Dressed in a well-fitted monochrome blazer and skirt, with shards of red nails and lips, and an immaculate billow of cotton white hair, you would be forgiven for thinking Eva Clarke is your typical stylish grandmother. And she is – though she was also born on 29th April 1945 in Mauthausen concentration camp, and thus, as she said so bluntly at the beginning of her talk at St John’s College on Holocaust Memorial Day, she is also ‘a survivor, but only just.’
This was precisely the point of the event, which began with a succinct examination of what it means to think about the Holocaust, and other genocides, and those whose lives were impacted by such atrocities. This presentation, given by John’s Chapel Team Lead Server William Crisp, explored why genocides must not be seen in a ‘vacuum’, and drew attention to the questions considered when coming face-to-face with a Holocaust survivor. It was a pep-talk to prepare the audience for Eva’s subsequent recount of her history, and the unbelievable depths of suffering that humans could inflict on others – a suitable deliberation over what it means to reflect on the Holocaust, particularly considering the theme of this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day: the power of words.
And Eva certainly knew what this meant: her talk was founded in family affairs, an intimate and strongly moving insight into her, and her relatives’, experiences; though she did not adopt that detached perspective so often seen in survivors’ testimonies. Beginning with a family photography from 1913 which showed her father, his siblings and his parents, it was clear she was not going to shy away from telling her full history; her charming voice aching with stoicism throughout the hour-long speech.
Her parents spent the pre-war years stepping into early adulthood with ambitious prospects: her father, who had left his home nation of Germany after Hitler came to power, had moved to the prosperous city of Prague and pursued a career in architecture; whilst her mother was a law student. When the Nazis occupied the country in 1938 and more practical professions were preferred, she became a milliner’s apprentice. Eventually, the pair met and, on 15th May 1940, when their nation was entrenched in occupation, married; a testament to the rosy and aspiring early years of their relationship. As Eva explained, even the heinous Nuremberg Laws did not seem too oppressive at this stage: for Jews like her mother and father, failing to obey these despotic diktats, which included wearing a yellow star and adhering to a curfew, was seen as the gravest danger. Indeed, Eva remarked that her mother remembered exactly what she was wearing on the day she first wore the star: a dark green skirt and tan suede jacket; the latter of which, her mother claimed, did not ‘look that bad’ with the star plastered on it. It was detailing this occasion that Eva first revealed her mother’s enduring determination and self-assurance: a friend of her mother’s was also wearing the star for the first time on that day, bowing her body in shame to try to obscure its blatant branding. Eva’s mother had walked up to her and told her bluntly to ‘stand up straight’ and ‘not let the bastards get you down’; a fortitude which would resurface time and time again in her mother’s story.
Soon, the pair was to be deported to the Theresienstadt ghetto; her mother holding a deteriorating box of doughnuts through the warehouse and railway station to ensure her husband had the food he loved most with him, for the first few days at least. Here, they would live in bunks segregated by sex and work ardously; her mother having the responsibility to find food for her new husband and members of the extended family who also resided in the ghetto. Because the couple were both physically fit, her mother being her school’s Junior Backstroke Champion for Czechoslovakia at the age of 14, the couple lived in Theresienstadt for an almost unheard-of period of three years. This gave them ample time to meet together surreptitiously; and it was during one of these occasions that her mother fell pregnant – but not with Eva. When the Nazis discovered this offence, they forced the couple to sign a document declaring they would hand the child over at its birth to Gestapo officers to be euthanized; a word Eva’s mother did not know until she asked another individual for the definition. When the baby, a boy, was born, the parents did not relinquish him to the Nazis – though the boy was to perish two months later from pneumonia. This, Eva claimed, was the reason why she is alive, for if her mother had been deported to Auschwitz with a child in her arms, she would have been killed immediately.
In 1944, Eva’s father was deported, and days later her mother volunteered to follow him – though she would never see him again. Much later, she learnt from eyewitnesses that he had been shot on a death march on 18th January 1945; just days before the camp was liberated. Eva’s mother was put to work in a different area of Auschwitz; sleeping in small huts which often housed up to 1000 prisoners, and at first bewildered by her new environment and the separation from her family. In Auschwitz, she would realise she was pregnant again.
Eva described the daily ‘Appell’ (roll call) that her mother suffered here; describing the term as a ‘mild sort of word’, but detailing with no hesitation the desperation and exhaustion of those standing still for hours on end, until prisoner figures tallied. On one such roll call, her mother recognised Dr Mengele, who had quipped that the Nazis had ‘very good material in front of them’.
Her mother was then sent to Freiberg to work, where she became ‘more and more starved and more and more obviously pregnant’. But here, she and other prisoners had hope: the onset of the Dresden raids signalled the Allies triumphs; though the prisoners recognised the raids could easily kill them, too. Years after the war, Eva would introduce her father-in-law, who had been in the RAF, to her mother to share stories of their wartime experiences; his raids had targeted Dresden, and he was ‘devastated’ to realise he could have caused her death.
But Eva’s mother persisted, even as her pregnancy reached its final stages and her weight dropped to five stone. As the Allies began to sweep across Europe, the remaining prisoners were packed up and carted away to less threatened territory; Eva’s mother was sent on an open-air train to Mauthausen; a journey which lasted 17 days. The train would stop at intervals to dispose of the prisoners who had perished en route; on one occasion, Eva’s mother, who by now looked like a ‘scarcely living pregnant skeleton’, caught the eye of a local farmer, who offered her a glass of milk. A Nazi nearby almost stopped this exchange, but eventually allowed her the drink; a choice Eva’s mother felt saved her life. As she would question later, such a decision may have been down to compassion, or simply fear; but what mattered was that she lived.
But, when the train eventually pulled into Mauthausen, a camp already notorious to her mother, the shock induced her labour; a Nazi in the camp stating brusquely that she could ‘carry on screaming’ as she hauled herself from the train. Feeling as if she was near death, her mother eventually gave birth to Eva – whereupon a prisoner, who was also a doctor, was allowed to tend to her and her daughter; who weighed three pounds at birth.
Her mother believed there were three reasons behind her survival at this stage: that, on 28th April, the Nazis had run out of gas; that Hitler committed suicide on 30th April; and that the Americans arrived to liberate the camp a few days later. Eva and her mother had arrived at just the right time; the food the Americans brought nourishing their appetites and enabling a swift physical recovery. Eva noted, however, that some were not so lucky; many in the camp ate the Americans’ food too fast for their bodies to cope, and died even at this moment of liberation – though Eva hoped they at least knew they were free as they perished.
For mother and daughter, the opportunity soon came to be repatriated to Prague; though her mother experienced her ‘worst moment’ of the war upon her night time arrival back in her home city, as she realised all she had lost. She did not know if any of her family had survived. But an aunt had and, surprisingly, already knew her niece now had a daughter. They met, and lived together for three years, before a move to Cardiff to start a new life. It was down to the early closure about her husband’s death that Eva’s mother was able to move forward; she met and married an old family friend, who would bring Eva up as his daughter, and the trio moved to England.
It was in these last stages of the talk that Eva herself became emotional, commenting that her mother was grateful to have survived and helped new relatives blossom, as she displayed a ‘happy’ recent family photograph of four generations. She explained that she told her mother’s story because of the need to remember individual accounts and learn lessons for the future; but, on a more personal level, Eva appeared to want to keep the memories of her family alive most of all. She mentioned that she had almost always known her mother’s story; growing up with gradual snippets of her history and Jewish culture, which she explained made her into a ‘mongrel’ – and it was this, it seemed, that imbued Eva with the skill to communicate such lessons to a variety of audiences.
Though she knew testimonies would help teach communities to fight for what is right, and ‘preserve democracy’, arguing that ‘the only weapon we have is education’, Eva stressed the individuality of her account; explaining that, if she ever met Hitler, she would only be able to say one word, ‘why?’, to him. She wanted to speak about her own history to teach others – not just to save the world, but also to save her past; as her mother had always said, she was glad the family’s story was being told, as then more people would know of the relatives she had lost.
Eva was not a figure trying to fix humanity: whilst she encouraged her audience to respect one another, she later told me that she did not know if recounting her family’s testimony would have an impact on any audience, though, as she pointed out, this was ‘not a reason not to try’. More than anything, Eva was promoting the voice of the individual, arguing that even Nazis found guilty of war crimes should talk about their experiences, rather than being muted in cells. Indeed, her last message was an encouragement to speak: not merely to speak out about what is right, but also to ask questions to families about their heritage, and learn more about where your own voice is from. The past, after all, forms the future.
And in her determined inspiration to sustain all the voices of humanity for the future, Eva proved that she was, truly, her mother’s child.