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A Gift Close to My Heart

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By Heidi M. Nunnally

I have long held a gift from my mother.  Something that she passed down to me.  When I was a child and had a birthday party, mom always had gifts for all the other children. It’s only now that I see what sharing those gifts with other people means.

You see, my dear mother passed away at the age of 101 on September 26, 2022, leaving this earth on Rosh Hashanah.  Her name was Frances (Franziska) Huppert Nunnally, and she was a Survivor.

Mom left me with the gift of words.  With her now gone from her earthly existence, I realize I cannot sit on this gift and keep it to myself.  It’s important to continue sharing her words with others.  I cannot write like my mother, but I did not endure the heavy, awful life experience that she did under oppression and persecution by the Nazis.  I do have her stories, though, and I have felt them with empathy and compassion — two qualities so important to possess.  If her life is to have any impact on the world today, it seems almost vital that her stories continue to be shared.

In the days before my mother’s passing, I dug deep and felt the grief to come.  I shared my vulnerability with friends and family, and the outpouring of comforting thoughts, virtual hugs, and prayers for my mom reached my inner core.  The stories of her carefree youth came flooding back as I tried to prepare for the inevitable day that would come.

Mom grew up in Vienna, Austria.  A beautiful city.  A city of music, culture and Hapsburg history.  As a child, she would skip along the gilded hallways when visiting Schönbrunn Palace with her mama and papa.  She would accompany her mama on walks in the Vienna Woods where mushrooms were gathered for meals.  She donned dirndls, traditional trachtenwear of the country.  She played with her best friend, Mimi, and rode on the back of her brother’s motorcycle while eating hard candy.  She lived a secure life beneath the wings of her parents.  Until…

Oh, devious things were going on in Austria for a long time, but must a child be aware?  My grandparents did what they could to protect my mother, but what could they do when she was no longer allowed to attend school?  Or go to the movies?  Things became even more frightful on Kristallnacht.

The world changed in 1938.  Mom’s life changed.

Six months later, my mother would board a train at the Westbahnhof and, through the small glass window, see her papa cry for the first time.  At the tender age of 17, she was separated from her family, never to see them again.  Being on her own for the first time, she had to grow up quickly and find her own way.

Her parents felt helpless back in Vienna but wrote letters to Mom.  Handwritten on thin crepe paper that took weeks to reach her in England where they had been able to get her a position as an au pair.

When the War began, mail service was often suspended, and letters could no longer be sent.  But a way was always found to make sure they landed in her hands.  Perhaps it was the gentle words of encouragement from her mama or the upbeat mood of her papa that gave Mom the strength she needed to make a life for herself.

My mother found ways to survive, and even ways to enjoy living.  She cobbled shoes.  She made dolls.  She dated.  She was in the British Army for five years until just after WWII ended.  She attended dances with the Allied Forces.  She traveled.

Already a gifted writer, she honed her skills as an editorial assistant when she finally landed on U.S. soil.  She was a brilliant Wordsmith, reaching out to the world with her thoughtful tales of life in such a way that held you by the collar and said, “Listen to this.  It could save your life one day.”

Mom’s words have been even more meaningful in this past year.  She said to just do the best you can in this life.  Advice so simplistic, yet compelling and powerful. Now that Mom is gone, I have felt alone.  Then I ask myself, “What would my mama do?”  The answer is immediate.  She has endured so much more in her life than one can comprehend.  And she got through it.  I will get through this, too.

While I miss my mother dearly, I know she is watching over me.  Her words did not end when she died.

I hope by continuing to share her stories — and those of her mama, papa, and brother — that they will resonate with others in much the same way.

See more photos of Frances and family through the years.

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