Excerpt: Makeup Tips From Auschwitz How Vanity Saved My Mother’s Life by Tommy Schnurmacher

My mother who looked like Elizabeth Taylor and sounded like Zsa Zsa Gabor was a gutsy and outspoken woman, eccentric, narcissistic and a Holocaust survivor. She was so overprotective that to this day I cannot ride a bike or drive a car. She was supportive enough to bequeath me enough chutzpah required to avoid a war over the lyrics to John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance. My memoir is a humorous look at a tumultuous relationship between mother and son.


Darn. It was too late to pick up a plastic-wrapped Mondo Kosher smoked salmon and cream cheese on a bagel at Second Cup. I was already huffing and puffing along a rain-swept Greene Avenue worried about arriving late for my 2 o’clock appointment with my psychologist, one Dr. Rebecca Melman-Hellman.

She is no relation to the Hellman mayonnaise empire and when I made the rookie mistake of asking if she was, I had to spend 30 minutes of the expensive session defending myself. Dr. Melman-Hellman was thoroughly convinced that I was not really interested in her family background, but only using the question to mask my covert hostility.

Covert? It was overt. Believe me, it was not so much hostility directed at Melman-Hellman. It was more annoyance at myself that I was paying her $150 an hour.

I must confess I was addicted to this woman. My addiction to Melman-Hellman started when I spotted her at some well-meaning  caregiver seminar offered to “members of the general public” in a  crowded mini-auditorium of the Jewish General Hospital.

The seminar topic was the impact of the Holocaust on the second generation.

 I had been invited to be one of the speakers but I did not have to accept.  I had a choice. Had I wanted to, I could have opted instead to attend a free matinee performance by the Cirque du Soleil but I loathe the Cirque du Soleil. I can’t stand all those fit young acrobats jumping about. They are always so deadly earnest, staring straight ahead with eyes wide open trying to look profound while hanging on to some 20 foot tie-dyed shmata that is billowing from the rafters. Since I could simply not stomach said Cirque and since I was indeed a child of Holocaust survivors, I reluctantly agreed to be one of the speakers.

I was in awe of how they had triumphed over unspeakable horrors. I admired their amazing resilience and remarkable courage. Like any child of Holocaust survivors, I had been told often enough that I had an obligation to never forget. What was I never told until decades later was that the job of a child is to be a child.  

Some survivors don’t like to talk about the Holocaust to their children. Not my mom. Not Auschwitz prisoner #A-25057. I knew that was her number because she showed me the tattooed number on her forearm when I was six.

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Pointing at the blue number I asked, “What is that?”

“It’s not a telephone number,” she said. “This is how the Nazis kept track of their Jews.”

Mom, you see, liked to keep me informed about history in general and family history in particular. She told me that she and her sister were walking together on a country road near their little village of Szerencs in Hungary one lazy summer afternoon complaining about how boring their lives were.

A few months later, she said, they would be on board separate jammed cattle cars hurtling towards Auschwitz.

I was only six when Mom gently explained to me that the reason that I had no grandparents was because they had been gassed to death. I knew this was a very bad thing, because she couldn’t stop crying whenever she would start talking about it.

My mother also liked to keep me up to date about any family plans.One night she work me at 4 a.m. to say we had to leave right away because my uncle from Montreal had arranged for a car that was waiting for us outside.

“Where are we going?” I asked.

“We are going on an adventure.”

“Why do we have to go when it’s dark outside?”

“Because it is a secret adventure and we don’t want anyone to know. But don’t worry, Tomika, it will be great fun. You even get to bring along one of your toys.”

She was right about it being an adventure. We were fleeing Budapest during the chaos that followed the Hungarian Revolution. We crossed muddy terrain near the Austro-Hungarian border climbing over barbed wire as we gingerly avoided landmines that had just been planted to prevent too many citizens from fleeing the workers’ paradise.


About the Author

Born in Budapest, Tommy Schnurmacher is a child of Holocaust survivors. An award-winning broadcaster and political pundit, he was the host of a three-hour daily talk show for more than twenty years on CJAD radio in Montreal. Talkradiotommy.com Facebook.com/talkradiotommy Twitter: @talkradiotommy Instagram: @talkradiotommy

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