Remembering Olly & Mimmi
I had just walked through Auschwitz- Birkenau and seen things that I could never have imagined in my worst nightmares.
I was 19 years old and visiting Poland on a Heritage trip- to witness the destruction of Jewish life in Europe under the hands of the Nazis, and to learn about the rich history of Jewish culture and life before the war.
I was sitting on the floor of a room that was filled to the ceiling with Nazi collected photographs of people who had been murdered within the boundaries of the camp. I stared up all of the faces- none I had ever seen before. Many, whose resemblance seemed familiar to me. My people had been murdered here.
At the moment I was sitting on the floor, overwhelmed with sorrow, my teacher handed me a letter that she had secretly collected from my grandmother. It was written for this exact moment– to share with me my connection to this horrible place. My Oma, a Shoah survivor, wrote to me about the 70 members of our family who had been murdered in Auschwitz.
I would like to tell you about two incredible women from my family who were killed.
My great grandmother Sophie, for whom I was named, had three sisters. Lydia, Hedwig Golda (nicknamed Mimmi), and Reizel (nicknamed Olly). They were all born in Prague, Czechoslovakia.
They were born to an Orthodox family and the girls were sent to school and to college with the expectation that they would be professional, working women, in the early 1900s. It was very unusual. Sophie was a community worker, working for women’s social services, Lydia and Olly became medical doctors, and Mimmi became a doctor of Law.
My great-great aunts, Olly, born in 1899, and Mimmi, born in 1907, never married.
Sophie was living in Germany and Lydia in Slovakia, but Olly and Mimmi were living in Prague when the Nazis invaded and were caring for their elderly father, as their mother Esther had recently died. Before their mother’s death, Olly was forced to close her medical practice that they had in their home, and Mimmi was dismissed from her place of work. They all moved into a tiny apartment together. Olly continued to practice and visit people’s homes, offering free medical service for those who could not afford to pay. When Jews were not allowed to go to the local hospitals for treatment, Olly was recruited as one of the doctors for a Jewish hospital that the Jews built. Mimmi was appointed to be the hospital administrator.
With time, they were concerned that the Nazis would transport them to Poland, and the last letters that came to their sister Lydia, were panicked and written in code, “I am afraid of Auntie Poldi.” They thought they would be rounded up and deported, but instead, they were transported to Theresienstadt in November 1941.
Mimmi and Olly were never heard from again. They were sent to Auschwitz in 1942 and immediately gassed upon arrival. Their lives were ended in an instant.
Today I am thinking about them and the legacy they left us and remembering the 6 million Jews that were murdered alongside my family in the Shoah.
May their memory be for a blessing. Zachor.
**Thank you to my mom Jeanne and my cousin Zehavit for sharing this story and photos with me.
Shira Lankin Sheps grew up in New Jersey and went to Stern College for women. After graduating from Hunter College School of Social Work with her MSW in clinical social work, she worked in the clinical field, in marketing and photojournalism.
She decided to start The Layers Project to help break down stigma and promote healing within our Jewish community.
She feels strongly about presenting women, who are so often shown as shallow characters or fully removed from Jewish media spaces, as three-dimensional individuals whose lives are full and rich with resilience.
Shira made aliyah with her family two years ago to Jerusalem.
Headshot taken by Tzipora Lifchitz.