Diane von Furstenberg Reflects on Her Mother's Holocaust Survival Story: 'My Birth Was a Miracle' (Exclusive)

Diane von Furstenberg opened up about her mother Liliane Halfin's journey and lasting impact ahead of the release of her Hulu documentary on June 25

<p>@MIREILLE ROOBAERT</p> Diane von Furstenberg


Diane von Furstenberg

Diane von Furstenberg credits her mother, Liliane Halfin (born Nahmias), with teaching her a number of valuable life lessons.

What Halfin, a Holocaust survivor, experienced at Auschwitz, also shapes every one of von Furstenberg’s days.

“My first gratitude every day is that my mother survived [the Holocaust],” the designer tells PEOPLE as she discusses her trailblazing career ahead of the release of the documentary Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge.

In the film, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival June 5 and comes to Hulu in the U.S. and Disney+ internationally June 25, von Furstenberg discusses her late mother’s life and legacy.

Related: Diane von Furstenberg Shares Her Best Life Lessons Ahead of Her Documentary's Release: 'No Secrets' (Exclusive)

Speaking to PEOPLE, von Furstenberg shares, “My mother was a 21-year-old girl, and she was passing fake papers to Jewish people. She was arrested because she was doing resistance.”

“She was so afraid that she was going to be tortured to give names of the others that she [told officers], ‘I don't know anything. I'm hiding here because I'm Jewish.’ A woman at the police station where she was taken said, ‘Don't tell them you're Jewish because they're going to take you away.’ But anyway, it was too late,” she says.

Von Furstenberg shares that next her mother was taken to a prison, which happened to be at a military school that had been converted. It was a “beautiful” building with an ugly purpose: it served as a holding place for people to be sent to concentration camps.

“They would stay there until they were 1,000. And when they were 1,000, they would take them to the train to go to Auschwitz,” von Furstenberg says.

But by the time her mother got arrested, she was on one of the last convoys to leave the prison, so, von Furstenberg says, “[after] she stayed there nine days, they filled [the train with] 507 people, and she was shipped.”

<p>Courtesy Diane von Furstenberg Archive</p> Diane and mother Liliane Halfin circa 1946.

Courtesy Diane von Furstenberg Archive

Diane and mother Liliane Halfin circa 1946.

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Von Furstenberg’s mother miraculously survived, and in doing so, the legendary designer says, “She has a dynasty of seven on my side and five on my brother's side. [No one] would be there unless she had survived.”

Therefore, the gratitude she expresses every day, “has to do with honoring life.”

While on the truck which transported her to the train to Auschwitz, Halfin somehow got hold of a piece of cardboard, on which she wrote a note to her parents, then threw it on the road in the hope it’d get to them. 

Related: Diane von Furstenberg Debuts Documentary at Tribeca Film Festival: 'If It's Inspirational, It's Worth It'

“I never believed that [story],” von Furstenberg says. “And she did not know [whether] those notes had arrived, because after she was liberated, nobody wanted to talk about the facts.”

“But after my mother passed away and her sister passed away, my cousin brought me a box full of photographs. Inside that box of photographs, there was an envelope. It was very, very flat because it had been there for 50 years. And I opened that envelope and I found the notes. And that was, wow,” von Furstenberg says. “I couldn't believe it.”

<p>Courtesy Diane von Furstenberg Archive</p> Diane with parents Leon and Liliane Halfin in 1948.

Courtesy Diane von Furstenberg Archive

Diane with parents Leon and Liliane Halfin in 1948.

Meanwhile, the military school that served as the prison where her mother was before she was sent to Auschwitz “became a very, very expensive apartment building,” von Furstenberg says.

“The people decided they wanted to do something, so when they built a building for parking across that has no windows, they put the photographs of the 26,000 people who were arrested from there [on an outside wall].

“The survivors, which are only 1,300 something, they injected color.”

Related: Diane von Furstenberg Opens Up About Her 50-Year Career in the First Trailer for Her Documentary (Exclusive)

Among those colored photographs is one of Halfin. It’s a memorial von Furstenberg has visited a few times, including recently while filming the documentary.

“It was very interesting because they’re filming me, and I turn around and everyone who’s in the film company was in tears. And I wasn't, because you know how it is: when it's yourself, you have to build yourself strength.”

<p>@MIREILLE ROOBAERT</p> Diane von Furstenberg


Diane von Furstenberg

Related: First Look: Diane von Furstenberg Documentary Explores the Designer's Trailblazing 50-Year Career

Inner strength was instilled in von Furstenberg from a young age.

“I was born 18 months after my mother was just a few bones in a field of ashes. She wasn’t supposed to survive, but she survived, and my birth was a miracle,” von Furstenberg says.

“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.’ She never wanted me to be afraid, or to be a victim. So I was trained to turn any adversity into an opportunity: If you own your imperfections, they become your assets. If you own your vulnerability, you turn it into strength.”

Says von Furstenberg: “I was molded like that.”

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Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival June 5, was directed by Academy Award winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Trish Dalton, and produced by Fabiola Beracasa Beckman, Tracy Aftergood and Sean Stuart as well as Obaid-Chinoy and Dalton.

Watch the film, a Sutter Road Picture Company and Particle Projects/Fabiola Beracasa Beckman Media production, on Hulu on June 25.

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