A Mother’s Lost Life, Before the War

Julie Metz describes her mother Eve as a consummate New Yorker—“steely, savvy, thrifty, pragmatic.”  Eve loved the Metropolitan Opera House and Carnegie Hall, Zabar’s and Fairway, polished Ferragamos, fine suits, and perfume that released a “gust of rose.”

But after she died, Metz discovered another, long-suppressed side of her mother: the girl Eva, brimming with the “confidence of well-loved daughter. Pretty, well-groomed and well-fed.”  It’s this dichotomy that becomes the subject of Eve and Eva: A Search for My Mother’s Lost Childhood and What War Left Behind (Atria).  Fiction Editor Yona Zeldis McDonough talks to Metz about the journey, both literal and figurative, she took in an effort to unite those two disparate identities. 

YZM: Why did you set about the task of reconstructing your mother’s early life only after her death?  

JM: I know I am not alone in experiencing a particular kind of silence about the Holocaust during my childhood. My mother told a few stories, but they were always the same ones, and she told them the same way. I won’t say she’d learned them by heart, but I think she’d found these few controlled ways to speak about the horrors she witnessed as a child in Vienna. But beyond those stories, it was as if she’d surrounded herself with a protective force field. I never had the feeling that I could ask for more information beyond what she shared. The family photographs from Vienna were in an album in our apartment, but I never looked through most of the images. Some date back to the late 19th century and later photographs document a comfortable Jewish life in Vienna until the Nazis took over. I remember peeking at the Third Reich passports that my mother kept in her jewelry drawer, but they were such a manifestation of evil that I didn’t want to touch them. What changed all that was finding the small keepsake book in the back of one of my mother’s drawers shortly after she died. When I opened the book, I could feel that it was holding so much pain and loss from her childhood—so many friends, relatives, and teachers she never saw again. This book was probably one of the very few personal items she was able to bring with her to New York. She never showed it to any member of the family, not even to my father, in over fifty years of marriage. The book lived in the darkness of her drawer, but once it saw light again, I wanted to find out more about what she’d witnessed and how the family had escaped and become Americans. 

YZM: You’ve said that what began as “tentative search became a “quiet obsession.” Can you talk more about how and why that transformation happened? 

JM: After finding the keepsake book, I started that tentative searching. In the beginning I had no idea what I was looking for or why or what might still be searchable so many decades after my mother fled Vienna. I remembered the snippets of stories she did tell. Her father ran a paper goods factory that produced items for the pharmaceutical industry such as fancy soap wrappers, printed with designs etched on lithography stones. But as my mother told the story, the real money maker was an item used to dispense powdered medicine. It was made of folded paper, my mother told us, and shaped like a fan. I had no idea what this could be. But I wanted to find it. Eventually, when I connected with the current occupant of that factory space, he helped me find it. I went down many research rabbit holes. Not everything made it into the book, but everything was useful and moved me forward. In regular life, my obsessive nature is not always rewarded, but in this case, I persisted and patient research paid off.

YZM: You wrote that you viewed your battles with your mother with a “new understanding of her toughness.”  Did this insight influence your relationship with your own daughter? 

JM: The generations of my family that I write about produced some tough women. I’ve come to see this as part of my inheritance. I can now see all the ways that my mother’s childhood experiences created trauma. She survived terrible and dark times, and then she came to America during a time of anti-immigrant xenophobia—a previous manifestation of “America First.” She learned a new language and culture, became an American citizen and lived as a modern career woman. She was one of the very few working mothers I knew growing up and as a result I understood that this was something I could do and wanted to do even though it would not be easy. That toughness creates inevitable conflict and I hope I’ve found a way to moderate that with some grace in my relationship with my now adult child, who is also a strong, intelligent, and opinionated person. Diving into this history made me appreciate what I have and the complexity I inherited.

YZM: Why, in your view, were Viennese Jews so deeply attached to their city, even after it had betrayed them so cruelly? 

JM: The story of Vienna’s Jews is truly heartbreaking and what stunned me as I worked is how many researchers are still investigating this subject. There were many waves of anti-Semitism, sometimes brutal, throughout Vienna’s history. Jews were expelled and then returned. Under the Habsburgs, and even after the First World War resulted in the creation of the new nation of Austria, the city remained a sanctuary for a vibrant Jewish culture, even as anti-Semitism rose again. Jews represented about ten per cent of the city’s population, but they had an outsized influence in science, education, literature, music, theater, and art. Many owned businesses and many thrived. People like my grandmother Anna and my grandfather Julius, both born and raised in Vienna, loyal subjects of the Empire and the republic that followed, truly felt like they belonged in this city. What happened after the Nazi takeover in March 1938 was shocking for Jews who thought of Vienna and Austria as their homeland. 

YZM: You’ve written that you were in Vienna on behalf of your mother, “to find a path to belatedly express her unreleased emotions that that lived on” in you.  What were those emotions?  Do you feel you achieved that goal? 

JM:  I can imagine that during her life in America she felt so many emotions: sorrow, loss, grief, a crisis of identity as a European Jew chased away from a beloved city. And perhaps even guilt that she had somehow survived while so many others perished. She lost both her beloved parents when she was still young, their lives shortened no doubt by their ordeal. She was also angry at the country that had rejected her and held that righteous anger close. She fought and won a pension from the Austrian government. Trauma lives on and changes one’s world view. I know that touched my childhood and affected my relationship with her. I’ve tried to recreate the world her family lost and the emotional impact of that loss. Living in that world has helped me understand my mother more deeply. And now, my brother and I are in the process of applying for Austrian citizenship, thanks to a new law that went into effect in September 2020. We both feel we are pursuing this in her honor. We want to reclaim something of what she lost.

YZM: What do you think your mother would make of this book? 

JM: I wondered about this, during my research and writing. I hope she’d feel that I tried to tell the story of one family’s escape and immigration in a way that can speak to so many of us who are descended from survivors. These stories live in us and they have value in a universal sense, as we continue to struggle with what it means to be an American, an immigrant, and Jewish. I was not raised in an observant home, but as a result of researching and writing this book, I’ve never felt more connected to my people who gave so much to Vienna, the city they loved. They strived to belong even as they were being made Other. And here we are now, as anti-Semitism and all other forms of persecution based on religion and culture and race continue in our present time.