When Erika Hecht started talking about her childhood, her voice dropped a few decibels.
“Are you sure you want to talk about that?” she asked.
Hecht was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1934. Her earliest memory is from age 3 and a half, standing in a Catholic church in 1938 with her mother. Little Erika thought the holy water font in the church narthex was a birdbath.
Hecht and her mother were at the church to convert from Judaism to Catholicism. Her mother, then a single parent after divorcing her father, thought an official conversion, which would be noted on the pair’s official paperwork, would keep them safer during the Nazi occupation of their country.
“I could feel my mother’s fear,” Hecht said.
Hecht was one of Hungary’s hidden children, which meant “you had a different identity, either because some family was willing to hide you,” or because your own family had the means to do so.
In Hecht’s case, the false paperwork bearing a different name for Hecht, her mother and her half-sister, who was born after her mother remarried, came from Hecht’s father, who by then had the financial means to procure them.
“It meant you had to learn you were not who you were,” Hecht said.
Hecht didn’t want to disclose the name she had to adopt to survive. She, her mother, her grandmother and her half-sister moved to a village where her father owned large chunks of real estate; they had to pretend to be strangers to one another when they passed on the street. “We were forbidden to acknowledge each other.”
Hecht’s mother refused to leave the house out of fear, Hecht said.
The family survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary, and Hecht went on to attend medical school in Vienna and became a doctor. During medical school, she took her birth name again and revoked her formal Catholic identity and went through a ceremony to rejoin her Jewish faith, but, unable to shake the trauma of the Holocaust, her mother never did.
“Most survivor families are searching for a normal life” in the aftermath of the atrocities of the Holocaust, Hecht said. “I don’t think any of us really achieved it.”
Asked to define “a normal life,” Hecht said, “It’s when you can sit down for breakfast, lunch and dinner and nobody bothers you. That was my mother’s idea of it.”
Hecht met a Canadian in Vienna and fell in love with him. After they married, they went to Montreal, where they had three children, fell in with the Jewish population there, and started coming to Stowe with friends. Hecht’s medical license wasn’t valid in Canada, so instead, she started a successful interior design business, which she sold when she decided to build a house and move to Stowe full-time.
With all those different times swirling in her mind, Hecht was grateful for a stable life, although she’s always felt rootless.
“You try having an identity” after all that happened to her, she said. “I’m not the kind of person who is going to belong anywhere.”
That feeling has been stamped on her soul since she came out of hiding. Hecht says she and her mother both had post-traumatic stress disorder, although it manifested in different ways.
Hecht didn’t talk or think much about her time as a hidden child in Hungary until she heard of a conference in New York City in 1991 — “it was the first hidden child conference,” Hecht said, and she couldn’t let the opportunity slip through her fingers. Others had connected and discovered a common experience growing up, and she wanted to know if there was a sizable community of former hidden children who were, in many ways, still hidden.
Hecht attended, along with 1,600 others. There were workshops that addressed trauma and storytelling, among other aspects of being an adult survivor of what Hecht describes as “a serious trauma that we have all endured.”
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing experience,” she said. “Everybody wanted to know how you survived.”
Filmmaker Rudy Vegliante, after hearing stories the hidden children told, approached them about making a documentary. Forty of the hidden children — including Hecht, who is still an active member of the hidden children’s group — agreed to tell their stories.
The film was released in May 2016 and won an Emmy last year. “It feels very good,” Hecht said. It’s important to her that people see the film “because people should be informed. There’s so much misinformation out there, and it’s so much more comfortable to forget these things and their awful implications.”
Hecht said that, since genocide is still being committed in some parts of the world, the hidden children’s stories are just as important as ever.
“I do not want people to forget it, but I do want them to think of it in the context of today,” Hecht said.
“Remember Us: The Hungarian Hidden Children” will be shown tonight, Thursday, Jan. 26, at the Jewish Community of Greater Stowe on Cape Cod Road, starting at 7 p.m. with remarks by Erika Hecht.