Lilo Speaks: A Memoir
By Lilo Basch Heller with Tom Adams
Big Hat Press, 2011, 70 pages
Feisty and forward-looking from childhood, Lilo Basch Heller experienced the horrors of the rise of Nazism in 1930s Germany, together with her middle-class Jewish family. Heller escaped only to survive harrowing years in Japanese prison camps in Indonesia. After reaching the United States in late 1946, she worked tirelessly, together with her late husband, Harold Heller, to support progressive causes, including the People’s World and the Communist Party USA.
Now, Heller is about to celebrate her 90th birthday. After decades during which she was unwilling to talk about those traumatic early years, here is her dramatic account of how a teenager whose world was blown apart not only survived, but grew into the strong woman who continues to champion human rights, economic and social justice, and to fight racism.
In her preface to her new memoir, Lilo Speaks, Heller writes, “Sixty-five years ago, in 1945, Germany and Japan surrendered and World War II ended. Its history has not … Our stories must be heard and remembered. Today I continue to long for peace in this troubled world.”
After the Holocaust touched Heller’s family with the 1937 arrest and near-deportation of her father to the Buchenwald concentration camp, the family became determined to escape from Nazi Germany. Heller’s parents went to Ecuador; she went to Indonesia. There – still a teenager – Heller learned to be self-sufficient, becoming first a midwife and then a nurse.
Imprisoned by the Japanese late in 1943, Heller and her fellow prisoners suffered starvation, disease, beatings and other harsh treatment until they were finally liberated Aug. 30, 1945.
But Heller’s long ordeal wasn’t over. She then found herself in the midst of the Indonesian struggle for freedom from their Dutch colonial overlords.
Along the way, in every situation, Heller found the courage and determination to fight back against oppression and for her rights and those of others.
“Finally, in July 1946, I sailed to America,” Heller writes. “I was only 25 years old, but had already had some unbelievable stories to tell. Telling them would wait a while. I was unable to tell these stories for many years. The pain inside me shut my past out.”
We can be very glad that Heller finally did share her remarkable story of human determination against very great odds.
Reading this little book is a most valuable reminder of the horrors of fascism and war, and of the urgent need to work for a world of peace and justice.