1) What inspired you to write your book?
When I started the guiding course at the Sydney Jewish Museum I was encouraged to tell my story. Many survivors were writing theirs. I started by writing just a few pages.
I wanted to explain to my children why I was different. When I showed my writing to the person in charge of Community stories she encouraged me to go and research and write more. That’s how I ended up producing a book.
2) Can you please tell us a little bit about the writing process and your research?
English is not my mother tongue so I had a friend who read my writings. Whenever she asked more questions I went to research them. I got in the habit and one discovery led to more questions and more research. I became so excited when I found an important event that had been recorded and had survived. There were sadly many disappointments due to documents which had been destroyed or had disappeared.
3) I currently study a course about identity in Hebrew literature, which means we discuss feelings of identity a lot.
I wondered, especially as your book title is “A Hidden Jewish Child from Belgium”, do you still consider yourself Belgian and do you still speak French?
I have very ambiguous feelings about my identity. I still hold a Belgian passport. I don’t know Belgium as it is now. An exemple is that there was no Metro when I left. The roads have changed and I don’t know my way around Brussels where I will return next week as a complete tourist after 60 years away . Australia is my home. I would never consider leaving. I love Australia where I found happiness. I still speak French however it is antiquated as the language has evolved.
4) It struck me in your talk, when you mentioned the time you spent as a small child in a strong Catholic setting. When did you then learn about the Jewish faith and practices and how did this impact on your life?
At home in Belgium we didn’t keep any of the rituals. My maternal father went to the synagogue and prayed in a strange language. We had a Passover dinner with lots of praying where we had to keep quiet and were asleep by the time the food was served. First time I saw Shabbat candles lit was after I arrived in Australia. I eventually went to courses to learn more about my religion to keep up with my children. I am forever learning.
5) One thing several Holocaust Survivors have mentioned to me, is their years of missed formal education. I felt very sorry for the young Francine having to catch up at school. Can you please tell us about how you picked up your education?
Indeed I felt so terribly inferior to everyone because I had had no education. I had gathered my knowledge from the many books I had collected but that was not enough. I went to night school and studied one or two subjects at a time over a long period until I was able to sit for final high school exams and was accepted to university. Those were heady days. I was happiest. Exchanging ideas. Learning how to think. Meeting the giants of thought. I loved my days at university.
6) My sister actually returned from Melbourne a few days ago. In her article, Yael Brender quotes you as saying, of your arrival in Australia: “The sun was just starting to shine, and it was so beautiful. And I knew that I would love it”. What are some of the emotions that you associate with Australia?
I love Australia with all my heart. It is my home. It is the place where I found happiness for the first time in my life. Australia is so beautiful and Sydney its foremost jewel. I am so lucky to be living there. I often thank my lucky stars who sent me there.
7) To what extent did you find writing your book cathartic?
It wasn’t totally cathartic because there were so many gaps I couldn’t fill. Also I discovered so many horrific events as I was researching. I continue speaking about the book and my story because as I get older there is an urgency to explain in the hope that people will learn from these events and not repeat them.
8) Your family must be immensely proud of you. How has their support contributed?
My children and grandchildren are my greatest fans and admirers. They follow me to talks although they have heard it so many times.
Cindy and Jason looked at and corrected many pages, Michael busied himself by setting up a website and publicising my events. They are all wonderful and very supportive.
Photographs below by Maurice Hoffman