When Marisa Fox was growing up on the Upper West Side of New York City, she believed her mother’s maiden name was Tamar Fromer. She was in her 40s when she learned that wasn’t her mother’s name at all.
So much about her mother’s biography, and the stories she told her daughter, including how she left her mother behind in Poland when she boarded a boat headed for Palestine, turned out to be made up out of whole cloth.
“When I found proof of who she was, I was in my 40s and a mother with three kids,” Ms. Fox said in an interview.
On Sunday, at Mattituck-Laurel Library from 2 to 3:30 p.m., Ms. Fox will show parts of a documentary she has made about her search to learn the truth of her mother’s life. The event is sponsored by the North Fork Reform Synagogue.
She calls her film “By a Thread,” and it is a searing account of a daughter’s search for who her mother really was — and what had happened to her, a woman from a Jewish family, after the Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939.
“My mother’s story when I was growing up was that she was Polish and she fought in the Israeli underground,” said Ms. Fox, who lives in New York City and has a second home with her husband and children in Mattituck.
“But her family in Poland was something she never really talked about,” she said. “Basically, her story all those years was that she got out at the last minute on a boat. She concocted this story of somehow — and it made no sense — going from Poland to British Mandate Palestine. It was a dramatic story.
“Her father had been a Zionist and wanted to move to Israel and was an early settler,” she added. “Her mother grew up wealthy in Poland and didn’t want to go there and live. … But the story my mother told me was that she and her mother did go to Palestine, and her mother, my grandmother, said ‘We are going back.’ So they went back to Poland.
“They returned on the eve of the Nazi invasion,” she said. “My grandmother panicked. Her husband had stayed in Palestine. My mother told me they went to a Nazi official who said he would help. According to my mother, the Nazi official said, ‘I have one seat left on a boat for children and I can accommodate your daughter.’
“That was the last time she saw her mother,” Ms. Fox said.
That was her mother’s story, anyway.
“Her story never added up,” Ms. Fox said. “She said she was born in 1935, but was 12 or 13 when she last saw her mother. But the Germans invaded in 1939. I asked questions, but she said I didn’t understand. Once she said she saw the Nazis kill her cousin. I said, ‘Wait, I thought you escaped?’ ”
When Ms. Fox was 12 or 13 she began having nightmares and panic attacks. She envisioned being separated from her mother. “I knew my mother had experienced something horrible, but the more I approached her, the more she pushed me away.”
Then, in the 1990s, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. Ms. Fox was in her 20s. Time was running out. But she never answered her daughter’s questions.
More than a decade after her mother died, Ms. Fox heard her mother had a hidden identity, and began extensive research of her own, going to Holocaust victims’ databases and reading whatever she could get her hands on. Eventually she learned her mother’s real name: Alta Hendla Hocherman.
She began to travel, to Israel and Poland. She found family documents in Poland. She found photographs of family members. On one was written: “They are liquidating the ghetto today.”
In Australia, a diary was found by the daughter of a fellow inmate of her mother’s — with her mother’s real name in it. Nothing her mother had told her made sense any more.
“I knew she had secrets, I knew she had painful memories. I really wanted to know her story. I kept on asking her questions. There were days she would say, ‘Please forgive me.’ I didn’t understand her anger toward me. She kept telling me these fantastic stories — of jumping out of airplanes and riding on motorcycles.
“She told me that in Israel, after the Holocaust, that the sabras [Jews born in Palestine or Israel] ridiculed the Holocaust survivors,” she said. “They would say, ’Why did you go to the slaughter like lambs?’ She said, ‘I am nobody’s victim. I am a freedom fighter.’ I knew she was hiding something.”
Ms. Fox later found out her mother was nine years older than she always said she was, and in fact had never left Poland. She learned that her mother, the one who for years said she had escaped, had in fact been shipped to a concentration camp. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor who, for a number of reasons, never wanted to talk about what she had experienced.
On Sunday, Ms. Fox will show parts of her documentary on her mother, and take questions from the audience.
“From not knowing,” she said, “I found so much, including photographs of my mother. This childhood she hid from me is now out in the open.”
Photo caption: Documentary filmmaker Marisa Fox holds a photograph of her mother, Alta Hendla Hocherman. (Courtesy photo)