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Sexually explicit memoir of women’s abuse in Nazi camps finally sees light

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When Czech-American Holocaust survivor Franci Rabinek Epstein wrote a frank, sexually explicit memoir of her wartime experiences in the mid-1970s, no one was interested in publishing it. Told from a decidedly female perspective, Epstein’s memoir was well ahead of its time.

Franci observed that women in the camps had same-sex relationships, and also engaged in sexual barter to help themselves and their mothers survive. It was also made clear to Franci that being beautiful was not a guarantee. If women were to leverage their beauty, they would have to also be smart about it — lest they wind up raped or murdered.

She candidly wrote about unfortunate pregnancies she witnessed in the camps, and the infanticide necessary to give postpartum women a chance to survive.

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Frank, female-centric memoirs like Franci’s — especially ones recalling systematic sexual violence perpetrated against women under Nazi occupation — weren’t given attention in the first decades after the war, when readers didn’t want to hear this kind of testimony or couldn’t conceive of the extent of the atrocities that had been committed. ‘Franci’s War’ by Helen Epstein (Penguin)

It was an era in which open discussions of sexuality were still generally taboo. Later testimonies were often sanitized of sex and sexual violence. While charting its pervasiveness, Franci herself did not recount being a victim of sexual violence in her memoir.

“Survivors didn’t talk about anything having to do with sex because they didn’t want their children and grandchildren to know what had happened to them,” said Beverley Chalmers, author of “Birth, Sex and Abuse: Women’s Voices Under Nazi Rule.”

Deeply disappointed at the lack of publishers’ interest, Franci put her manuscript aside and returned her focus to her long-time work as a couturière, designing and sewing clothes for rich and famous women at her salon in New York’s Upper West Side neighborhood.

Forty-five years later, Franci’s memoir has finally been published as “Franci’s War: A Woman’s Story of Survival” thanks to the efforts of her children, especially her daughter Helen Epstein. Epstein is a journalist and author known for her work on second-generation trauma, beginning with her groundbreaking “Children of the........

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