An interview with Rachelle Unreich, author of 'A Brilliant Life'

Some people have a palpable presence. Rachelle Unreich is one of those people. In an instance, you are connected to her commanding warmth. Generous in spirit and the sharing of ideas, we sat down with the Melbourne author and journalist to discuss her book, A Brilliant Life: My Mother’s Inspiring Story of Surviving the Holocaust; the role fashion plays in her life and the importance of trusting your intuition.

What are your first memories of clothing?

I had a black velvet smock dress with a white bib at its neckline. My mother’s parents owned a haberdashery store in Czechoslovakia where my grandmother also sold garments she had made. My mother would have impressed me with the fabric and the workmanship. I now think how unusual a dress it was to put on a six year old; the opposite of something frilly and pink!

How do you see fashion contributing to living a brilliant life?

My mother Mira taught me that what you wear reflects who you are; it is important to take pride in your appearance. On top of that, she was visually creative, and she impressed that upon me. I like clothes that are unique, and – as she preferred – well-made. When you feel good in what you wear, you hold your head a little higher.

What is your most prized possession in your closet? Why?

I’m not just saying this, but a Megan Park scarf. Several, actually. I gave them to my mother as gifts, because she loved shawls. I knew she’d love Megan’s because they are colourful and soft. After she died, I would inhale their scent, filled with my mother’s perfume. Now when I wear them, they conjure up all sorts of happy memories, and I feel connected to Mira in a really visceral way.

In your book you often speak to the importance of intuition and how it significantly shaped the events that happened in your mother Mira’s life. How do you find intuition plays a part in your daily life?

I’ve learned to listen to my instincts; to heed that gut instinct. And I’m a little superstitious. If I get a feeling that something bad is imminent, I am extra careful. I try not to overthink things; I trust myself.

Does intuition influence how you get dressed and your personal style?

I always go with a mood, rather than a style. Do I feel like dressing up? (Always). Do I want some drama? (Often). I avoid blending into the background; I veer towards clothes that stand out a little, in print or style. My colour choice is impacted by how I feel; sometimes it’s just very clearly a “blue” day!

In what ways do you notice the imprints of Mira in your life?

It’s about the feeling I try to create. I want people to walk into my house and feel comforted and uplifted, the way they did in my mother’s; it wasn’t about the material objects but about the calm, the sweet smells of baking, the way the furniture – and she – invited you to relax. She gave everything her utmost effort, and I try to do the same, whether I’m setting the table for a Friday night Sabbath meal or making my bed crisp corners.

On multiple instances in the book you speak about the unspoken bonds within your family and of the infinite connections in the world that bring us together. 

How do you believe we can cultivate and tap into this sense of connection?

One has to be an observer, and be present. So many magical things happened around my mother – inexplicable, mystical occurrences that made me realise that the universe is a place of connection, in some way. But she noticed those things too. Perhaps they happen to everyone, but one has to look out for them, and mark them when they happen. I also believe that joy begets joy: people were drawn to Mira, and I think that was because of the effervescent spirit she put out.

There is a very clear pattern of kindness and forward thinking running through the book. It is what buoyed Mira through her experiences and contributed to her good fortunes.

What do you believe will carry us to better days in the future?

Even though my mother went through four concentration camps at the age of 17 – including Auschwitz – and survived the Holocaust when so many of her family members were murdered, she later said, “In the Holocaust, I learned about the goodness of people.” We can never forget our humanity, or the humanity of others. My mother led from a place of love and understanding; she didn’t put people in the category of “other.” She was a critical thinker, and she had faith that the world was a bright place – if not today, then tomorrow. I found her incredibly inspiring; I think others will too, when they read about her.

How do you carry Mira’s story with you?

My mother lived through a horrific time in history, but it wasn’t what happened to her; rather, it was how she chose to live afterwards, with so much joy. I try to remember her singsongy voice, and what it would say to me in challenging times. And if I want to summon her up further, I put an old-fashioned hankie in my pocket, doused with the Taft hairspray she once wore. Smells are powerful, and so are rituals. She believed you should always carry a hankie – because if you don’t need it, someone else will.

Friend, Megan Park ambassador, and an all-around divine human being Rachelle's book 'A Brilliant Life' is available here.