Nearing 100, Holocaust survivor symbolizes perseverance
Grim days are scarcely foreign to Frances Nunnally, who was growing up in Nazi-occupied Austria until her parents sent her alone to England — and to what turned out to be the rest of her life — when she was 17.
She lived with a nice family, for whom she did housework and helped with the children, but she cried every morning, missing her parents.
“In England, it was very, very hard to be without them,” Nunnally recalled, but in the end it was more than merely a matter of homesickness.
“I never saw them again.”
Her father died of a heart condition at home in Vienna, not long before he was to be deported by the Nazis. Her mother was deported in 1941, and Nunnally learned later that she had been herded onto a train with other Jews, and once she arrived in Minsk, then part of Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, she and the others were taken into a forest and murdered by firing squad.
Her only sibling, a brother, was captured and sent to a series of Nazi concentration camps and never heard from again.
So while Nunnally is intimately familiar with hard times, the past year has been uniquely difficult.
In the year of pandemic, the one thing that did not afflict her was the coronavirus, although it did keep her home and away from friends, as it did most everyone else.
Since I last wrote about Nunnally in April 2020, she has lost a son, Vann, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a progressive neurodegenerative disease. She also has lost most of her vision, due to a condition affecting her optic nerve. Her hearing, already in decline, continues to betray her.
If that wasn’t enough, she lost her balance in the kitchen last month, tumbled backward and hit her head on the floor. She spent a few hours in the hospital but came home that night
“I still have a big bump here,” she said, rubbing her head. “There was nothing broken, but I had several places that really hurt.”
She paused: “What else could happen?”
Said Heidi Nunnally, her daughter and caregiver: “She’s just rallied, come back from it.”
As she has, it would seem, her entire life.
I wrote about Nunnally last April because I’d read her letters to the editor for years and knew she was a survivor of the Holocaust — a subject of many of her letters — but had never met her. When she wrote a personal letter to me about one of my columns, I had the opening to set up an interview.
She turned out to be a delightful and insightful yet humble person. As a friend and former co-worker of hers at the Christian Children’s Fund (a Henrico County-based global nonprofit now known as ChildFund International) said of Nunnally’s gentle, low-key nature, “CCF once sent her to an assertiveness-training seminar, but it never took.”
That interview also proved to be my last in someone’s home before the pandemic. I wrote last month about my first in-home interview in more than a year: a return to Nunnally’s South Richmond home. It seemed appropriate for a number of reasons including this one: She turns 100 at the end of June.
“I am amazed,” she said of being on the edge of 100. “Sometimes I wake up at night and say to myself, ‘How is that possible? That one can reach such an age.’
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing because you can experience some bad things when you get to an ancient age like this.”
One morning in April, the first email of the day arrived from my friend Nell O’Brien.
“Did you see Frances Nunnally’s letter today?” wrote O’Brien, who knows Nunnally only through her letters to the editor and last year’s story but is a big fan. “Bless her.”
A few weeks later, when I told O’Brien — who is in her mid-90s herself and who also has a deeply personal connection to WWII — that I would be visiting Nunnally, she wrote, “Please let her know how much I admire her.”
I had asked Heidi if her mother would be interested in a follow-up interview and story, and the response came from her mom in a way that you might expect: in writing.
“I am doing this letter by pure imagination,” she wrote in an amazingly steady hand, particularly considering her predicament. She told me of the problems with her eyesight, and thanked me again for last year’s story, which brought cards and letters from old friends and people she had never met. “A true rainbow of color and kind words.”
She wrote, “I can barely describe what it is like not to be able to see,” and ended with “Please forgive this scribbly writing!!!”
When photographer Bob Brown and I arrived at her home for the interview, she was more concerned with our well-being than hers. She worried whether we were comfortable sitting on the sofa. Would we prefer sitting at a table?
“Is it cool enough for you gentlemen?”
“Would you like a bigger light?”
She even thoughtfully collected a sampling of her letters to the editor and other papers (including several of her RTD “Correspondent of the Day” certificates) to send home with me in a plastic bag.
We assured her we were fine, as long as she was comfortable in her recliner.
“Things have radically changed,” she told us. “I can see your face, but the pictures on the wall are very blurry. And I cannot read the newspaper, and that’s a blow.”
Heidi, the youngest of her three children, is her lifeline to the world, scanning the newspaper and sharing the most salient details and “interpreting” everything her mother doesn’t fully hear — such as our questions — as her voice is what her mom can most easily tune into.
Despite everything, Nunnally’s eyes still dance and her face radiates a liveliness that belies her years.
She has had four letters to the editor published in the year since my earlier story, including one in February in which she wished a speedy recovery to England’s then-ailing Prince Philip, also 99, and noted, “We oldsters are of sturdy stock.”
We covered a lot of ground during our hourlong visit, starting with her childhood in Vienna, where she grew up Franzi Huppert and where life became hard when the Nazis showed up.
“We were forbidden to go to the movies, forbidden to go to the theater, forbidden to visit any parks,” she said. “Everything was forbidden. We were not allowed to go to school, and it went on and on. For a young teenager, that was a big punishment.”
To get her out of Austria, her parents placed an advertisement in an English newspaper and found a family willing to have her come work for them as an au pair. When England came under attack, she joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service, the women’s branch of the British army, cooking and cleaning for the soldiers.
She started keeping a daily journal as a teen in Vienna, writing in her native German, and she continued once she arrived in England, eventually transitioning to her adopted English, a language her mother insisted she learn as a schoolgirl.
Heidi has been reading some of her mother’s diaries, which is allowing her “to get to know her in a different way. I feel like I’m getting to know her as a young woman.
“She talks about going to the mess hall dances. She’s living the life of a young woman having fun and having passion for life. It’s kind of refreshing, and” — considering all that has happened in the past year — “it puts a smile on my face.”
Heidi pulled out one of the diaries, a small, leather-bound notebook filled with colorful tabs marking particular entries. She read one from Nov. 13, 1942:
“I had a letter from Auntie Louise today telling me that Grandmother, a woman of 86 years, had been sent to Poland by the Germans. It is unthinkable how she can stand the strain of such a journey, not to talk of the conditions awaiting her there perhaps. What has become of our family? Oh, those Germans. Not the entire soap and paint in this world would be sufficient to whitewash them of their misdeeds.”
She was 21 when she wrote that.
“What do you say to that?” Heidi said. “It just blows my mind. I’m in awe of somebody that age thinking this way and writing like this, and watching what she’s going through now …”
The conversation quickly swerved to something else, and Heidi didn’t have the opportunity to finish her thought, but I went back to her later and asked if she recalled what she was about to say.
“I do recall what I was about to say because I think about it all the time when I read the diaries — having to watch what she’s going through now with losing my brother and her health declining. Here she was at the beginning of her young life. When I read what she writes, I struggle with knowing what’s ahead for her.
“But her words help me get over that, because she was so hopeful. And even with what she’s experienced, she still is.”
After the war, Nunnally worked in England before landing a job with the Civil Censorship Division of the U.S. Army and was based in Germany, where she worked for almost two years.
After that job, she returned to England and awaited an opportunity to come to the United States in 1950. She eventually made her way to Richmond, through friends she made during the war, and met Aubrey Nunnally at a Saturday night dance. They married and had three children. Aubrey died in 2017.
Frances worked for more than 40 years at the Christian Children’s Fund, where she was primarily an editorial assistant and was known by some as the agency’s “poet laureate” because of her way with words.
She still has it.
Asked if she has any advice for younger generations, she started off by saying not everyone is interested in such guidance.
There is a “however,” however, and she said this:
“Just live each day and be thankful [to be] alive,” she said. “There are situations in life that are beyond what some people can even envision. I know the world is full of danger and full of things that we wish would never occur. However, just try and make the best of it.”
She, of course, did precisely that. But making the best of a horrible plight doesn’t mean forgetting it. One of the recurring themes in her letters to the editor is “never forget.”
“What I think about sometimes at night is my mother,” Nunnally said, specifically the way she was taken off the train and shot in cold blood.
She wonders: “What could her last thoughts have been?”
I asked Frances Nunnally if she believes one of the purposes of her long life has been to remind people what happened to her mother and millions of others.
“Oh,” she said, “I have reminded them.”