About fifteen years ago, Susan J. Gordon began an obsessive search to learn about her grandfather, Aaron Bell, of whom her mother and grandmother refused ever to speak. Despite many dead ends, Gordon’s persistence led to an unknown relative, Eva Hessing. Not only had Eva known and loved Gordon’s grandfather, but also her stories led Gordon to the discover an extended family she had never known existed.
Gordon was raised by two women who had had terribly failed marriages: her beloved grandmother Esta, who left Aaron in 1938, several years before Gordon’s birth — “just mentioning his name made Grandma’s blood boil”; and her mother Sunny, whose explosive husband Sid was reckless and prone to violence. Four years before Sunny filed for divorce in 1947, she took Susan and her brother to Esta’s small apartment in Queens. Sid would drive there and bang on the door furiously — in one two-month stretch, his tirades forced Esta to call the police six times.
Gordon saw her grandfather only twice, when she was five and when she was twelve; she accompanied her reluctant mother after Aaron called her and begged to see her and her children. The meeting was cool and remote. Aaron didn’t die then, but she saw him another time later on, in a hospital. Then, when he was truly on his deathbed and a relative called her, Sunny refused to see him.
These are the background details that fueled Gordon’s compulsive drive to learn about her grandfather and the reason for the irrevocable break and ensuing silence. What began as a search for him led to a journey with surprising discoveries. All those discoveries were because of Eva.
In 1999 — some fifty years after her grandparents had separated and over thirty years after each had died — Gordon went to the New York City Department of Health, and there obtained the death certificate of Aaron Bell. She was about to leave when she noticed that an “Eva Hessing” had signed the certificate as her grandfather’s “niece and next of kin.” A niece? Next of kin? Who was Eva Hessing? Gordon had never heard of either the first or last name.
Gordon began contacting relatives from the “severed branches” of her family but no one had a clue as to who Eva was. “Leave it alone,” her mother and aunts insisted. “It’s best to forget all about it.” Gordon refused. Finally, a relative in her mid-50s remembered Eva.
Gordon contacted Eva and found that she had been living in Israel since the mid-1970s, having survived WWII in Budapest under the protection of Raoul Wallenberg and the Swedish Embassy. She herself had helped protect others, including members of Aaron’s family. After the war, she first went to Sweden, where her own family had escaped five years earlier, then to Israel. On a visit to New York in the 1960s, Eva met Dr. Leopold Hessing, a widowed dentist who lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They soon married.
It was at that time she found her Uncle Aaron, a great uncle, the brother of Eva’s grandfather, Jacob. He was a tzaddik, Eva said with a warmth that Gordon could not have imagined, “a righteous man, someone I knew for five or six years, and it made my life richer that I met him.” Eva was the one who called her mother Sunny when Aaron was on his deathbed.
Because of Eva gives us the details of Eva’s life that Gordon recorded during her visits to Israel, in telephone calls and correspondence. From Eva she learned about the many members of her unknown family, those who survived and those who were murdered, in Budapest. Gordon chronicles her travels with her husband to Budapest, and also to Lvov, Zbaraz, Skalat, and Czernowitz, where her relatives died — they went there to say Kaddish and “bear witness to their heroism, suffering and murdering.”
Gordon writes that she was raised with few connections to Judaism but that “Because of Eva, I have become a more observant Jew.” Just what she means by “more observant” is not a theme she explores — does it have to do with her connection to the Holocaust because of her family, or is there something more, related perhaps to Jewish law and ritual? Such an exploration could have been illuminating for Gordon and for her readers as well. It is the one lacuna in this well-told story.