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September 04 , 2007

The People Under the House


Very few European Jews escaped the death camps of Nazi Germany. Of those who survived, nearly all had been successfully hidden by friends. A handful had no such friends and co-conspirators, but managed to stay alive through a rare combination of wits, intuition and luck. Werner Hellman was one of the latter.

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After liberation by the Allies in 1945, Werner declined to join his brother who lived in Israel. Instead, he opted to emigrate to the United States to eke out a living as best he could. Continuing to live by his wits, he became a toy designer behind such innovations as a code ring premium in cereal boxes, the Astro Ray gun, and updates to the world-famous Duncan yo-yo. In 1962 he met Dene, a typical 20th century housewife with a frustrated yearning to become a working journalist. He told her his story and she took the copious, never before published, notes that – after more than 50 years – make up The People Under the House.

The two of them married four years later and began a 34 year saga of a love/hate relationship that was complicated by his (undiagnosed) post traumatic stress disorder and her struggles with the traditional status of women in the 20th century. This is their story, completed by Dene after Werner’s death. It does not mince words and is unique in its exploration of the warts, as well as the achievements, of their lives together.

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