A new movie about fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg explores legacy of her mother’s Holocaust experience

(JTA) — Diane von Furstenberg’s design business was stagnating in the 1980s when she got a call that her mother had had a nervous breakdown in Europe. The breakdown, her mother’s companion said, may have been triggered by hearing German men speaking loudly. Her mother was cowering under a hotel concierge’s desk.

Von Furstenberg, newly divorced and worrying about the future of her dress label, immediately headed to Europe with her children. She knew that her mother had survived the Holocaust, but on that trip she learned awful details about Lilli’s experience in Auschwitz. Arriving home in New York, von Furstenberg was invited to give a speech to the Anti-Defamation League at the Pierre Hotel and surprised herself by speaking about being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor.

Diane von Furstenberg looks at herself in the mirror in a still from ‘Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge’. (Courtesy Hulu)

“To hear myself saying that was so shocking to me,” von Furstenberg recalls in a new documentary about her life. “I started to tremble. I couldn’t believe that I said that. And I remember I walked back home. And I was in shock. I had realized who I was. And where I came from. And before that I had never done that.”

The moment is a pivotal one in “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge,” which explores the rise of von Furstenberg’s brand, her multiple love affairs — including her marriage to a half-German prince — the AIDS crisis, and her identity as a Jewish woman and child of a Holocaust survivor.

The film, which premiered as the headliner at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival this week and begins streaming on Hulu June 25, features interviews with major players from von Furstenberg’s glitzy life as the inventor of the wrap dress, including Oprah Winfrey, Christian Louboutin and Marc Jacobs. Hillary Clinton, Gloria Steinem and Fran Lebowitz are also featured, attesting to von Furstenberg’s role as a pioneering woman in the fashion industry.

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But the film also includes handwritten letters from her mother written during the Holocaust and footage of von Furstenberg as she visits the Kazerne Dossin Holocaust museum in Brussels. In it, von Furstenberg argues that all of her accomplishments have their roots in her mother’s experience and reaction to it.

Von Furstenberg’s mother was born Lilli Nahmias in Thessaloniki, Greece, to a Sephardic Jewish family. The Nahmias family immigrated to Belgium in 1930, and 10 years later, Lilli met her future husband Simon Halfin and joined the Resistance with her parents. She was caught by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz in 1944. Nahmias survived the conditions there for 13 months as well as a death march to Ravensbrück before the camps were liberated in 1945.

Nahmias lost so much weight while imprisoned by the Nazis that doctors told her it would be unsafe to have a child. But Nahmias and Halfin were married in 1945, and Diane was born in 1946. (A younger brother, Philippe, came along in 1952.)

“Just the fact that I was born was a victory,” von Furstenberg says in the film. “She used to say, ‘God saved me so that I can give you life. By giving you life, you gave me my life back. You are my torch of freedom.’”

Lilli Halfin’s parenting style, von Furstenberg says, reflected the lessons she took from the Holocaust.

Diane von Furstenberg examines fabric swatches at her New York office. (Courtesy Hulu)

“My mother was very tough when I was a little girl,” she said. “She wanted me to be independent, no matter what. She didn’t want me to be a victim, never wanted me to be afraid, and she always pushed me. I don’t think my mother ever said, ‘Be careful.’”

Being headstrong led to the major turning points in von Furstenberg’s life and career, including when, at 18, she met and soon married Prince Egon von Furstenberg, a Swiss-born socialite and banker from a German aristocratic family who introduced the middle class Jewish girl to the European jetset of the 1960s. She was pregnant at their 1969 wedding.

“I cannot get married pregnant,” von Furstenberg recalled thinking. “I mean everyone is going to think that I did it on purpose, this little Jewish girl marrying a prince.”

Egon’s father Tassilo attended the ceremony, but not the reception. According to Gioia Diliberto, biographer and author of “Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped,” who was featured in the film, Tassilo told a friend of Diane’s, “I don’t know why Egon is marrying this dark little Jewish girl.”

The von Furstenbergs’ first child, daughter Tatiana, recalled her grandfather calling her and her brother Alexander “little Jews” as toddlers.

“I didn’t experience it as antisemitic because I was like 2 years old, or 3 years old,” Tatiana von Furstenberg says in the film. “But in hindsight, I think it might have been a little bit aggressive towards my grandmother.”

The Diane von Furstenberg the world came to know emerged after she moved to the United States in 1970. (Von Furstenberg and her husband Egon separated soon after, and since 2001 she has been married to the Jewish businessman Barry Diller.) Her dresses became a symbol of the working woman for decades, changing the perception of what liberated women could look like in a professional setting. The brand became known for its vibrant patterns and is still recognizable as such today.

The film was created by a primarily female production team, and von Furstenberg and Academy Award-winning Canadian-Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy both said during a press conference Wednesday morning that the documentary’s premiere comes at a particularly poignant time for interfaith and intercultural relations.

“I think it’s really important for the world to see that people coexist, share a shared history, have a shared experience,” Obaid-Chinoy said during a press conference after the film’s premiere. “Diane and I are telling the story at a time where the world is very divided. And I think that in coming together, we are showing that it is possible and that peace is possible.”

“Sharmeen is a Muslim. She’s a practicing Muslim,” von Furstenberg said. “And I love the idea that she’s doing this movie.”

“As far as I was raised and what I practice is about forgiveness, and about not holding anger,” she added. “It is true that I married Egon, who was half-German. And I like that. And my children are mixed. They’re both. And I think the more we mix, the better.”

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