Her name was Regina and she was the first woman whose story inspired me to write The Porcelain Doll. She once worked in the main office of my children’s elementary school. Every year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, she volunteered at The Edwards’ Homestead in Sayville for their Christmas open house. Regina would tell visitors about her childhood in Germany. Surrounded by spinning advent pyramids and cookies, she told about how her mother would hide a pickle in the Christmas tree each year and how the child who found the pickle first would be rewarded with an extra treat. Every year, I would bring my Girl Scout troop to visit her. And, as many of them knew her from their elementary school to be the kind German lady in the office, they had a special fondness for her that was, likewise, returned. Ever curious and wanting the children to know more, I would ask her questions and those questions led to amazing stories about her childhood. Each year we would return and she would greet us with “It’s my Girl Scouts!” and every year we would ask her to tell us the story of the porcelain doll again.
She had a porcelain doll. One day, she was supposed to be watching the desk at her father’s inn, but instead, she left to go to her friend’s house and brought her doll with her. When her father returned and saw that his daughter had left the front desk unattended, he grew very angry. He then found her at her friend’s house and in his anger he took the doll from her and dropped it. To Regina’s horror, the face cracked. She told us that there used to be a place that would repair broken porcelain dolls, but because it was during the war, all of the factories were making ammunition so her doll was never fixed.
At the end of the war, she and her family became refugees as the Soviet Army approached. Her family was lucky, her father had been chosen as one of the few men who would accompany the women and children as they escaped. But life was difficult on the run. She told us about how she would dig down in a farmer’s field to take one potato, “Only one potato so that the farmer wouldn’t find out.” That potato would be dinner for her family. Another time her brother shot a crow with his slingshot and that crow somehow became dinner for three nights for their family. Eventually, she made her way to America. She never went home again and she never saw her porcelain doll again. But many years later, a relative visited her from Germany and brought her a new porcelain doll. I don’t know where she lived in Germany, but it must have been somewhere along the eastern front. She has passed away, and all of my efforts to find her family to ask them questions while writing The Porcelain Doll have failed. So I put my imagination to work, and using the kernels of her story, I began to write my novel.
Erika is the second woman who inspired The Porcelain Doll. She is the mother of a dear friend of mine. Erika was a child in Hungry in the 1940s. I believe she said her grandparents lived in Czechoslovakia at the time. Erika told me that when the Nazis came to take her grandparents away, her grandmother wrote a note and gave it to a neighbor along with her gold wedding band. She asked the neighbor to somehow get the note to her son in Hungry and told him to keep the ring as payment. She never knew that the note made it to her son, because she and her husband died in a concentration camp. But the note did make it and it said, “They have come for us, surely to take us to our deaths. Save the children.”
Erika’s father placed his two daughters in a convent for their protection. His wife hid in another convent and he was taken to a work camp. The family survived the war and stayed in Hungry. But in 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, Erika left Hungry on her own. She took a train as far as she could and then walked over land to cross the border into Austria. She walked for a long time, until her feet bled. At times, there were bullets flying over her head. But she made it to a sister convent of the one she had been hidden in during the war. The nuns there helped her secure passage on a ship to America. She arrived in America and then lived for a time with her relatives. She said she never told her mother that these relatives didn’t treat her well. It seemed to her that they didn’t approve of her because having lived in the convent for those formative years, she “wasn’t Jewish enough” for them. Erika met a wonderful man and married him. Her husband owned clothing stores in SoHo and they raised two daughters of their own who both grew up to be doctors. But at the end of our conversation she asked me, “You aren’t going to use my name, are you?” It was then that I realized that this 85-year-old woman was still a hidden child. So when I wrote the dedication to the book, I asked her daughter to show it to her to see if she would give me permission to use her first name. She said that she would be honored.
The final woman who inspired this story was my mother. She never lived in Germany, she was born in Brooklyn. But in the last years of her life, she struggled with Alzheimer’s. When the character, Issy Brummel from The Porcelain Doll, starts to exhibit signs of memory loss, I made the painful journey along with her. Watching someone lose their independence to this debilitating disease and to see it rob them of the essence of who they are, makes loved ones feel helpless. We come to realize how precious each memory is and the importance of writing down the stories that are threatened to be forgotten.
And so, to these three women I say thank you for the inspiration. Thank you for each being strong women in your own ways. And most of all, thank you for sharing your memories with me.