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Authors: Gioia Diliberto

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On the journey to Auschwitz, Lily attached herself to a motherly older woman. She clutched the woman’s hand as the cattle car lumbered to a halt on May 19, and the prisoners scrambled to the ground. When the Nazi in charge directed the older woman to join a group on the left, Lily followed, and the guard allowed it. But a higher-ranking Nazi standing by in a white coat, whom Lily came to believe was Josef Mengele, ordered her into the group on the right. He saved her life—the 108 Jews in the group on the left were immediately gassed.

In the barracks, Lily overheard anguished voices. “Do you smell the crematorium? We’re all going to die!” She covered her ears, refusing to descend to the pit of despair. She thought of her parents and Leon and felt the power of their love and prayers.

At Auschwitz she worked in a bullet factory and recalled later that she
made the bullets badly so they’d malfunction. Lily had been at the camp eight months when, on January 17, 1945, as the Allied armies closed in, the SS command in Berlin sent orders to Auschwitz to execute all prisoners. In the chaos of the German retreat, however, the order was not honored, and the Nazis began moving prisoners out. At the end of a long, frigid march in the snow, Lily ended up at Ravensbrück, a woman’s camp fifty-six miles north of Berlin. From there, she was sent to one of its satellites, Neustadt-Glewe which was described by one prisoner as “the worst of the worst of the worst,” with unimaginably sordid barracks, so crowded there was no room to lie down at night, and walls black with lice. In the two and a half months that Lily was there, from February 18 to May 8 an average of seventy prisoners a week died from starvation or illness; others were sent back to Ravensbrück to be gassed. One survivor described the piled bodies as “a huge mountain of corpses two meters tall.”

Lily awoke from a fitful sleep on May 5 to find the German guards gone, while a group of men—who, from their rags and ravaged physiques, appeared to be former prisoners—worked with tools on the electrified fence surrounding the camp. Suddenly, the gates opened, and Lily and her fellow prisoners were free. Wandering the countryside, she was picked up by a group of US soldiers patrolling the area. She was hospitalized for a week at an American base. When she was well enough to travel, the Americans sent her home.

Thanks to her mother’s ministrations, which included feeding her bits of food every few minutes, Lily quickly gained back some of the flesh she’d lost as a prisoner. In a picture taken on her wedding day in November 1945, a month after being reunited with Leon, she looks thin but mostly restored to the stylish, brown-eyed beauty she’d been before the war. The wedding was like a dream, the town hall filled with friends and flowers, the bride and groom standing in front of the justice of the peace. At that moment, all they desired was to be together. Like many couples who married in the wake of the Holocaust, Lily and Leon were united by their powerful sense of renewed life. As it turned out, though, this
would not be enough to sustain them, and eventually they’d be wrenched apart by the stronger force of the horror they’d endured. They would stay married for sixteen years, but it would be a troubled union, scarred by wounds that wouldn’t heal.

Leon embarked on with baby Diane was both a denial of and a rebuke to the war. Leon started his own business dealing in electronic tubing, which at that time was a vital component of most electronic devices from radios and TVs to radar systems. He didn’t diversify; he focused on one product and became Europe’s major supplier. With the birth of Diane’s brother, Philippe, in 1952, the family was complete. The Halfins moved into a penthouse apartment at 80 avenue Armand Huysmans in Ixelles, a middle-class Brussels neighborhood of large, comfortable apartment buildings across from a vast park, the Bois de la Cambre. The area must have been a force field of style. Audrey Hepburn, born in 1929, spent the first years of her life a few blocks away on rue Keyenveld.

Diane’s mother “wasn’t a fashion person; she didn’t talk about fashion,” says Diane. Lily always dressed beautifully, however. She patronized a couturier in Brussels who copied clothes by Paris designers and wore cashmere and jersey garments from the shop owned by her sister Mathilde off the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris. Lily also owned a sable coat, which she’d bought with her reparations check from the German government. For Lily, beautiful clothes were a way of beating back sadness and celebrating life. Clothes mattered
they were frivolous. To be alive and free to buy a fur coat was a gift.

Lily’s elegance was accompanied by a powerful intuition and curiosity about people. “Lily was extremely sensitive,” says Diane’s girlhood friend Mireille Dutry. “She could tell if something wasn’t right in your life just by looking at your face.” Adds Diane’s brother, Philippe, “My mother always gave very good advice. She had impeccable judgment.”

When Lily first caught the teenage Diane smoking, instead of lecturing
her about how bad cigarettes were for her health, she said, “‘Wouldn’t it be more interesting to be the only one who didn’t smoke?’” Diane recalled. “I was so anxious to be individual that I just quit.”

But for all Lily’s spirit, she suffered from serious depression. “Lily had post-traumatic stress disorder really badly,” says her granddaughter, Diane’s daughter, Tatiana.

Many studies over the years have documented the high incidence of PTSD among survivors of the Holocaust. Few of these survivors received psychiatric help, and their problems only intensified over time. Lily’s psychological and emotional difficulties were compounded by physical ones, also results of her wartime trauma, particularly malnutrition. “She had a lot of pain in her body, and her eyes were awful,” says Tatiana.

Hardly a day went by that Diane didn’t see her mother cry. “It must have been so hard to not ask anything of your mother because you didn’t want to put any pressure on her because she’s so frail and broken,” says Tatiana.

The doctor who examined Lily before her wedding warned her that childbirth in her frail state might kill her. When Lily discovered she was pregnant, she and Leon tried to induce a miscarriage by taking long, jarring rides on Leon’s motorcycle over the cobblestone streets of Brussels. It had no effect, and Lily was secretly relieved. Later, when Leon brought home some pills that were supposed to induce a miscarriage, Lily threw them out the window. She had begun to feel a deep yearning for her unborn child, a belief that the baby would be her lifeline. “If I hadn’t been born, my mother might have killed herself,” Diane wrote in
The Woman I Wanted to Be.

Leon, Diane’s father, “was another traumatized person, another broken heart,” says Tatiana. He never got over losing his family in the war, and he compensated by becoming a workaholic. “He never stopped working,” adds Philippe.

Though Diane has never consulted a psychotherapist, some experts might connect the insecurity that has plagued her throughout her life
to her mother’s experiences during the war. Perhaps Diane internalized Lily’s fear and sorrow. Perhaps Lily’s fragility gave Diane a sense of instability, a feeling that the ground could shift beneath her at any moment.

At the same time, however, Diane showed traits of exceptional resilience that researchers have also noted in the children of Holocaust survivors, including adaptability, tenacity, initiative, and street smarts. These were qualities that Diane shared with Leon.

Indeed, in temperament, she is much more like her father than her mother. Leon “never saw limits. Diane is the same way,” says Philippe. “She got her strength from him. It’s like you have a certain model of car, and then years later a new version comes out, which is an improvement. This is how I think of [Diane and Leon]. No one has energy like those two. It’s the kind of energy that can move mountains.”

“There was very little darkness in my father,” adds Diane. “He liked to work, eat, and make love.” He was awesomely successful at his job, and he adored Diane and Philippe. Of course, he loved Lily, too, but he often seemed indifferent to her suffering. “He didn’t want to acknowledge her wounds, so he ignored them,” wrote Diane. She has no doubt that Leon slept with other women when he traveled, but “that was not the problem between my parents,” she wrote. The problem was “his insensitivity toward” Lily.

Affectionate and boisterous, Leon drove a big blue convertible Chevy at a time when American cars were a rarity on the streets of Brussels. He embarrassed his children at parties and weddings by singing loudly, sometimes in his exuberance picking up glasses off the table and smashing them on the floor. “He loved Diane intensely,” says Philippe, “more than any other man ever would.”

Years later, when Diane returned to Brussels a celebrity, Leon would meet her at the airport with a huge bouquet of red roses. Once, without warning Diane, Leon called
Le Soir,
Brussels’ most important newspaper, to invite a photographer to his house to take a picture of him with his famous daughter.

As a child, Diane felt like a mini adult, caught in the prison of childhood, smothered by Leon’s adoration. She longed to escape. Driving around Brussels on errands with her father, she’d sit on her knees so she’d look bigger. Diane never fooled anyone that she wasn’t a child, but some people mistook her for a boy. Dark and gap-toothed with frizzy hair that coiled close to her head, she looked impish and clever. She loved to read, yet, at the Lycée Dachsbeck, from which Lily had graduated and which Diane attended from kindergarten to age thirteen, she was an indifferent student.

At school, Diane found herself in a sea of delicate blondes, little girls who would grow into sleek, silk-limbed beauties with straight golden hair. She felt like an outsider, establishing the pattern of insecurity in her life. That insecurity, however, has been one of the ignitions of the confidence she has fought to achieve and that she strives to impart to other women through her clothes and the example of her life.

Diane believed she could never rely on her looks. “I really thought I was a dog when I was a young girl,” she says. She developed other assets. She strove to be charming and sophisticated, even in kindergarten, where she experienced her first male conquest. Five-year-old Didier Van Bruyssel, now a Brussels businessman, fell under her spell. “We met at school and I immediately liked her. We became friends. Then, I remember dancing with her at some fancy children’s party with my parents watching and feeling overcome,” says Bruyssel.

Diane was aware of her effect on the boy and enjoyed every moment of it. Even then, “I always wanted to be a femme fatale,” she told the writer David Colman.

Growing up, Diane and her brother, Philippe, had only a vague sense of being Jewish. Their parents didn’t practice their religion or even talk about it. In fact, Philippe didn’t know he was Jewish until he was nine, when the headmaster at his school asked him if he knew what the six-pointed star meant. When Philippe answered no, the headmaster was
stunned. “But you’re Jewish,” he said. “How could you not know it’s the Star of David?”

“I just didn’t know,” recalls Philippe. “It wasn’t that our Jewishness was hidden. It didn’t mean that we didn’t want to be Jewish. We were secular. We celebrated [the Christian festival] Saint Nicola, which in Belgium is on December sixth. At the time, there was maybe one synagogue in Brussels. The Jewish community would hire a theater or a cinema for a day to use for services.”

As her children grew older, Lily talked to them about the war, but usually it was only to tell them something uplifting, to inspire them to be stronger or to convey the impression that she had not been profoundly damaged by her experiences. “She never talked about anything really bad,” says Philippe. “She pretended always that things were all right.”

She talked “about little things” at the concentration camps, Diane wrote in
Diane: A Signature Life—
about the pleasure of sitting outside in the sun in spring and “how much she had longed for a plate of spaghetti or how she had exchanged a piece of bread for a comb or how she had cut off the bottom of her dress to make a belt. They were almost boarding school kinds of stories, not death camp kinds of stories.”

Lily’s outward optimism grew from her desire to protect her children. She couldn’t bear for them to know what she’d suffered or what she’d had to do to survive. On her deathbed at her son’s home in Brussels in 2000, she confessed something horrific to her nurse, Lorna MacDonald, but made her swear that she wouldn’t tell anyone, especially Diane and Philippe. Lily told the rabbi who came to see her at the end that she’d revealed a dark secret of the Holocaust to Lorna, but she refused to tell him specifics. After Lily died, the rabbi demanded that Lorna reveal what it was. “He said it was part of the Jewish cause, that I had to tell him,” recalls Lorna. “But I couldn’t betray Lily’s wishes. I just couldn’t.”

“Lily didn’t seem to be [ruined], she seemed the most unscathed of any survivor I’ve ever encountered, at least outwardly,” says the writer
Fran Lebowitz, a close friend of Diane’s since the seventies. “Lily told a lot of very specific stories which would end with, ‘And so, I told Diane.’ She believed that she’d learned things in the concentration camp that could be applied to real life. To me that’s a heroic way of looking at it. The Holocaust is so morally grotesque that it doesn’t have an application to anything else, to the kinds of disappointments a person in regular circumstances could have.”

Lily often recounted the story of arriving at Auschwitz and her terror at being separated from the older woman to whom she’d clung, then realizing that the Nazi who’d separated them had saved her life. The lesson: what first appears to be a catastrophe may be a blessing in disguise, and the person who appears to be your deadliest enemy may be your redeemer.

Lily had two sets of tattooed numbers, which she had removed from her arm about ten years after the war, mostly because people stared at them, and that made her uncomfortable. A trace of black ink remained, but “no numbers,” says Philippe.

Like that black smudge, the horrors of the war stayed with her and with those who loved her. “She was so depleted, but also her family treated her like a baby,” says Tatiana. “They had a lot of guilt because she was the only one of them arrested, and she was the youngest. They were nurturing a side of her that she needed; she needed to be reparented.” But the coddling prevented her from becoming fully independent. She had nightmares. She could never be alone, and she always slept with the light on.

BOOK: Diane von Furstenberg
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