Memory Speaks, But It Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth

Eva and Eve

Eva and Eve: A Search for My Mother’s Lost Childhood and What a War Left Behind

By Julie Metz

Atria Books; 320 pages; $28


The Eve in the title was Julie Metz’s mother, a rare example in her day of a woman who managed to have it all. She rose to the position of art director at Simon & Schuster while raising a family, running their city apartment and country house, cooking meals, doing laundry, preparing tax forms, and on and on. She was a formidable woman, who was more feared than loved by her daughter. The two tussled throughout the latter’s childhood and eventually settled into a calmer relationship that was, for Julie, no more satisfying, characterized as it was by her conscious avoidance of conflict and “without the full abandon we probably both craved.”

The Eva in the title was the future Eve, a girl who grew up in Vienna before and after the Anschluss, the March 1938 annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany that sent cheering hoards into the streets and plunged Austria’s centuries-old Jewish community into crisis. Julie knew that her mother, at the age of 11, had fled with her parents to the States. Maybe she also understood that what made her mother difficult—“a hard nut,” “scary” and “cold,” in the words of her friends—was connected to her childhood trauma. But it was only after Eve died, of the rare cancer mesothelioma, that Metz discovered, hidden in a dresser drawer, Eva’s autograph book, which her friends and relatives inscribed with bits of poetry, well wishes and farewells that were more final than any of those scribes likely imagined. The book, its linen cover inscribed with the word Poesie, inspires Metz to learn her mother’s truths—the things that happened to her, but also what she felt as her childhood world came tumbling down around her.

“Like many Jews of my generation, I’d grown up under a dark cloud of memory,” Metz writes. “Now I wanted to pierce the cloud and understand the Vienna my mother knew as a child, the terrifying years under National Socialism, and then her life as a wartime refugee and immigrant.”  To that end, Metz set off for Austria.

As with Edwin de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, another memoir that covers some of the same physical and historical territory, much of the excitement of this book lies in accompanying Metz on her quest. In Vienna she goes to her mother’s childhood apartment, where multiple Jewish families ended up in hiding. She visits her father’s paper factory—he invented a curious medicine delivery system, a fan made of conjoined tubes that could be filled with powder—which he was forced to sell, for next to nothing, to a non-Jew who was ignorant of the business. She tours Trieste, where her grandparents and mother boarded the ocean liner Saturnia, which took them on an uneasy journey to New York and a new life.

But unlike de Waal, Metz has an earned anger, which she has to suppress, for example, in order to reassure the people now occupying her family’s property that she hasn’t returned to reclaim it. It’s a rage that comes out in other, quieter ways. In Vienna’s Belvedere Museum she refuses to budge from in front of Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss, the view of which she’s apparently blocking for a gaggle of tourists trying to photograph it. And she gives her own daughter a pass when she gifts Metz with a scarf she’s lifted from Vienna’s Leopold Museum shop, figuring the “fucking Austrians owed my family more than they had ever repaid or could ever repay.”

Metz, author of a previous memoir, Perfection, about the untimely death of her husband and the betrayals it revealed, doesn’t just want to learn her mother’s history. She wants to inhabit it, finding points of connection in her survival of rape as a college student and in her confinement in her home during the pandemic. In a haunting scene set in the Trieste hotel where the cruise ship company boarded the third-class passengers until the Saturnia sailed, a building now used as a school, Metz, typically fearless, walks in and keeps going. “I was weeping by the time I reached the second floor, overwhelmed by the presence of so many ghosts.” A woman approaches, gently reprimands her for being there, then says with sympathy, “You are not the only person who has shown up over the years looking for the past.” 

But the historical record is full of holes, which Metz here fills using techniques of fiction writing. She imagines scenes complete with dialogue and alternating points of view. Every memoir is built on the shifting sands of memory, but Metz’s flights of imagination sometimes take us far from any semblance of stable ground. She describes photographs that exist, but also those that do not. The latter are goads to imagination, but even the pictures that do exist are starting places for Metz to inhabit the lives of the characters in them. As with the story of her grandfather hiding smuggled-out cash in a roll of toilet paper on the train to Trieste, Metz sometimes imagines the scene before providing the fact, in this case an “embellished” family story, which inspired it: first the pearl, then the worried-over grain of sand.

Her imagined scenes are indeed lustrous, though just-the-facts readers of nonfiction might object to these departures from the known. I am not one of those readers. And Metz is no naïve writer; her memoir meditates on the difficulty of knowing the truth. Ultimately, as implied by this book’s various epistemological methods, research can only take you so far. Her cherished postcard of the Saturnia passing through the Strait of Gibraltar, Metz notices with her graphic designer’s eye, shows a view unavailable to the human eye. Her mother remembered that part of the voyage, told how frightening the big rock was, for it was full of guns. But even first-person recollections, including the author’s own, can’t be trusted: memory speaks, but it doesn’t always tell the truth. When referenced against the captain’s logs, Eve’s story about a stowaway checked out; one about a spy, not so much. Metz is naturally thrilled to find a story of her mother’s anchored in truth, but even what Eve gets wrong—she did not, for example, escape on “the last boat” from Italy—Metz treats sympathetically.

“It felt disloyal to give up this version, but I decided that I could still value it as emotional truth even as I corrected the facts of the narrative,” Metz writes. Eva and Eve is not just an exercise in reconstructing the past; it’s also a radical act of connection with a parent who wasn’t easy to love. This is a personal story, but one shared by millions, and Metz comes to understand what it means to be the daughter of a Holocaust survivor. Of her mother, Metz writes, “the trauma of what she witnessed and personally experienced as a child left her changed, and forever, and left its indelible mark on me.”

 

 

 

 

 

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One thought on “Memory Speaks, But It Doesn’t Always Tell the Truth

  1. Ted Hochstadt says:

    Memory, indeed, does not always tell the truth. In 1975 I read for the first time a diary that I had kept during the years 1968-69, and discovered to my surprise that during the intervening years I had been relating to friends inaccurate accounts of significant events that I had experienced just a few years earlier.

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