The Virgin Atlantic Heathrow-bound flight took off on time. An hour into the journey, the stewardess brought me my kosher meal. Luckily, the middle seat next to me remained empty. A rather stolid looking woman sat in the seat near the window. Two twinkly eyes in the midst of an owl-like face kept staring in my direction.
“I should have ordered one of those,” she said suddenly. She was small but quite imposing in her olive-green tweed suit. Her accent sounded familiar. I would not have guessed that she was Jewish had it not been for her comments about the kosher meal.
“Are you from Vienna?” I asked boldly.
“How did you know that?” came her astonished reply.
“I live in Northwest London and I’ve met quite a few people, Jewish refugees who came from Vienna.”
“Well, you’re spot on,” she answered. “I live in Hendon. But I have been away in America for well over a year and a half.”
She sighed. “As a matter of fact I’ve just lost my husband and I’ve been in New York trying to deal with his estate.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “I wish you long life.”
“Thank you. Where do you live?” She asked changing the subject.
“I live in Finchley.” It seemed that she wanted to talk and I wanted to eat so I encouraged her. “How did you manage to get to England?”
“It’s quite a story. Do you really want to know?” As she turned to me, the shadowy light caught the deepening creases and lines that were etched on her face.
“Yes I do,” I answered eagerly. “Were you part of the Kindertransport?”
“No, I was too old for that. By the time the Anschluss happened I was 17 years old,” she said.
“So how did you get out?”
“Well,” she said. “It is a rather unbelievable story are you really that interested? I’d hate to bore you.”
“Try me.” I smiled as I tucked into the smoked salmon. “My name is Robert, by the way.”
“And mine is Eva.”
What unfolded was one of the most extraordinary stories I’d ever heard. I must quote here the words of Patrick Modiano: “The effect of hearing the voice of somebody whose face one can’t quite make out in the in the half-light and who is recounting an episode from their life creating a great sense of intimacy, confiding as if in a confessional, a brief encounter, someone who you would no doubt never see again….”
As soon as the flight attendants cleared the dinner trays, the lights dimmed and we settled into our seats. It was then that Eva leaned across and began to tell me her story:
The war was responsible for everything, destroying peoples’ hopes and dreams. As I told you, I was too old for the Kindertransport but my parents managed to get me a visa to enter Britain as a domestic worker. It was just before my 17th birthday and my friend Doris and I were lucky enough to travel together. She was excited but I was not. You see, I had a boyfriend, a Jewish lad called Kurt. We had been going out since we were fourteen and he was the love of my life. We made a pledge to each other that we would get engaged and married as soon as it was practically possible. My poor parents pressured me to leave knowing full well what was going to happen. And so we arrived one miserable morning in Liverpool Street Station where we were met and taken to our hosts, a Jewish couple in the East End of London. They were not nice people and immediately set us to work. Within 24 hours of arriving in their home we were made to work, washing down the walls of the entire house with sugar soap. We were both well educate
d girls and spoke several languages. Our hosts treated us appallingly. I don’t mind admitting that I was rather headstrong and after just one week we decided to walk out of that house albeit under a barrage of abuse from our “hosts,” who called us ungrateful German parasites! Luckily my English was pretty good and I spoke French so I set about finding a job. I found one as a translator of textbooks with a publisher near Victoria Station. Doris also managed to get work and we moved into digs, a bedsit in Belsize Park. All the while I was still in touch with Kurt. We wrote to each regularly. There was a public telephone in the hallway and Kurt had my number. He called me on several occasions including my birthday. In those days it was most unusual to receive international phone calls but Kurt’s family were people of means. One day I received a call but this time it was from his mother Ilse. I can still remember the sound of her shrill voice:
‘Is that you Eva?’
‘Yes,’ I said anxiously. ‘Is everything alright?’
‘No, everything is not alright, I’m afraid. Since Kristallnacht things are decidedly bad and you are lucky to have got out. Now listen carefully Eva. I know you love my son, enough I assume to save his life?’
‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’ll do anything to help him.’ Her words came back at me like a bolt of lightning.
‘Well, he is engaged to be married to a girl in Paris. If you want to save his life you must no longer be in contact with him. The Nazis are intercepting every piece of mail. And it is dangerous for him until he leaves for France.’
She went on to explain how they had found a family in Paris who had a daughter who was willing to become engaged to Kurt by proxy so that he could obtain a residence visa for France.
‘Jews are being murdered and deported every day here,’ Ilse told me in a wavering voice. ‘They are particularly after the young men. Please Eva if you want to spare Kurt’s life, just cut him loose. No letters, no phone calls. As cruel as it may sound you will be saving his life!’
I had very little choice. We were reading the newspapers and knew of the horrors of Kristallnacht and the ensuing days in Vienna. And so I had to swallow a very bitter pill. Those were terrible days. Soon afterwards and unbeknown to me, my entire family were deported to Auschwitz and Matthausen. After the war I heard through a mutual friend that Kurt did marry the French girl, that they obtained visas for America and were living in the States. I was heartbroken because I had never gotten over him and still loved him.
After the war I opened my own publishing business. I met a fellow Viennese refugee called Otto. We were orphans of the Holocaust, the sole survivors of our families and so we decided to get married. He was a decent man but I cannot say that it was a love match. Otto was a composer of music by profession. His career was cut short by the war and he never really made anything of himself. My business flourished to the extent that I bought my own building in Dorset Square. We had no children and lived in the West End until Otto’s death in 1990. I then decided to sell up and move everything to North West London.
And then it happened. One Friday night I was alone at home in Hendon reading the Jewish Chronicle. Suddenly I noticed a small advertisement in the Classified Section:
‘Anyone knowing the whereabouts of Eva Weiss ex-Schottenring Vienna please contact this number….’
I was in shock. It was signed Kurt Baum – my Kurt! As I lifted the receiver my hands were shaking. He answered the phone. We spoke for over an hour. He told me that he he’d recently been widowed, that there were no children and that he was living on the upper West Side of Manhattan. He explained that he’d done very well in America. He offered to send me a first-class ticket to New York. I laughed and told him that I could afford my own! Our first meeting after so many years was magical. It was as if we had never been apart. Six weeks later we were married. We had 18 wonderful months together until he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. I nursed him till the end. He had no heirs and left everything to me including his four-bedroomed apartment in Manhattan and a huge house in Connecticut on three acres of ground. I had nobody in New York and so after long and hard deliberations and months of meetings with lawyers, bank officials, realtors and overseas removals people, I decided to sell up and come home and that is why I’m on this flight you see.
By now, the crew had darkened the cabin. I had my reading light on and I could see that she was beginning to get emotional.
“What an incredible story, Eva!” I stammered. “You need to write this down.”
“I’ve tried and failed,” she smiled. There were tear stains on her cheeks. I leaned forward and took her hand.
“Let me have your business card. I like to write. Let’s keep in touch. Maybe some day this story will get published somewhere.”