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Culture

Recapturing a Lost Youth Through Writing

Faye Cukier, a German Jew of Polish descent, has written her tale of surviving the Holocaust. Now a US citizen, her book has been published in English because German publishers thought her story lacked sufficient drama.

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Faye Cukier dreamed of being a famous dancer when she was young

One German publisher told her she had not suffered enough during World War II to warrant publication of her book.

Faye Cukier sent her manuscript to half a dozen German publishers over the course of several years. Most of the rejection letters did not criticize the quality of her writing, but rather the lack of searing drama in her autobiographical account of surviving Nazi-dominated Europe.

"I was really disappointed and found the whole thing to be an unpleasant experience," Cukier said.

"I also found it pretty ludicrous that the one German publisher told me my suffering hadn't been great enough," she added. She said she thought people in Germany would be glad to read a story about a Jewish woman surviving the Holocaust rather than perishing in it.

She has since had her book, Fleeing the Swastika, published in the United States.

A story to tell

Fleeing the Swastika

Cukier couldn't publish in Germany

Had Cukier and her parents not been quite so savvy, Faye would not have lived to tell the tale.

Looking at her, one would also not believe that she is 84 years old -- information which she is reluctant to disclose.

Indeed, Cukier exudes a youthful flair with the bright scarves, bunches of dark hair and shiny jewelry she wears. The twinkle in her eye and her mischievous grin, however, are the real hallmarks of her inner youth.

"I lost my youth while hiding," Cukier said. "I've tried to recapture it through writing my story."

Her story includes years of constantly moving from place to place so as not to be discovered by the Nazis during World War II. Cologne became home

Her Polish-Jewish parents left their homeland in 1919 and settled in Cologne, where Faye was born three years later. There, her father provided for the family as a scrap-metal dealer.

His business did so well that the family could afford luxuries like a convertible car, which Faye spent many hours in alongside her father.

Faye Cukier

Faye loved driving around with her father before fleeing Germany

While the family enjoyed the benefits of relative affluence, Faye's father gradually lost control of his business as the Nazis rose to power.

She and her mother left Germany in 1938 on one of the last Belgian tourist visas -- just months before the infamous Kristallnacht, or "Night of Broken Glass," which witnessed a nation-wide pogrom. Jewish homes, stores and synagogues were ransacked and set afire.

Thousands upon thousands of Jews were beaten to death or sent to concentration camps.

Faye and her mother managed to reach Antwerp, then settled in Brussels, where Cukier's father joined them. They planned to emigrate to the United States but were not able to get visas. Constant fear

With the Nazi occupation of Belgium in 1940, life changed even more dramatically for the Cukiers. "We had to heed a 7 p.m. curfew and were forced to wear the Jewish yellow star," said Faye, which she refused to do.

Instead, she dyed her hair blonde and visited shops -- which was forbidden to Jews but which a policeman advised her to do -- so as to not appear Jewish.

During those six years in Belgium, Faye taught French and English and even helped a man (in whom she fell in love) sell diamonds on the black market to help her family survive.

Yet as the Nazis' methods of "weeding out" Jews became more brutal, the Cukiers were forced to go underground. A Belgian family hid them. The family spent years in fear of being discovered -- and in desperation as supplies dwindled and hunger set in.

Once, the Gestapo paid a surprise visit to the family hiding in the apartment below. "The father jumped out of the window, and they shot him in mid-air." Then they took the man's wife and daughter away, Faye said.

Later, she witnessed how one of her family's protectors was killed.

Becoming American

Faye Cukier

Some German publishers have said they would look at her story again now that it's been shortened

When Allied forces liberated Belgium from Nazi occupation in 1944, Faye's family was also liberated, but many of her friends and relatives were not so lucky. They perished on European streets and in concentration camps.

Despite the devastation, Faye's family returned to Cologne after the war.

Faye eventually fulfilled a life-long dream by emigrating to the United States. When she first arrived there, she sang chansons in night clubs and gave belly-dancing lessons.

Later, she created an American life for herself by marrying, having children and becoming a US citizen.

Yet, a tug deep down inside herself always brings her back to Cologne. She spends several months a year in the western German city, her hometown -- because "a part of my heart is here," she said.

"I think it's part of constantly trying to rediscover my youth. I find a bit of that in Cologne -- and when I'm writing," she added. Life writes the most intense dramas

Faye Cukier has said that some of her experiences were not unlike those of Anne Frank, the German-born Jewish girl who wrote her famous diary while her family was hiding in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam.

She said that with the publication of her book this year in English, she hopes it will arouse interest among German publishers.

Sadly, one might otherwise be left to conclude that only Holocaust victims and writers who died in concentration camps -- like Anne Frank -- or those who managed to survive them -- like Elie Wiesel -- merit publication.

While on her current trip to Cologne, however, Cukier has begun giving readings in English and talks in German from her book, "Fleeing the Swastika." Audiences there, at least, would like to be able to read her story in German -- if publishers ever decide to print it.

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