While other children were playing jacks and hopscotch with their peers, five-year-old Michele Willner Levy was playing the quiet game with her mother.
“We’d stand against an inside wall and we weren’t allowed to speak,” she recalls. “We’d only whisper until she felt that things were clear.”
It really wasn’t a game at all. The year was 1944. World War II was raging. Michele and her mother, Frieda, were in hiding at a home in the French countryside. Every time the Nazis deployed their death squads to round up more Jews, the quiet game became a necessary exercise in survival.
“You never knew what was around the corner,” says Levy. “You did your best to avoid what was around the corner and live whatever life you could.”
By that time, Frieda had been holding her breath for years. In 1933, she fled her native Germany with her husband to be (and eventual father to Michele), Charles Willner, leaving behind her beloved parents and brother, Salo.
Frieda and Charles enjoyed a few years of wedded bliss in Paris, and rejoiced in the birth of Michele in 1938, just weeks after Kristallnacht. But there would be very little to celebrate in the years that followed. Charles was separated from the family. Frieda and Michele escaped Paris just as the city fell into the clutches of the Nazis. There was sickness, hardship, hunger, fear, and then, finally, the news that would break Frieda’s heart.
Now a resident of Allentown, Pennsylvania, Michele Willner Levy is the keeper of her family’s history. As she came of age she was aware of her ties to that dark chapter in world history, but, as an adult she discovered a series of letters written to her mother from her grandparents; letters that brought the atrocities of the Nazis and their aftermath into crystal clear focus.
“Letters to Frieda” is the latest project being developed by Julian Farris Films, an Allentown-based production house that has several award-winning documentaries and short films under its belt. The film, when completed, will air on WFMZ-TV on January 27th, 2015, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
“We are honored that Michele Willner Levy has entrusted us to convey her family’s unique history,” says Jaccii Farris, president of Julian Farris Films. “She is a voice for all of those who were lost.”
Initially one of the Holocaust’s youngest survivors, Levy is now among its last; she is a vital living link to that period in time. Her story is also a cautionary tale of what humankind is capable of doing during its darkest hours. It’s a timeless message that still resonates today, decades after Hitler’s barbaric campaign shocked the world. It speaks to the clear and present danger of the destruction that hatred and prejudice continue to make possible all over the globe.
“We have to make sure this never happens again,” says Levy.
Julian Farris Films is counting on the generosity of the community to help propel this worthwhile project to the finish line. A fundraising campaign to help defray production costs is now in full swing. All donations are tax deductible through the Haydenfilms Institute. They can be made online, via the film’s PayPal campaign.
A portion of the money raised will benefit the Holocaust Resource Center of the Lehigh Valley. The project also includes an educational supplement that can be used in Pennsylvania classrooms, dovetailing with recent legislation encouraging Holocaust education in Pennsylvania schools.
Those who wish to donate by check can mail checks to:
9999 Hamilton Boulevard
One TEK Park, Suite 230
Breinigsville, PA 18031
Please write “Letters to Frieda” in the memo line.