My Nudist, Holocaust-Survivor Grandma Spied on the Nazis
Enid Zentelis knew her grandmother was a nudist, Olympic-qualifying swimmer, and Holocaust survivor. But she recently discovered her top-secret role in helping to defeat the Nazis.
My grandmother passed away in 1998. When I think back to what caused me to re-examine her life, I think of a confluence of events and emotions. My grandmother and I had been very close. My parents divorced when I was young, and we spent a lot of time together. From the time I was in high school, anytime I was frightened or unhappy about something, my lighthearted mantra was: “This is not as bad as granny surviving Nazis, you can do this.” Isabelle, or Bella as my grandmother was known, had survived the Holocaust in Budapest with two young children in tow, my mom and uncle. Bella was my rock when things in my life weren’t going well.
I had hit a point where my mantra wasn’t working anymore, and my grandmother was gone. Over the course of several years, terrible things seemed to pile on. My sister died of an opioid overdose, and my dad died of brain cancer after battling alcoholism, and then Trump was elected, and emboldened neo-Nazis and white supremacists started high-fiving in the streets of America. My mind connected all of these events. All I had inherited, I thought, was trauma—and history was just a treadmill we all rode, constantly moving and exhausting us without ever really going anywhere or changing.
On the one hand, I was glad my grandmother was not around to experience what I perceived to be End Times, with fascists reinstalled all around the world. But on the other hand, I kept feeling like she would have known what to do or how to be somehow.
Something was leading me back to her.
It was a gray northeastern day and the Hudson River looked frozen solid. I was inexplicably stuck on a comedy script I was writing. I slid off my chair in order to stare at the ceiling for a time, when a box of photos and things that my mom had sent me caught my eye from across the room. Most of the photos were my grandmother’s, and the papers were hers as well. I found myself staring at an old letter, a war commendation I had seen in childhood, but had never fully understood. It was from the Allied Control Commission (ACC) addressed to my grandmother, thanking her for her “highly confidential work.”
This was the start of a four-year journey, creating the podcast series “How My Grandmother Won WWII” with my producing partner Vicki Vergolina, trying to unearth the truth about my grandmother’s past.
Highly confidential? I had seen this letter before, but I had conflated every document and piece of writing my grandmother had as having to do with surviving the Holocaust, with being saved by the now well-known and revered Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish-born architect and hero commissioned by the American War Refugee Board to go to Hungary during WWII to try to save the last of Hungary’s Jews from being murdered by Nazis. I soon realized that this letter had nothing to do with Wallenberg, nothing to do with her survival. It appeared to be about fighting back as a spy of some sort for the British.
A quick online search revealed that Brigadier Ferryman, the signature on my grandmother's letter, had been Head of the British Special Operations Executive. SOE was a branch of government created by the British to fight Nazis using covert agents and collaborators, or nontraditional warfare. Had my grandmother been a spy? Was there a whole new chapter of my family history that I was unaware of? These questions alone were already pulling me upright, enabling me to put one foot in front of the other. My first instinct, once I discovered the identity of Brigadier Ferryman, was to brag about my grandmother. I desperately needed to feel good about my family, and this was undeniably good. It was bigly good.
The deeper I got into my journey to discover the truth about my grandmother’s World War II history inside fascist Hungary, the more alarmingly similar present-day events in America kept appearing. Charlottesville, police murders of innocent Black people—everything seemed to be sliding backward at a rapid pace. And since I was knee-deep in history, this podcast enabled me to examine why history seemed to repeat itself; to question this concept fundamentally. Is it that we were doomed to repeat ourselves as a species, or that we never fully address and repair ourselves after the apex of conflict, such as a war, or a storming of the Capitol Building? A line from Amanda Gorman’s brilliant inaugural poem really struck me on this point: “…because being American is more than a pride we inherit—it’s the past we step into and how we repair it.”
In our rush for normalcy and the status quo after war, or after over 400,000 deaths and destruction in America, if we fail to do the work of repairing ourselves, of repairing history, of addressing the fomented bigotry and hatred which drove us to our breaking point, then the fault lines remain, permanently. Hungary never addressed its systemic anti-Semitism after WWII—it became a Communist police state where history was literally burned. Hungary today is once again marked by rapidly eroding civil rights, bigotry, and xenophobia.
Unity must be earned, not decreed. To quote congresswoman Cori Bush, rebuking Republican colleagues on Twitter who argue for their version of whitewashed unity in the wake of murderous, seditious rioters roiling our country: “It’s not divisive to call out white supremacy. What’s divisive is to not work to eliminate it.”
Discovering that my grandmother and the rest of my family proactively fought for what was right in the face of Nazis, rather than obey or remain silent, changes my family narrative. It also changes the way I think about the power of individual action and resolve. And it gives me hope for my own country now.