Meet the doll that became a companion to a girl in the Holocaust

The film "The Olympic Doll" tells the story of a girl and her connection to a doll during the Holocaust.

 INGE AUERBACHER donates her doll, Marlene, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014. (photo credit: UNITED STATES HOLOCAUST MEMORIAL MUSEUM)
INGE AUERBACHER donates her doll, Marlene, to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2014.

A film about the bond between a young girl in the Holocaust and her doll is the subject of The Olympic Doll, being screened on September 19th at the Goethe-Institute in Tel Aviv. The film will be in English, captioned with Hebrew subtitles for the first time.

Narrated by a child, it describes the bond that child Holocaust survivor, Inge Auerbacher, had with her doll, who helped her cope with unimaginable circumstances during the Holocaust. The Olympic Doll is based on Auerbacher’s book, I am A Star and her poem from it, “We have both Survived.” She will share with the audience stories about her life on Zoom after the screening.

Auerbacher was born on December 31, 1934. She was the last Jewish child born in Kippenheim, a southern village in Germany. When she was two years old, her grandmother gifted her with a very popular blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryan doll that she named Marlene.

“My mother loved movie stars,” the 88-year-old Auerbacher said, “She had an album filled up with movie stars, one being Marlene Dietrich. When I saw her picture, I said, ‘I want to name my doll after her!’”

On the fateful day of August 22, 1942, Auerbacher and her parents were deported to the Terezin concentration camp, in Czechoslovakia. She held on tightly to Marlene, while she boarded the crowded train with over 1,000 other Jewish people. At Terezin, Auerbacher met Ruth, a young girl her age, who she instantly bonded with. They were bunkmates and quickly became best friends. “We lived in the same tiny room with no windows. We were on the upper bunk and our parents were on the lower bunk. These were rough wood beds with straw mattresses. And that was luck, to have that, “ Auerbacher explained.

Director Wilder with Marlene Dietrich, star of his 1948 romantic comedy ‘A Foreign Affair' (credit: PHOTOFEST)Director Wilder with Marlene Dietrich, star of his 1948 romantic comedy ‘A Foreign Affair' (credit: PHOTOFEST)

Ruth had a doll that looked similar to Marlene and they would play with their dolls together while imagining getting out of Terezin. Auerbacher remembers, “She gave me doll’s clothes; a little dress and a doll’s hat, and she said to me, ‘One day, you will visit me in Berlin and she (Marlene) will come to my village.’”

Auerbacher’s mother’s friend at the camp sewed a tiny backpack out of rags for Marlene that was kept packed with doll clothes ready to go to the East, where Ruth and her parents were deported. “I thought it would be fun. I was jealous of my girlfriend when she went there,” Auerbacher recalled.

What do Ruth and Auerbacher have in common?

LIKE AUERBACHER’S father, Ruth’s father was also a disabled war veteran. Ruth’s last name was Abraham and the special selection at Terezin for disabled WWI veterans was done according to the alphabet, so his name was called first. Auerbacher remembers her father telling her he was “sent to the lady with the typewriter” and that “a red circle was put around his name.” Ruth’s father’s name had no circle. “We didn’t know at that time it (the circle) meant life or death,” Auerbacher said.

She later found out that Ruth and her parents had been deported to Auschwitz, where they were killed. Ruth had not yet turned 10 years old.

Marlene was a constant source of solace and comfort for Auerbacher. “She became my baby. She became like a human being to me. I would talk to her,” Auerbacher explained, “She sat next to my bed when I was in the hospital for two years, when I was physically ill from malnutrition. I would talk to her when I was learning English. She became like a real friend.”

Auerbacher and her parents were liberated from Terezin on May 8, 1945, by the Soviet Army. She was one of the very few child survivors of the camp. They went back to her grandmother’s home in southern Germany to find her, but were told she had been killed by Nazis in a forest near Riga, in Latvia. Auerbacher describes Marlene as “the only physical thing I had that was a remembrance of her.”

A year later, in 1946, Auerbacher and her family came to the United States. “That’s how I arrived in New York; with a doll in my arms, “ Auerbacher said.

Filmmaker, Giora Gerzon, titled his 2005 film The Olympic Doll because the doll was symbolic of the time of the Nazi Olympics, in 1936. It was serendipitous that Gerzon informed Auerbacher that Marlene’s original name was Inge – she was called “The Inge Doll.” The entire time Auerbacher carried her and shared her innermost thoughts with her, she never realized that they also shared the same name.

Auerbacher’s doll currently resides at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. Her condition was too fragile for her to be brought to Europe for the shooting of the film. A newer, sturdier version of her, which was donated by the Schildkrot doll manufacturing company in Germany, stars in The Olympic Doll.

Most recently, Auerbacher visited the grave site of her doll’s celebrity namesake, Marlene Dietrich, after she gave a speech at the Bundestag for International Holocaust Remembrance Day. She placed a stone on her grave to honor her memory.

For information on the screening, visit: [email protected] or call: 

058-6369515. Admission is free.