This is one of those amazing stories where you don’t quite know where to begin.
She was born in 1909 to a family living on the outskirts of Paris; her father Jewish, her mother from French aristocratic origins. Her name was ODETTE BERNSTEIN , and like all girls of her class, she was expected to remain at home, a dutiful daughter, until she got married. This did not suit her at all, and in the early 1930’s she left home, found herself a rich boyfriend,and set up a millinery business at 4, Rue Balzac, close to the Champs Elysees, and at the same time , changed her name from Odette Bernstein, to FANNY BERGER.
Her business prospered until the German Occupation of Paris in 1940, when life became very difficult indeed. Persecution of the Jews meant that she had to register as Jewish; and she was forced to hand over her business to an Aryan administrator. By 1943, she was rendered homeless, jobless and penniless, her bank account confiscated. Deciding to try and escape to the Free Zone, she tried to leave, but was caught and imprisoned. For fourteen months she was kept in various concentration camps, and was then shipped off to Auschwiz in a cattle truck, on the 18th of July 1943, from which she never returned.
Extremely little evidence remains of her life and talent. There are only two photographs of her as an adult…..
and a couple of scraps of headed notepaper. An entry of her existence and registration of being a Jew, held in some obscure French archive, are all that remain, apart from two examples of her hats, now housed in the Galliera museum in Paris.
ARTIST’S IMPRESSIONS OF THE TWO HATS IN PARIS MUSEUM
Her Great niece, Catherine Bernstein has made a film about Fanny’s life.This is obtainable from the distributor Nahan Laufern: see contact details at the end of this piece. **********************************
At one of the antiques fairs I regularly attend, I bought, back in 1995, a small black straw hat with a few tatty feathers attached, because the label appealed to me, with faint echoes of Follies Bergere.
Some fifteen years later, having retired from commercial life, and having a bit more time available, I started doing research on some of the labels in hats from the collection. I was astounded by the story above, which was revealed when I Googled ‘FANNY BERGER’. By an amazing twist of fate, I made my discovery on holocaust day ! **************
At the beginning of 2016, I attended the Study Day and AGM of the Southern Counties Costume Society. One of the speakers was Professor Lou Taylor, from Brighton University, talking about the Paris Couturiers during the German Occupation of the city in 1940. One of our committee members had asked me to bring my Fanny Berger hat, as an example of couture millinery of the time.
Unbeknown to each other, Professor Taylor and I had each made a study of the life of Fanny Berger and her tragic story; and she had dedicated her talk to the memory of this brave and talented woman.
Imgine then, the astonishment with which Lou Taylor regarded this little black straw hat
when she began her talk. She was not aware of its existence, and to date, it is only the third example known of Fanny’s work .
Catherine Bernstein’s film of her great aunt’s life life is available from firstname.lastname@example.org
It is with permission from Catherine Bernstein herself that I use the two pictures of Fanny, and the sad scraps of letterheading , which are all that remain of her.
I publish this today…..27th January 2017 ….Holocaust day. Exactly seventy two years since Auschwitz and all its horrors was revealed.
WE MUST NEVER FORGET