Behind the Secret Window by Nelly Toll



Behind the Secret Window:

A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During World War II

by Nelly Toll

NOTE: Nelly Toll’s true story of hiding from the Nazis during WWII is dedicated to her parents and little brother. Only Nellie and her mother survived. Here is the dedication that relates to her mother, father, and brother as well as all who perished. And since Mother’s Day and Holocaust Memorial Day are both in early May, I wanted to post this as soon as I finished the book, during May, if possible. I already posted In Memory’s Kitchen ( two days ago, but felt each book needed its own page.

Nelly’s Dedication Page:

This book is dedicated to MY MOTHER, a true heroine, who protected me from danger, sheltered me from fear, eased my pain, nurtured me with hope and loving tenderness, and is the reason I am here to tell this tale; and to the memory of MY COURAGEOUS FATHER who never hesitated to risk his life in order to save ours, and MY BELOVED BROTHER JANEK whom I will never forget.  This book is also consecrated to all the innocent victims who perished in the Holocaust, whose memory must never fade.


While I was safe and sound in our little home in New Jersey with my parents and siblings during World War II, little Nelly Toll was living in terror of the Nazis. While she kept a diary, like Anne Frank, her book, Behind the Secret Window, is not the diary, but rather her memories of dashing with her mother to a window cell when the Germans came, a “secret” window bricked from the outside prior to WWII, inside the home of the couple who hid Nellie and her mother from the Germans. Unlike Anne Frank, Nelly was able to fantasize a better life in the watercolor paintings she made while in hiding, the art of which is, in fact, joyful.

The paintings show a happy life, which Nelly enjoyed with her family before the Germans invaded European countries and sent Jews and other “undesirables” to labor and concentration camps. While the pictures are lovely, the story of Nellie and her family is far from lovely. In fact, in reading this book, I could feel the fear in Nelly’s heart, between the lines and in the words themselves. Here is a sample quote from Nelly’s book:

We listened to the voices and sounds of the swamps. I do not know how long we stayed there, motionless. The shooting had stopped…..Then, suddenly, we heard a scream—a woman’s voice piercing the darkness—followed by the loud cry of a baby and a shot…..Mama held me tight. My terror made breathing difficult…p. 64.

Nelly and her mother survived the war and came to America in 1951. Nelly married and had children of her own, and now grandchildren. She and her husband live in South Jersey, and as noted in the SJersey Magazine (, many of the author’s childhood facsimiles as well as original paintings are part of a traveling show. Nellie speaks to students in many schools and also teaches a college course on the Holocaust at the University of Pennsylvania.

P.S. I spoke with Nelly on the phone. She lives across the river in New Jersey, not far from Philadelphia, and I hope to meet her in person. She is friendly with an extended member of my husband’s family, so a meeting is in the works. She told me that just last month her childhood art was shown in Berlin, Germany. The German Chancellor opened the exhibit that displayed 100 works of art from WWII from a museum in Israel. Her two paintings were the only ones that were cheerful, with no evidence of war ,and that is why they were included in the exhibit.

Nellie is part of the dwindling number of people who survived the war, so her story is important. In the meantime, Nelly’s book is a testament to her and her family’s courage and Nelly’s ability to have a full life in spite of the terror of her childhood. Nellie has lectured extensively and is available for future talks and Nellie’s contemporary abstract paintings are for sale. A museum in Ohio sponsors a traveling show of Nellie’s contemporary art work, which is for sale. (Google Nelly Toll for more information.)

Behind the Secret Window: A Memoir of a Hidden Childhood During Word War II, (1993), is published by Dial Books and sells for $17.00. The book has won literary awards and was translated into Flemish and Chinese. It was also made into a play and performed in New York, Haddonfield, NJ, and Princeton, NJ.

4 thoughts on “Behind the Secret Window by Nelly Toll

  1. It’s simply amazing the extent to which parents and sometimes siblings will go to protect other family
    members, and create for them a childhood when in reality theirs was a fearful existence or war torn,
    and without surcease of anguish and starvation. Thanks for reviewing this.

  2. I treasure my autographed copy of the book. I invite her to speak to my daughter’s 5th grade class and she was amazing. The kids were riveted.

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