"The tree bloomed every May, around the time of Mama's birthday, and Papa would sing songs of love and lilacs to her," the survivor said in a conversation in her Los Alamitos home, where a vase of the flowers graced a table.
Hillman (neé Hannelore Wolff) left the tree behind, along with her diary, when she was deported to the Lublin ghetto on her mother's birthday, May 8, 1942. It was not until several years ago that she completed her Holocaust memoir, "I Will Plant You a Lilac Tree" (Atheneum, 2005), which reads like a teenager's journal of life in eight labor and concentration camps. The lyrical, brutally honest book recreates her youthful musings -- echoing the most famous of the Holocaust diarists, Anne Frank.
Next week, 83-year-old Hillman will read excerpts from her memoir and poetry during a newly re-imagined staging of Grigori Frid's "The Diary of Anne Frank" by Long Beach Opera (see main story.) She will personify "what Anne might have become if she had survived," said Andreas Mitisek, the opera's artistic and general director.
In the two-person piece, the survivor will sit at a desk and, in her speaking voice, engage in a kind of parallel dialogue with the soprano portraying Anne. After the opera's Anne sings about her father's dread of life in hiding, Hillman will describe the harsher fate that befell her own father (her family received an urn containing his ashes in a box postmarked, "Buchenwald").
Hillman later was made to rake dirt over rotting corpses in mass graves, shovel salt in Polish mines, witness her 15-year-old brother succumb to a vicious beating and endure a brutal rape by an SS officer. She also met and fell in love with her future husband, Bernhard Hillman, a fellow prisoner in the Budzyn camp, and was saved from Birkenau by Oskar Schindler, who had placed her on his famous "list." Throughout the nightmare, she was sustained by a promise -- essentially a marriage proposal -- from Hillman: If she survived, he would plant her a lilac tree to remind her of her childhood home.
In the opera, Hillman will recount how, like Anne, she discerned possibilities for love and hope during unimaginable times. Yet she found it too painful to document her own Holocaust experiences -- except in poems -- for decades after the war. Only when her husband lay dying of heart disease in the mid-1980s did she begin to write down memories en masse: "I wondered why Dick had to suffer so much, after all he had been through, and the details came flooding back."
A division of Simon & Schuster eventually bought her book, which was featured in a Newsweek story about the plethora of such memoirs being published to meet the needs of Holocaust curricula in 25 states. While Anne's 1947 "Diary of a Young Girl" remains an icon of the genre, newer books like Hillman's appeal because they are "genuinely good" and "don't sugarcoat the truth," Newsweek said.
The survivor gave many readings, but was initially hesitant when Mitisek called about the opera several months ago.
"When I speak too often, I become very anxious, breathing is difficult, and my blood pressure rises," she explained. Although she said she is ordinarily optimistic, "after each appearance, I'm so completely drained that I sleep -- then I take my car and drive somewhere, anywhere, to get away from the memories."
Even so, she said she agreed to appear in the opera because "it's my duty. It doesn't matter if it hurts, because I was lucky enough to survive, while so many others perished."