Non­fic­tion

Because of Eva: A Jew­ish Genealog­i­cal Journey

Susan J. Gordon
  • Review
By – May 13, 2016

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

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