Author of Holocaust memoirs, now an Atria resident

By PAULETTE SCHNEIDER

Atria Riverdale resident Renée Fersen Osten has become an expert in what she calls “re-normalizing” in new and different circumstances.

The 78-year-old Holocaust survivor has already written several memoirs—about her life as a hidden child, sheltered along with her older sister, Yvonne, in a French convent during World War II and about her new post-war life, miraculously reunited with her father, grandmother, and finally her mother, who had been tortured by the experiments of Joseph Mengele in Auschwitz.

In a chic black dress and lace stockings that highlight her still-glamorous legs, the soft-spoken Osten rolled a piece of carryon luggage up to the large table in the Atria’s private dining room. She withdrew several framed photographs and a few of the books she authored and carefully placed them on the red tablecloth, then transferred her serving of cranberry juice from its plastic cup into a glass goblet she found on the table.

She treasures her photographs, especially those depicting her as a young ballerina, holding one leg pointed high in the air. Though she stopped dancing “a few years ago,” those memories are vibrant and she keeps the ballerina photos on the walls of her apartment. Once her artistic direction switched from dance to writing, Osten produced six books, some published in her native France.

In “Don’t They Know the World Stopped Breathing? Reminiscences of a French Child During the Holocaust Years,” Osten recalls a small, flat metal box and its cache of family photographs and keepsakes, kept hidden under the mattress during her stay at the convent.

The compelling book describes her first ambivalence—as a “happy little girl” forced into a “very restricted” convent environment, with its Spartan menu and metal dishes, then her new ambivalence—as observant Catholics accustomed to convent routines, she and her sister, still in their drab uniforms, were escorted after the war to a Jewish orphanage where boys and girls wore all manner of colorful clothing, chose their own food from an abundant buffet and heaped it on earthenware plates.

Osten’s papa, Maurice, and mama, Annette, took every opportunity to send notes to the daughters the left in the care of the nuns. Mama managed to hand an amber necklace for Renee and a gold watch for Yvonne enclosed in a note to a local baker before boarding a truck filled with other Jews imprisoned by the Nazis. Papa managed to drop a note out of a truck bound for a camp in Poland, and a passerby forwarded the note to the girls. “If you read this book, you will learn so much,” Osten said, “because all the feelings are in it.”

Osten presented a precious photo of her family, taken in their New Rochelle home—her husband, Bernard, “whom I don’t have any more,” she said, her son, Marc, and her daughter, Caren Osten Gerszberg, who writes about travel and education for The New York Times.

She is again ambivalent. Like many newcomers to senior residences, she must adapt to the change in lifestyle. That process might be a suitable topic for her next book. “I have to figure out how I feel about the place that I’m at,” she said. “I think I would focus on trying to re-normalize under different circumstances.”

“I’m planning to start to write, but in order for me to do that, I have to make a plan,” she continued. She may start out with an article. “I would write how it feels to be in a place like this,” she said.

Meanwhile, Osten is eager for others to view ABC’s recent “20/20″ documentary featuring her experience as a hidden child.

“Don’t They Know the World Stopped Breathing?” as well as a sequel, “Seeds Into the Wind: A Young French Girl Begins a New Life in America After the Holocaust” and “A Plant Uprooted Can No Longer Hug the Ground” are available at amazon.com.

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