades later, and her father died shortly after the war after fighting with the French Resistance.
Cutler Hahn will be speaking Monday at 12:45 p.m. at Middle Tennessee State University in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, known in Hebrew as Yom Ha’shoah. [Updated: Cutler Hahn's speech was cancelled due to the weather.] The genocide during World War II killed six million Jews — about two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe at the time — and millions of others.
Here’s an excerpt from her interview with WPLN’s Emily Siner.
On her parents’ decision to hide her
“Hitler came into Paris in 1940, and I figured they [my parents] understood what was happening, and they put me in a children’s home. At that time, my mother could come and visit me at the children’s home — which I didn’t know she had done that until many, many years later.
“But then it became not safe to stay there, because in 1942, the Nazis and the collaborators started rounding up women and children. So if you were Jewish and a child, there was still no protection. So I was placed with a Catholic family on a farm and stayed there the rest of the war.
“I’m thankful that I survived. Not a lot of people survived.”
On overcoming the past
“In the Catholic farm, I felt very alone and abandoned and confused. And that’s about how I felt for many years. After the war, the feeling of abandonment is something that you don’t really understand, because it doesn’t make any sense. You know your mother did the best to save me — and in fact, by doing that, she did save me, because other parents who were not willing to separate from their children or to put them in a non-Jewish orphanage or non-Jewish home, they tended not to survive.
“It’s a mistake to measure who suffered more. We all suffered. Children suffered, but when I came to the U.S., people didn’t understand that children also were traumatized. The attitude of my adopted family … was that I was safe now, I was with family, and I had a new life — and just to forget about the past. It was over.
“But the emotional feeling was a feeling of abandonment, and it took many years for me to come to terms with that.”
On speaking about her experiences to students
“There are many levels on which it’s important. One is that it makes history a little more real, because this is ancient history to these children and to a lot of people now, but it was my current events.
“I spoke recently to over 100 fifth graders, and one of the questions was, ‘Why the Jews?’ And I think it’s a very profound question, and as much as I try to answer it, in the end, it’s not just why the Jews, but why should anybody be treated like the Jews or other oppressed people. Yom Ha’shoah is to remind all of us so that we don’t forget, and hopefully prevent it from ever happening again.”