Cover image for The girl in the red coat : a memoir
The girl in the red coat : a memoir
Ligocka, Roma, 1938-
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Mädchen im roten Mantel. English
First U.S. edition.
Publication Information:
New York : St. Martin's Press, 2002.
Physical Description:
292 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Personal Subject:
Geographic Term:
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Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
DS135.P63 L54513 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Biography
DS135.P63 L54513 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
DS135.P63 L54513 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Biography

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When she first saw Schindler's List - to whose premiere in Germany she was invited - Roma Ligocka suddenly realized she was witnessing a part of her own life. She felt instinctively that the little girl in the red coat - the only spot of color in the film - was her. When she had lived in the Krakow ghetto during the Second World War she had worn a strawberry-red coat given to her by her grandmother. Unlike the girl in Spielbeg's film, however, Roma survived the war. Startled by this eerie conjunction of art and reality, Ligocka determind to write the story of her own life, to find out what had become of the little girl, and to measure who she now was.
From a harrowing childhood under the Nazis, described with a simplicity and innocence that lends it even greater power, through the trials of living in Communist Poland, to a career in the theater and film (an artistic struggle paralleling that of her cousin, Roman Polanski), Ligocka traces her struggle for self-defiition and happiness. The Girl in the Red Coat is a courageous and moving story of survival and triumph.

Author Notes

Roma Ligocka lives in Berlin.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

In March 1941, the Jews of Krakow, Poland, were rounded up and crammed into 320 decaying and dilapidated houses in the Krakow Ghetto. Among them were the author (then a small child), her parents, and her grandmother. Ligocka and her mother escaped from the ghetto in March 1943 and were taken into hiding by a cousin. Later they were forced to leave when their benefactor feared they would be discovered by the Nazis. Ligocka and her parents survived but her grandmother did not. The author also recounts her ordeal of living in Communist Poland after World War II, her career in the theater and films, her marriage and divorce, and the birth of her son. In 1989 Ligocka (a cousin of Roman Polanski) returned to Poland for the first time in 30 years. Previously published in Germany and England, this is not only a Holocaust memoir but also a story of one woman's quest for contentment. --George Cohen

Publisher's Weekly Review

As a young child, in the Krakow ghetto, Ligocka was known to everyone by the strawberry-red coat she always wore-an image that Steven Spielberg would use in Schindler's List, without knowing anything about Ligocka herself. Determined to tell her own story, Ligocka gives a harrowing, impressionistic account of her early memories of the ghetto: the men in shiny black boots with snarling dogs, the endless waiting in lines, people shot indiscriminately and her grandmother's seizure by SS officers while Ligocka hides under a table. Ligocka and her mother sneak out of the ghetto and are taken in by a Polish family; her father, taken to Auschwitz, escapes several years later. In a poignant episode, the little girl doesn't recognize this haggard specter who wants to embrace her. The memoir also describes Ligocka's youth in Communist Krakow: her career as an actress in theater and films, her struggle as an adult to confront her frightful memories and the weathering of new crises, from the passing of her parents to political turmoil in Poland. Though Ligocka's rendering of her early childhood voice isn't quite seamless (it sometimes sounds forced and too knowing), this doesn't take away from the power of her narrative, and readers may be particularly interested in her experiences as one of a tiny handful of Jewish survivors in Communist Poland. 30 b&w photos. (Sept. 16) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Seeing herself as the "girl in the red coat" in the film Schindler's List inspired the author to undertake this painful journey into her past. In a fascinating work that reads like a novel, Ligocka, an acclaimed artist, set and costume designer, and cousin of Roman Polanski, confronts her memories as a young Polish Jew during World War II. Although Ligocka only spends about one-third of the book on her traumatic experiences "hiding in the open" between the ages of three and seven, her experiences obviously affected her entire life, leading to depression, addiction, and an existence of constant fear. As in Julia Collins's memoir, My Father's War, Ligocka's work is a testament to both the frailty and the strength of very young children who have experienced trauma. The remaining two-thirds of this work chronicle Ligocka's life as a career woman, wife, and mother and her struggle to come to terms with her past in the artistic culture of postwar Europe. This work, already a best seller abroad, should be purchased for both public and academic libraries. Maria C. Bagshaw, Lake Erie Coll., Painesville, OH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



The Hotel Negresco in Nice on France's Côte d'Azur presides over the Promenade des Anglais like an enormous white ship. Its white awnings flutter slightly in the morning breeze. The sea is an almost supernatural blue. Inside the hotel, pageboys in bright uniforms with feathers in their hats dash across the red carpets. I walk through the enormous entrance lobby with its gleaming marble floor, past large flower vases from which red roses billow, and into the breakfast room. The room is round, decorated entirely in tones of pink and brown; the effect is that of an antique Biedermeier carousel. White horses turn to the music of a barrel organ playing gentle waltzes. Countless little lightbulbs illuminate the scene. The paintings on the walls show pretty landscapes done in warm pastel tones. A life-size doll in a quaint costume stands in the middle of the room; she has long, curly hair and her mouth is locked in a smile. The windows are framed by heavy red velvet drapes, the Venetian blinds lowered halfway. Sunbeams paint golden stripes on the floor and on the pink tablecloths. The waitresses all look like the big doll-they wear the same pink skirts, revealing lace-edged underpants. Their smiles are real, if a little tired. They bustle back and forth. The room smells of chocolate and raspberries, of coffee and perfume. I sit down at one of the tables. The circular breakfast buffet in the center of the room looks like a work of art, and immediately it puts me into an euphoric mood. There are raspberries, strawberries, chunks of pineapple; red, yellow, and green melon slices; pink-tinged ham artistically shaped into rosettes; salmon, sliced wafer thin and folded into stars; tiny halves of quail eggs topped with dots of caviar; jewellike petits fours; mounds of gleaming raisin rolls; fresh orange juice flowing like a waterfall over a cliff of ice cubes; jams and preserves of many colors; honey and balls of butter. And that smell of raspberries and chocolate. I close my eyes. The sun's rays play on my eyelashes and scatter into golden dust. I feel carefree and happy in this place although I won't admit to this, for I am a superstitious old Jewish woman. I think of the beach and of the green chaise longue waiting for me there, of the cocktails the waiter will bring me while the sun warms my skin, and I soak up and dissolve into the blue of the sky and the smell of the sea. For lunch I'll have a salade Niçoise with a glass of Prosecco. And then, there is that beautiful handbag I saw at Sonia Rykiel ... An elegant couple sits down at a table near mine, a little girl in tow. She stands staring at the life-size doll and then finally joins her parents. The mother has placed a huge goblet filled with strawberries before her. But the little girl doesn't eat. She merely puts her spoon into the glass, absently stirs the berries around, and gazes at the doll, which keeps smiling its wooden smile. The little girl has dark curly hair and large black eyes ringed by dark shadows. She is perhaps five years old and looks very fragile. She pays no attention to me. Suddenly I feel as though I am sitting across the table from myself in another life, another time. I look at the little girl I once was or might have been, and I know that she has everything I never had: a happy, safe childhood, a beautiful home and garden, strawberries, chocolate, toys, and parents who love her, parents who have enough money to pay for trips, piano lessons, and birthday parties. The life of the little girl passes before me like a Technicolor film of the life fate has cheated me of. I feel no envy-just the sharp pain of an old unhealed wound. The little girl has the right to this splendid, wholesome world. But I ... I am an outsider only passing through. I really don't belong here. Suddenly I feel cold and begin to tremble, gripping the soft cushions of my chair. The little lights on the carousel begin to flicker, the barrel-organ music grows louder, and faster, faster, round and round, pulling me into the abyss of memory, back into the dark hole. The Ghetto. It is always cold in the Ghetto, ice cold, inside the house as well as out. Inside there's only the one kitchen stove for all of us, and almost no coal. Outside, snow blankets the ground. There is no summer, no seasons at all, and no sunlight. Everything is dark and gray, always. The Ghetto has four large gates. We are not allowed to pass through these gates. It's absolutely forbidden. A streetcar runs on the main street, the number 3. We are not allowed to get on it. That's why it makes no stops. It simply goes right on through. The people sitting in the streetcar stare at us through the steamed-up windows. Once a boy throws a few loaves of bread out of a streetcar window; they fall at our feet. We stand on the street, freezing. Many, many people. There are people everywhere. Some have large dogs, and carry guns, and just watch. They shoot at who they want to, maybe at me too. We're the others. The Jews. We have to wait all the time. The people with the guns have gold buttons and black, shiny boots that crunch in the snow when they march by. But mostly you can't hear that because they are constantly yelling and shouting. They yell, we obey. Anyone who doesn't obey is killed. I know that, even though I'm still very little, so little that I reach only up to the knees of the men in the shiny boots. When one of them comes near me, and I hear the black boots crunching and see the dog with the sharp teeth panting right next to my head, I feel even smaller than usual. I try to make myself invisible. Sometimes it actually works, and I dissolve in the icy wind and the yelling, and my grandmother's cold, thin hand. She holds me tight, but I'm not there anymore. Grandmother is always there. When the waiting is over she takes me back into the kitchen, then takes off my red coat. It's a beautiful coat made of soft red wool, and it has a hood. She sewed it for me herself. With her thin, cold hands Grandmother warms my feet; I can't feel them anymore. She sets me on top of the table while she stirs a pot on the stove. Then she comes back with a bowl of steaming porridge that has little lumps swimming in it. She tries to feed me, but I turn my head away. The porridge is disgusting, the lumps revolting. I don't want to eat it. I feel sick. The other people scold me. The steamy kitchen is full of noisy strangers with sweaty, smelly bodies. One of the men grabs the bowl from Grandmother's hand and swallows the gruel in one gulp. My grandmother doesn't say anything. She sits down at her sewing machine again and clatters away. I'm glad the man ate the disgusting stuff. At some point my mother comes home. It's already dark outside. I'm lying in my little crib but can't sleep because people are everywhere, making all kinds of sounds. They snuffle, groan, grumble, and curse. They slurp and smack their lips, and some of them cry. My mother embraces me wearily. Her soft brown hair no longer smells of flowers the way it used to. It smells funny and sharp. "You smell funny," I say. My mother smiles, but I can tell she is sad. She is always sad. "That's just the disinfectant," she says. "What's that?" I ask. She doesn't answer. Instead she pulls her suitcase out from under the bed, takes out a small bottle, and opens it carefully. She lets a drop fall on her wrist and rubs it in. Then she closes the bottle, hides it again in the suitcase, and lifts me out of my bed. "Better?" she asks. Now she smells like flowers again. "Hello, Tosia, I'm back." It's my father. He comes into the room, lifts me up, gives me a kiss. My father has a deep voice and his eyes are black, like mine. He embraces my mother. "You smell good," he says. "I brought some potatoes." They go into the kitchen. That's where the other people are. I hear their voices, but I can only understand fragments of words because there is so much noise. I have the feeling that they are talking about me. "Those eyes!" says my mother. "If only she had blue eyes, like Irene!" "And her hair is so dark," says another woman whose voice I don't recognize. "That's not good for getting by. But maybe we could do something about that." "Poison?" my mother asks. She sounds horrified. "No!" my father cries out, and there's a dull thud, which makes me flinch. He probably hit the table with his fist. He does that sometimes when he's very angry. Maybe he's angry with me because I'm not the way I ought to be. Shots ring out in the street, a scream pierces the night. The conversation in the kitchen stops. After a while they begin to talk again, and finally I fall asleep. Suitcases, pocketbooks, bundles, an overturned baby carriage are strewn all over the street. Why doesn't anybody pick them up? Grandmother pulls me away. It's still snowing. We stand in the street and wait. We stand here every day. Every day is the same. Every night is the same. There's no sleeping in the Ghetto. There's no dusk and no dawn, only boots coming up the stairs, dogs that bark, men who yell, doors that are ripped open, people who scream, beg, implore, moan, grumble, and curse. The light never really goes out. It is never quiet. And every day, every night, strangers arrive, more and more of them. They talk, jostle, and push, and they touch me. There are always a lot of people around me: outside in the narrow streets, inside in the small and dirty kitchen where the women fight for a spot at the stove, and in the big, dark room that we share with the strangers and where Grandmother sits calmly at her sewing machine and sews. My little bed stands there too. A different family lives in each corner of the room. There is no bathroom; the toilet in the hall is used by everyone and constantly clogged. The stink is horrible. It makes me sick every time I go in there. Still, I never let Grandmother go by herself. She might not come back. I am always cold, always sick and feverish, but still I have to wait outside in the cold with the others. They wrap a cloth soaked in a bad-smelling liquid around my neck. They put me on my bed, undress me, and hold little round glasses over a candle till they're hot and then stick them on my naked back. Grandmother tries to soothe me. "It's called cupping," she whispers in my ear, "it will make you well again." But I don't believe her. I panic every time, struggle, whimper. The little glass cups make a disgusting, smacking sound when they're taken off at last. I'm afraid of them and I'm even more afraid of the strange people who touch me all over with their cold, damp hands. What's more, the glass cups don't make my cough better. "She's so weak," my mother says. When Father comes home, he proudly takes a small bottle out of his coat and presses it into my mother's hand. "Cod-liver oil," he says, "so that my little girl can get well." Mother throws her arms around his neck; the strangers nod in approval. I warily watch my mother as she pulls the cork out of the bottle, gets a spoon, and pours some yellow, oily slime into the spoon. She tries to put the spoon into my mouth, but I'm quicker than she is. I escape and hide behind Grandmother. My mother says, "Roma." Rarely does her voice sound that stern. The other people also urge me to take it. "You must swallow it!" they say. "You have to do what your mother tells you." I hide my head in Grandmother's skirts. Here they can't find me and force me to swallow that yellow slime. "Come here, Roma," my mother calls. "Please, child ..." In spite of her soft tone I can hear the annoyance in her voice. It's better for me to stay where I am. "Come here immediately and swallow it," my mother yells. "It's liquid gold!" She tries to grab me. For the first time in my life I'm afraid of her. But not of Grandmother. She doesn't budge. Her back is a dark, safe mountain. She doesn't say a word. My mother manages to get hold of my hand, tries to drag me out from behind Grandmother's skirts. I struggle with all my might, whimpering, fighting. "I won't swallow that gold! I don't want to!" I wail. But my mother's hand is like iron. It grips mine. And suddenly I hear a funny cracking sound and feel something like an electric shock in my wrist. I start to cry. My mother pulls me toward her. I no longer struggle-my hand hurts too much. It hangs there, all crooked. My mother drops the spoon, the liquid gold splatters on the floor. It smells of fish. My mother puts her hands up to her face in horror. "What's wrong with your hand?" she stammers. "My baby! Roma, I'm so sorry." She tries to hold up my hand but it droops again. It hurts. The people in the room are all talking in loud voices, all at the same time. They stand in a circle around me. Each of them wants to look at my hand, take hold of my arm, and paw me. Then my father rescues me. He lifts me up without saying a word and carries me through the dark, smelly hall out to the street. I lean my head against his shoulder. I'm exhausted and my hand hurts so much. The old doctor puts a hard white bandage around my broken hand. Now it doesn't hurt as much. I'm proud of my bandage. On the way home I see some of the men in the shiny black boots cutting off an old man's beard. They yell and shout and laugh while they're doing it. "Don't look at that," my father whispers and holds me tight. He walks a little faster. But I can't help turning around. The old man is crawling on the ground and they keep kicking him with their black boots till he's not moving anymore. Grandmother has told me that my parents sold a gold ring to buy the cod-liver oil and that they only want the best for me. That doesn't make sense. I'm not mad at my mother anymore. I proudly tell everybody that she broke my hand, and then I show them the bandage. My mother doesn't seem to like that. Is she still angry with me? She no longer forces me to swallow the yellow slime. But she does force me to eat other things. She says, "You have to eat to live," and doesn't understand that I can't do it. She continually tries to feed me, always stuffing food into my mouth, and I regularly spit it out again. My gagging and my nausea drive her up the wall. When I'm freezing-and I'm always freezing-she wants me to eat. It's a constant battle. "See, you're cold because you're so thin and you don't eat enough. Come on, eat something, then you'll feel warm." But that's not true. I'm cold whether I eat or not. My mother has to leave the house while it is still dark outside, and when she comes home late in the evening she is tired and pale. Once I asked Grandmother what my mother does all day long. "Sweep the streets and clean toilets," was her brief answer. My mother is often so exhausted she can scarcely get up in the morning. And she's cold, like me. Even though she eats. Continue... Excerpted from THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT by Roma Ligocka WITH IRIS VON FINCKENSTEIN Copyright © 2002 by Roma Ligocka Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.