By David Rosenfeld
Marianne Klein was about the same age as Anne Frank when the Nazis invaded Europe. While little Anne hid in an Amsterdam attic with her family and penned her famous diary, 12-year-old Klein took refuge alone in the top floor of a bombed out apartment building in Budapest, Hungary. Her only food for weeks was a moldy loaf of bread.
Today, Klein lives in a quaint apartment north of Montana, which she shared for many years with her late husband Leonard. She sat down with us recently to talk about her memoir and her incredible life story.
“I didn’t really want to learn about Anne Frank or hear anything about the Holocaust for many years,” she said, pouring a cup of tea. “It wasn’t until a few months ago I discovered that Anne Frank and my father died around the same time at the same concentration camp. Who knows? Maybe they knew each other.”
Klein puts down the tea kettle and comes to the table where she’s laid out a tray of cookies and grapes. In her autobiography All the Pretty Shoes released by Wyatt-McKenzie last year, Klein recalls how she was locked in a synagogue with her father and hundreds of other Jews for two days without food and water or bathrooms. At one point a woman gave birth. The next day she watched Nazi soldiers shove her father into a cattle car and take him away, never to be seen again.
The book chronicles the journey of young Marika Roth, Klein’s birth name and the one she pens the book under, from the ashes of Europe and her tumultuous teenage years to how she made her way to Montreal, Canada and eventually to the Westside. As her story unfolds, surviving the war turns out to be just the beginning of a dramatic and extraordinary life.
“Her narrative holds us captive throughout one hell of a ride: betrayal, sexual predators, love affairs, a modeling career, kidnapping of her children…not to be missed,” writes Tova Laiter, producer of The Scarlet Letter and Varsity Blues.
By far the most compelling part of Klein’s story involves how she physically survived the Nazi occupation as a young girl. The title of the book, All the Pretty Shoes, comes from an event recorded in history books. On Jan 8, 1945, while Klein hid in the nearby bushes she witnessed a mass execution where victims were forced to remove their shoes before they were shot and their bodies fell into the Danube. To commemorate the victims to this day, there is a park called Shoes on the Danube Promenade, where rows of iron shoes are on display.
“Often I’ve asked myself if I could go through that again, and the answer is absolutely not,” she said. “As a child you have less fear because you don’t know the dangers. You’re not anticipating anything. I guess I just had a survival instinct. I adored my father. What made me fight was the chance to see my father again.”
In her memoir, All the Pretty Shoes, Klein describes how just days before she witnessed the massacre by the Danube she was herself a victim of a mass killing when the Nazis barged into the Swedish-protected housing complex where she was taking refuge and executed all the tenants. Here again Klein displayed her incredible instinct of survival as she pretended to lay dead for hours among the bodies before sliding away.
“When she first sent me the manuscript I read it in one sitting,” said Nancy Cleary, president and founder of Wyatt-McKenzie Publishing. “I couldn’t believe it. And the more I got to know her, the more the whole experience gave me goose-bumps.”
The publishing company, based in Oregon, supports mainly women authors who write memoirs. Out of all the writers Cleary’s worked with over the past 16 years, she said Klein is one of the women she’s most proud of. A professor at Penn State is now using the book in a course about the Holocaust and Klein occasionally speaks at local schools and community events, she said.
“She’s out there being this ambassador, sharing her story with kids who were her same age,” Cleary said. “It’s the little girl who survived.”
Little Marika wrapped her feet in newsprint and snuck around Budapest for weeks after escaping the massacre on the Danube. She made her way into the suburbs where she found refuge in an abandoned apartment building and later with families in various bomb shelters. Each night she’d claim it was too late to walk home under curfew and ask to spend the night, not revealing she was Jewish.
Several close calls with Nazi soldiers depicted in the book would be fitting for a Hollywood movie as she relies on a quick wit and fearlessness to evade capture. When the Russians seized Hungary from the Germans an estimated 40,000 civilians were killed and 50,000 women and girls were raped.
After the war ended, young Marika soon discovered most of her family had perished. That’s when she and a group of girlfriends went to France where they received financial support as refugees. In Paris, she did whatever she could to survive, including stealing. At the Jewish immigration center she forged checks for her friends that were no longer eligible.
“It’s not something I’m proud of, but it was my survival instinct,” she said. “I needed friends. I needed to feel like I belonged. I needed love. Because no one ever protected me as a child or as a younger woman, I never had anyone to take my side. Once you’re an orphan you fall out of society. There was no protection for anyone like that.”
Klein depicts several instances of rape or attempted rape as a teenager and young adult, beginning with the horrible events of the war. At one point in her life Klein thought about being a nun, that was, until a priest tried to molest her.
“Then I got very angry with God,” she said. “If there was a God why are these things happening. I thought the best thing I could do was have my very own private God. For me God was being the best person you can be, to be kind and honest and decent. And that’s when you represent what we think of God.”
She changed her name to Marianne by the time she arrived in Montreal, Canada where in her eagerness to have a family, she became a teenage mother with two children by a man she soon divorced. Then tragedy befell her personally that rivaled the war when her ex-husband kidnapped her children aged 4 and 5 at the time. Klein would not see them again for another eight years until at last she found them living in a foster home. She said part of writing the memoir was not only to share her Holocaust story but also to tell her side of her story as a mother to her children.
“I wrote it for them actually. I wanted them to understand me more,” she said. “For the longest time, they had the impression that I abandoned them. To this day they don’t fully want to believe that they were kidnapped.”
Today Klein continues to paint and write screenplays. She has art exhibits and belongs to Women in Film, a non-profit whose purpose is to empower, promote and mentor women in the entertainment and media industries. In our interview, Klein reflected on her feelings on love and hate.
“Hatred is always rampant in human beings,” she said. “I think it makes people feel strong. They find love weakness and hate strength. I came to the conclusion on my own that you can’t go on with life hating and complaining and thinking negative things. So I made a conscious effort to live my life the best way I can with love.”