“SHE grabbed my arm and she said, ‘I trust you to tell my story’.”
That was Lotte Weiss’ response, recalled Joanna Fishman Auerbach, when she bounded up to Lotte at Montefiore Randwick a few years ago, eager to share how she “tells her story every time I guide [at the Sydney Jewish Museum (SJM)] because it is such an incredible one.”
“Her story has such a mix of guts and chutzpah and pure luck and strength – there is a lot in her story that helps to elucidate how people like Lotte survived.
“I was blown away when I had that experience with her. It went straight to the reasons why I am a guide.”
Throwing light on Lotte’s comment as the “passing of the baton”, Joanna said it was “almost like she was trusting the museum and the structure of the community by saying, ‘I don’t know this woman but I trust that there are people who will tell my story’ … It was very inspirational.”
Last Friday, Lotte Weiss handed the responsibility of sharing her story to future generations, when she passed away, aged 97.
On countless occasions, she told her remarkable story of survival and lessons in drawing meaning from adversity with schoolchildren and adults alike at the SJM.
Since her passing, Lotte’s son Johnny has been inundated with messages from those who were fortunate to have met his mother.
“Everybody wanted to be in her orbit. She didn’t have to say anything, Lotte just touched them through a kind of magic,” reflected Johnny.
Her presence and words helped to “lift people to a more optimistic outlook on life … She was unpretentious, she was herself”.
Such was Lotte’s radiant aura that Johnny’s wife, Thea, created a series of striking artworks documenting Lotte’s story, as articulated in the survivor’s autobiography, My Two Lives.
“Lotte remains in peoples’ homes and in peoples’ hearts … Someone who loves Lotte can keep [those artworks] and tell her story,” said Thea.
Born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Lotte was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 – where her parents and five siblings were murdered – before being transported to Birkenau and then to Theresienstadt.
As a founding member of the SJM, Lotte – who had two sons, Johnny and Gary, with her late husband, Ali, and is survived by six grandchildren and eight great grandchildren – was an “example of the triumph of the Jewish spirit”, said JCA president Ian Sandler.
Painting a glowing picture of Lotte as “one of the great Jewish legends of our times”, Central Synagogue’s Rabbi Levi Wolff shared in his eulogy: “Everyone was lifted by her love of life, gratitude for what she had … She inspired thousands of people with her spirit and lessons of losing life and rebuilding it,” he added.
One such person was Nicole Kidman, who toured the museum in 1999 with her mother Janelle and father, Anthony, then a clinical psychologist who “couldn’t understand how German civilisation could fall into the hands of a demagogue”, relayed Jonny.
When they arrived at the SJM, Lotte took one look at the towering Hollywood beauty before her, and exclaimed, “You look exactly like Nicole Kidman!”
A few years later, when the Hollywood star returned to the museum with Keith Urban, she specifically asked for Lotte.
“People wanted their families there because they wanted them to have that experience of being able to speak to Lotte,” said Thea.
Prior to arriving in Sydney, Lotte lived in Wellington, New Zealand until 1983.
Extending condolences to the Weiss family on behalf of the Holocaust Centre of New Zealand, CEO Chris Harris said Lotte was one of nine women included in the museum’s Auschwitz to Aotearoa exhibition, which continues to educate visitors about these women and their journeys.