Book review: 'Franci's War' and 'Paris Fashion and World War Two'

Rescued and mesmerising


'Franci’s War' by Franci Rabinek Epstein (Michael Joseph, £14.99) and 'Paris Fashion and World 
War Two' by Lou Taylor and Marie and McLoughlin, Eds. (Bloomsbury, £27.99)

Franci’s War is a compelling, true story of surviving the Second World War that reads like a dark, psychological thriller — or that much-criticised genre, Holocaust fiction. For Franci Rabinek Epstein survived three Nazi concentration camps, slave labour and even an encounter with Josef Mengele. 

Franci died in New York in 1989, her memoir unpublished. But, thankfully, her daughter, journalist Helen Epstein, managed to get it published. The story begins in September 1942 when Franci was 22. In vivid prose as elegant and beautifully crafted as the couture clothing Franci and her mother were famed for creating in pre-war Prague, she describes her privileged life up to that point, sketches a poignant snapshot of life in Nazi-occupied Prague and acknowledges her family’s tenuous affiliation to Judaism. 

As the book begins, Franci and her parents are awaiting deportation. Franci, who underwent minor surgery a few days earlier, is lying on the floor “in a kind of stupor” with her head in her mother’s lap. In her account of turning down a chance to avoid deportation, she provides the reader with a real insight into her character, spirit and self-awareness: “When they told me in the hospital that my parents and I had been called up for a transport, the nurse said they could get me out of it. I said ‘I’m not leaving them’. My mother was 60 and my father 65. I couldn’t visualise those two people going anywhere alone.” 

But she also acknowledges her motivation was not purely altruistic. Her husband had already been deported, and she was “so fed up with all the restrictions in Prague,” she thought “any change of scene would be a relief no matter what was waiting on the other end.” 

We, of course, all know what appalling horrors were “waiting on the other end”. For Franci, the particular horrors included Terezin, Auschwitz-Birkenau, slave-labour camps, Bergen-Belsen and the murder of both her parents. She records her “journey” unflinchingly and with surgical precision, as well as eloquence, grace and occasional humour so that — for all its gut-wrenching horror and tragedy — her story is a testament to the human spirit as well as a mesmerising read.

While couture fashion is incidental in Franci’s War, it is the alpha and omega of Paris Fashion and World War Two. But this is no glossy, coffee-table book and is likely to be mainly of interest to students or academics rather than fluffy fashionistas like me. 

The editors contextualise couture fashion in this period, by acknowledging the impact of the anti-Jewish policies of the Third Reich. Nazi leaders and their couture-loving wives, they write, lived “lives of extreme luxury built on the spoils of war —-wealth from the gold teeth of those murdered at Auschwitz…  from the looting of Jewish banks, businesses and property… The wives “wore couture” to compete “to be the leader” in German fashion.

Editors Lou Taylor and Marie McLoughlin do a fine job of stitching together previously unpublished research to illuminate how the fashion industry survived the war, making this a valuable resource for history students with a niche interest in fashion, as well as for students of fashion.

Jan Shure is a former JC fashion editor 

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