Beauty, brains and nerve helped Lucine Horn survive the Holocaust.
It didn’t hurt that she had Oscar-worthy acting skills.
Time after time, she had close calls with the Nazis and their sympathizers. But prearranged hiding places, secret words and coded door knocks enabled her to outwit Hitler’s minions and keep herself and her husband alive. Her “Aryan” looks and perfect Polish accent helped her pass for a non-Jew.
Mrs. Horn helped keep 20 other Jews alive by going out into Polish flea markets and selling the colorful hairnets they knitted.
She lost most of her family, and her beloved little brother, David, after being tricked into sending him to what she thought was a haven — but wound up being a journey to a concentration camp. It was a heartache that never left her.
Mrs. Horn created a new life in America, with an extended family that became her world. Her children were her victory, and she gave them unconditional love.
Her husband, Felix, spoke for their triumph of the human spirit when he would exult, in his 80s, “Hitler is dead, and I’m still alive.”
Mrs. Horn, 87, died in December in hospice care, on the day that would have been her 71st wedding anniversary. Her husband had died nine months earlier. Their children believe that once he was gone, she was ready.
They helped each other survive every step of the way from the Warsaw ghetto to freedom. They wed on the run.
“He became her father, her best friend, her husband,” said her daughter, Linda.
She was born to an educated family in Lublin, Poland. Her father was a court interpreter who spoke three languages, and her mother was a dentist. When she was about 13, Germany invaded Poland.
Her childhood ended.
“So into our home a group of Germans came in, tore the watch and everything they could off my mother’s hands, grabbed all the things we had, took whatever they wanted to, broke china, beat us up,” she said in an interview recorded for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Soon, they had to display yellow stars. “We had to wear one on the left shoulder in front and one in the back so they could see us from the back and front,” she said.
During a roundup of Jews, family friend Felix Horn, then 22, offered to bring the 16-year-old Lucine back to his family’s secret shelter, where “we stayed in this little wall hiding place probably between 6 in the morning up until maybe 2 in the afternoon. We tried not to cough, we tried not to move.”
Her father later bribed guards to look away while she, Felix and her 9-year-old brother climbed through barbed wire to escape a Jewish ghetto. They fled to Warsaw, where they hoped to blend in as Aryans.
Treachery was all around, because “if you found a Jew and showed him to a German, you would get ten pounds of sugar or five pounds of flour,” she said in the museum memoir. They lived on raw radishes and cabbage.
She obtained false papers that stated she was a Christian. She had to learn church prayers and attend Mass. She found a little apartment, where her husband and brother hid. When she was out, they couldn’t use the plumbing or make any noise. There, Felix Horn crafted a hiding place camouflaged with a wooden panel.
“One ominous day an SS Officer of the German Army grabbed my mom and accused her of either being Jewish or hiding a Jew in her apartment,’’ said her son, Jerry. “As she approached their door, she began speaking to the officer in protest in loud tones. She used certain words that she told us were code for my dad to know there was an alarming emergency situation at hand. My dad apparently had been instructed by Mom to hide in a small oven he could barely squeeze into when hearing this alarm, which included a certain rhythm when she knocked on the door. Upon opening the door the SS officers stormed the apartment yelling for anyone inside to show themselves immediately. They ransacked the few rooms but could find nothing. Reluctantly they let my mom go. Once again her amazing survival instincts had saved them.”
“Dad always said she saved his life,” her daughter said.
Later, they found shelter in a flat with 20 other Jews who were hidden by a Polish air force sergeant. To survive, they manufactured hairnets. With her confidence and Aryan looks, Mrs. Horn was chosen to go out and sell them at flea markets.
Half a century later, she told the museum, it was still painful to discuss how a false prisoner exchange cost her her brother. German officials said Jews sent to Switzerland would be swapped with the Russians for German POWs. She handed off her brother to a friend who promised to care for him but learned later that they were transported to a concentration camp.
She remembered some good moments, like liberation by the Russians. “To see the first Russian soldier come into the village was just like seeing Messiah,” she said in the interview.
The Horns headed to Vienna, where her husband attended medical school. “The Americans made sure that Jewish students were not only accepted at the university, but they also paid very, very low tuition,” she recalled.
In 1950, they were sponsored by relatives to come to the U.S.
“From then on we felt free, we felt happy,’’ she said in the museum memoir. They raised their family in Lincolnwood.
Her resourcefulness lasted her entire life, her children said. She seemed to be able to produce a gourmet meal from scraps.
She graduated from Roosevelt University and worked as a substitute teacher and translator and did medical billing for her husband.
In addition to her children, she is survived by six grandchildren. Services have been held.