Writer, director, film and television producer.
Four Girls from Berlin: A True Story of a Friendship That Defied the Holocaust, John Wiley (Hoboken, NJ), 2007.
Marianne Meyerhoff writes, directs, and produces television and feature films. She was one of the interviewers working for Stephen Spielberg on his oral history project Survivors of the Shoah, or Holocaust, a project that was of personal interest to her because of her own family history.
In 1994, one year after Spielberg finished filming his Academy Award-winning film Schindler's List, he created the Shoah Visual History Foundation to fulfill his dream of collecting eyewitness testimony from Holocaust survivors. Meyerhoff was among those who collected over 50,000 interviews from a wide range of survivors, including prisoners, rescuers, liberators, and other witnesses.
Meyerhoff's family history had been shrouded in mystery from her childhood. She knew her mother, Lotte, a German Jew who spoke little English, had come to America during World War II, but Lotte was unwilling to talk about her experiences and told Meyerhoff very little. Since her parents had divorced and her father was absent, Meyerhoff, who by then was living in Los Angeles, had no one to ask about the past.
The unexpected arrival of a package from Germany was a happy surprise for Lotte. It had been sent by three German Christian women who had befriended Lotte during the war. It had been dangerous for them to collect and preserve Lotte's personal family items—photographs, documents, and other artifacts—but they had done so, and had sent them to Lotte as reminders and keepsakes. Although this gift softened Lotte enough that she began to speak about her past to her daughter, it was not until after her death that Meyerhoff finally was able to uncover the full story. After Lotte died, Meyerhoff went to Germany to find her mother's old friends and to complete her mother's story. From this pilgrimage she wrote her first book, Four Girls from Berlin: A True Story of a Friendship That Defied the Holocaust.
Four Girls from Berlin intertwines Lotte's story with an account of Meyerhoff's personal experiences and her growing relationship with her mother's three friends, Ilonka, Erica, and Ursula. In 1938, after her family and friends were murdered by the Nazis, Lotte attempted to escape from Germany to Cuba, where her husband was, but she was turned back and imprisoned at the Westerbork detention camp in Holland. Three German Christian girls befriended her and helped her to escape from the camp and, eventually, to the United States. Meyerhoff interweaves this story with her account of traveling to Germany to meet with her mother's friends and the warmth she feels in reconnecting to her own and her mother's past through them.
Meyerhoff told CA: "My father, a German Jew, had sailed for Cuba to gain employment and set up a household. The plan was for my mother, Lotte, to follow him six months later. It was 1939 when Lotte sailed on the infamous voyage of the St. Louis. There were almost 1,000 Jewish men, women, and children aboard—families who thought they had now escaped the Nazi terror. Before the Nazis came to power in 1933, Lotte's father had been a distinguished professor at Humboldt University and a real power in Berlin academic and art circles, but 1939 was late in the game. By then, his career had been taken from him and he had become impoverished. But he managed to sell off his major stamp collection at extortionary prices to buy passage for her on the ill-fated ship. When the St. Louis reached Cuba, it was ordered out of Havana Harbor by the Cuban authorities. It was never meant for the passengers to be allowed to disembark. The Nazis had set the voyage up before the ship sailed as a propaganda ploy to demonstrate to the world that Germany was not the only country who did not want the Jews. The ship returned to Europe where Lotte was interred in Westerbork Camp. How she escaped and made her way back to Cuba and her husband, who thought she was dead, is a story in itself. From Cuba they made their way to Florida in 1941, where I was born.
"My father enlisted in the U.S. Army while I was an infant, and he was sent back to Europe. I do not remember him. My mother was loath to tell her child about the past horror, and I grew up without a sense of family or relatives, unlike my friends who had normal families with grandparents, and uncles, and cousins.
"This all changed at the war's end with the unexpected arrival of a huge package from Berlin. Lotte's three childhood girlfriends, Christians all, had gone regularly to my father's house under grave danger of being thrown in a concentration camp by the Gestapo, or worse, to bring him food. Each time they left, he gave them something to smuggle out with them: keepsakes, photograph albums, hundreds of documents, Judaica, my whole family history dating back more than two centuries. The dangerous games my mother's girlfriends had played to preserve my family history and give it to my mother at war's end, opened the door a little for her to tell me about her family, all of whom had been killed in the Holocaust, and those wonderful girls."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Library Journal, June 15, 2007, Frederic Krome, review of Four Girls from Berlin: A True Story of a Friendship That Defied the Holocaust, p. 80.
Publishers Weekly, May 14, 2007, review of Four Girls from Berlin, p. 41.
Wiley & Sons Web site,http://www.wiley.com/ (April 13, 2008), author profile.