By B.A. Van Sise

Back then, before back then, she was an actress. “I was the Polish Shirley Temple,” Elizabeth Bellak—no, Liz, and yes, she insists—says, hiding the words behind a thick accent and a broad smile.

Their escape, too, was something out of a film: her mother, educated in Vienna, could speak German, and managed to get forged papers and get out. She, like her daughter, was a beauty, and could only do it with help: the military officer who was passionately, madly in love with her and far less committed to the law. Elizabeth—no, Liz—was put into a convent in Europe and then, on arrival in the States, into a convent in Pennsylvania.

Elizabeth Bellak
Portrait of Elizabeth Bellak by B.A. Van Sise

After escape from Europe and graduation from two convents, she made her way to Columbia for a degree in child psychology. She taught for 27 years, mostly at the high school level, to children the same age as she was at arrival.

Our world, and its words, have changed, but so has she: from the silver screen to cold convents, from war-torn Europe to bucolic Pennsylvania, from a broken past to a longer future. Yet all of those places still exist, all those lives still exist, and even those films still exist, on archival reels of old celluloid. The world has changed. The words have changed. In the film Gehenna, for instance, she’s still and forever a little girl: a twirling Romani, dancing at 16 frames per second. “I played a gypsy girl*,” Liz smiles. “And here I am. I’m still a gypsy girl.”

* Gypsy girl was the name of the character she played in the 1938 film; today the character would be named Romani, or Roma, girl
Stories Survive is made possible by the Goldie and David Blanksteen Foundation.