Eva, at Nine Eva, at Nine
I’VE NEVER MET this sweet child who smiles at me with the confidence of a well-loved daughter. She is pretty, well-groomed, well-fed. Her dress, purchased or perhaps sewn at home for winter family celebrations, is of a floral material, with puffed sleeves and large round buttons, trimmed in white lace at its high ruffled collar. Her dark, shiny hair is cut short, above her chin, her bangs neatly pinned to one side. If I visited her school I’d see an entire classroom of nine-year-old girls who part and pin their hair the same way. She poses on her own in a comfortable sitting room, but in her easy gaze I sense the presence of other people: parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, family friends, and the unknown photographer. Behind her, a few hints of the room’s décor—rounded backrest of an elegant wood chair, sideboard decorated with a lacy cloth, door framed in carved molding against a patterned wallpaper—all recede in layers of gauzy focus.
What is it about this girl? She seems at once so innocent, yet so knowing. Her plump cheeks are incarnadine, like a morsel of blush-tinted marzipan, yet something about the intensity of her dark eyes tells me she is fiercer than her sweet presentation.
She will need that fierceness.
In two months this girl’s country will be taken over by a cohort of extremists led by an authoritarian germophobe who hates people of her kind. He sees them as filth, vermin, contamination. In truth there have always been people in her country who hated her ethnic group, but now their views will be fully validated and normalized.
In six months this well-appointed sitting room will be ransacked and most of the remaining possessions that aren’t shattered or stolen by an emboldened police force will be sold off so that the family can survive for the next two years.
The girl’s parents will spend those two years in a struggle against a mighty bureaucracy as they attempt to get out of a once-beloved city whose majority population now sees them as enemies of a new empire. Having lost all rights, the family will now be stateless.
Across the ocean, the latest incarnation of the xenophobic, isolationist America First movement is in full sway. Immigrants are suspect, even those who have thrown off most of their traditional customs in an effort to assimilate—to become Americans. People like this girl’s family are reviled for their mysterious religion, olive skin, and prominent noses. They cannot shake off their reputation as anti-Christian money-hoarders. They speak the language of America’s enemy and surely are spies, however desperately they and their political advocates plead for safe haven from persecution. America First is about protecting jobs from immigrants who will steal employment from true American citizens. America First means resisting engagement in the conflagration that threatens to engulf faraway lands. Let those foreign countries fight their own battles. Let some other place take the great masses of the persecuted and unwashed.
The girl looks at me intently and I meet her gaze. Eighty years have passed since a camera captured her face in the midst of a gentle winter afternoon. Now the gyres of history have revolved. Promoted by another would-be authoritarian and obsessive hand washer, America First is back, emblazoned on posters, T-shirts, and red baseball caps. Different immigrants from the east and south, just as desperate, just as feared and reviled for their dark skin, language, dress, religion, and all-round Otherness, plead for entry and are refused, in the name of national security. In the sweltering days of midsummer, parents and children are separated at the border or deported even as American farmers struggle to hire enough workers to pick fruits and vegetables. America has retreated from its European alliances and the walls of isolationism rise up like the wall an American president wants to build with taxpayer dollars. In an effort to stem the tide of immigrants, right-wing politicians have persuaded fearful British voters to leave the European Union. Other European governments teeter into anti-immigrant conservatism and authoritarianism. Ironically it is Germany’s chancellor who continues to uphold the postwar European order of liberal democracy.
I flip the photograph. On the reverse side a diligent family archivist has written “January 1938” in soft pencil. The nine-year-old girl in the frilly dress lived in Vienna, Austria, where a world of safety and comfort was about to end. Her name was Eva, and she was my mother. I knew her as Eve.
ON THE WINTER mornings of my childhood, crystalline waves of frozen condensation would cover the windowpanes of our city apartment like lichen on rock, blocking the street six floors below. When I pressed a warm fingertip to the frost, a tiny clearing appeared, like the porthole of a miniature ship. If I made enough of these ovals I could begin to make out a wavy image of the street through the veil of melted ice. This for me is the challenge of memory and memoir writing: we create small vistas from what we remember, and if we can create enough of them, we can begin to piece together a story from what we see. But the vistas, like those my finger made in the frost, can close up again. They might very well remain sealed for a lifetime.
When I first found a keepsake book way in the back of my mother’s lingerie drawer I thought I was looking only at a sentimental artifact from her childhood—something about which I knew too little.
Later, I remembered a high school history teacher who had pressed us students to consider the political, economic, and social implications of whichever event we were examining in class. To that end, I had subconsciously started thawing small portals long before I even understood that the keepsake book was part of something larger than my mother’s childhood, or our family history. It would take years and a political sea change for me to fully unravel its meaning.
THE REAL MIRACLE, one that kept me up at night during my childhood and into adulthood, is that they got out of Vienna at all, let alone with visas to the United States. Years after my mother’s death, the story still troubled me, that her life, and therefore mine, hung on such a slim thread of good fortune, one that was denied to so many equally worthy people deported to extermination camps. The luck of my family’s survival wasn’t entirely comforting, as it depended on the generosity or intervention of people I could never know: the employees at my grandfather’s printing factory, who produced an item of paper packaging vital to the Third Reich war effort; relatives in the United States who vouched for the Singer family and helped with the cost of boat tickets to America; a mysterious vice-consul at the United States consulate in Vienna who granted a visa; and perhaps even some Nazi officials who were open to negotiation or bribery.
My mother’s keepsake book felt like a challenge, as if she were asking me to tell our family’s story to those people of her adopted country, people who may have forgotten that we are a nation of both adventurers and reluctant refugees, and that there could be quiet greatness in following one woman’s journey from one name to another—from Eva to Eve.