Saturday, March 26, 2011

Rerun: Auntie Eva

I just finished re-reading the book that inspired Steven Spielberg's movie Schindler's List, and have been in a bit of a somber mood lately.  It's a massive piece of history to try to wrap one's mind around, the incomprehensible extent of open-eyed cruelty and organized death during the war.

I missed January 27th this year--the United Nations' Holocaust Remembrance Day--but the US Congress has declared May 1 2011 as this year's Day of Remembrance.  This re-edited post from 2010's Remembrance Day is a good reflection of my thoughts these last few days.

Do you remember, as a child, when the arrival of the mail was still interesting? Do you remember a time when unexpected packages promised mystery and excitement?

Most of the packages arriving at our big farmhouse in the country were not unexpected. Christmas and birthdays brought regular boxes from the UPS truck. But every once in a while, out of the blue, we'd get a box from Auntie Eva.

I had no memories of Aunt Eva, though she was very present in our photo albums. Both my brother and I dandled on her knee as infants. Yet, since we'd moved to Ohio, and she remained in Manhattan, I hadn't seen her since I was about a year old.

I can't say her absence bothered me. After all, in the pictures, she seemed very serious, even grumpy to a kid like me. And she was greatly overweight. I was happy that my mother was the more attractive of the two.

However, Eva got major points for sending packages! You see, Back in The Day, the New York Times was not available at every convenience store or gas station. My parents, having met and lived in Manhattan, missed the world-class reporting that was unparalleled in the days before satellite communications and internet. So every month or so, Auntie Eva would pack up a box of her gently-used Times and ship them off to northeastern Ohio.

Even though I was too young to read such serious fare, I was always excited when her packages came, because there was often something besides paper in there. At Christmas, she usually sent a real gingerbread house, which was displayed on the dining room table--and never eaten! She also sent chocolates, candies and other treats; I especially remember strawberry candies in red wrappers with green tufts that mimicked the fruit itself. I've seen them since, but they've never tasted as good as the ones Aunt Eva mailed us.

As I grew older, I began to delve into the Times Sunday Magazine. At first, it was mostly to look at the pictures, to see how the other half lived. My brother and I often pored over the real estate section in the back. Estates for over a million dollars! Back in the eighties, conspicuous consumption was something we kids aspired to.

Of course, I eventually began to read some of the articles, usually starting with the humorous one-page essay at the back. I didn't "get" a lot of the articles, especially the ones dealing with strictly NYC affairs. The Fashion Issue was completely beyond my comprehension (and still is!).

At some point, having visited my dad's sister and brothers in New York and New Jersey over the years, it suddenly dawned on me that Eva didn't fit into either family tree. "Is she a real Aunt?" I asked my mom. No, she wasn't. In fact, Eva was one of my mother's dearest friends.

They met in Manhattan through an international club at Hunter College, and I get the feeling Mom was impressed, if not comforted, by Eva's worldliness. Mom had come from a small town in Pennsylvania, and college, to work in and study biochemistry. I think between moving into the big city on her own, and starting post-graduate studies in a man's world, she must have been a little nervous.

I never heard much about what made them such great friends. I know they joined a ski club together--picturing the obese, unhappy woman from my baby pictures at the top of a mountain, perched on thin wooden slats, tested my imagination.  Whatever their adventures may have been, Mom always seemed to tell Eva stories with laughter in her voice.

Eventually, I had more questions about Aunt Eva...where was she from? What about her family? And her story opened my eyes.

You see, Auntie Eva was a Holocaust survivor.

Her story is less dramatic than most that you hear about. She and her mother somehow escaped the camps. They were moved into the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest, where they lived, crammed together with strangers, scraping by the best they could on meager supplies of food.

According to Mom, Eva's obesity resulted from a metabolism destroyed by surviving for months on nothing but beans. Mom shared a story Eva had told her to illustrate their desperation in the Ghetto. A doctor came one day to treat a sick person in their building. He arrived in a horse-drawn carriage, and entered the house to treat the patient. When he came back out, the horse was gone.

That night, everyone in the building had meat for the first time in months.

I don't remember if Eva had any siblings; I do know she had a father. He was not as lucky. He was sent to a concentration camp, where he eventually died of exposure. The only reason Eva learned what happened to him was because someone--a guard, another prisoner, I don't recall--found a picture of Eva in a book of his after he died. There was enough information on the back of it to contact the family after the war.

Eva and her mother somehow escaped Hungary before the liquidation of the ghetto as part of the Final Solution. They emigrated to England, and her mother later remarried. Eva was sent to stay with relatives in the US, which is how she eventually entered into our lives.

Now, as I said, I was never close to Eva. I met her once as an adult; she came to my (real) aunt's house while we were visiting in New Jersey. Oddly, I don't remember much of that visit--other than being shocked that Mom and Aunt Barbara were preparing a ham for lunch!  Apparently, Eva wasn't too religiously observant.

I do remember Eva was a presence. She made a living for several years as an extra in movies and tv shows, and proudly contacted us to let us know when she'd be on tv. She said she was known as the big lady with the big laugh.

In spite of my apparent indifference, I think Eva enjoyed watching my brother and me grow up, even at a distance. I can recognize now that she would have liked to be a bigger presence in our lives, as she never had children of her own. She didn't marry until her 50s or 60s, though she was very happy when she did!

A few years ago, my mother called to tell me that Eva had died suddenly.  I don't know if we might have met again, but it saddens me a bit that she'll never know how she affected my emotional development. Not only did her old Sunday Times broaden my horizons, but her life story introduced me to the horrors of World War II in a very personal way. It took me many years to figure out why I was so particularly empathetic to those in untenable situations--slavery, poverty, abuse. I believe it's because Eva's story made it so real.

In 2005, the United Nations declared January 27th, the date of the liberation of the camp at Auschwitz, as Holocaust Remembrance Day. It is a day to remember victims of all holocausts, not just those of the second World War. It is not a day to wallow in despair, or point fingers of blame. It is a day to honor the victims by taking this lesson to heart: a holocaust can still happen, if we let it. It takes more than hate-filled people with weapons. It takes, as a wise man once said, for good people to do nothing.

It is a day to remember that all people are human.


  1. Haunting. Somber. It amazes me what people could do to others and what the downtrodden could endure.
    We used to take 6th graders to the children's museum at the Holocaust Museum in DC. Both the regular and children's museum are excellent. I didn't realize the significance of Jan. 27. Thanks for posting!

  2. The comment about having had her in your life making poverty, abuse, etc. more real for you makes me think of how the friends I made in college from places like Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka make the news from that part of the world seem so much closer and more real. What a lovely piece of writing. Thank you for sharing it.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I didn't know about January 27, but now I'll know to honor May 1.

  4. Lovely and thought-provoking post. When I think about all the bad things we have let happen, I despair. But that doesn't accomplish anything, does it?

    Individual people's stories are so important - I have often seen a connection with one actual person do so much more than a hundred political or moral arguments. So thank you for telling Eva's story, and yours.

  5. I, also, didn't know about the Remembrance Days, but now I do. Thank you.

    My Dad fought in WWII and I of course read a lot about it in history books, but the Holocaust became real to me in 1965 when I started my first post-college job in Hartford, CT. There I met a woman who was a survivor, who didn't hide her tatoo. Seeing that for the first time was chilling to me.

  6. I remember your Aunt Eva, had forgotten about her as your "celebrity" though.

  7. Thanks for reminding us to remember. Very touching story!

  8. Thank you for this... and it's so beautifully written. You captured a lot in this post... I could clearly see what you were describing through your words.


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