Eva at Nine, and excerpt from EVA AND EVE
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.
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.