In March 1938, when Hitler’s armies annexed Austria, forcibly stripping the country of its sovereignty and officially making it part of Germany, there were 185,000 Jews living in Vienna. Out of a population of two million people residing in the former imperial city, this community of Jews, many generations old, constituted ten percent. Vienna held the largest population of German-speaking Jews in all of Europe at the time.
Julie Metz’s mother, Eva Singer, was one of them.
In March 1940, when Eva was twelve years old, she and her parents were finally able to rip themselves out of the escalating danger to escape to the U.S. How did they do it, when 65,000 of the Viennese Jews were ultimately caught in the Nazi trap and murdered? How did they survive in Vienna for the two years after the Anschluss, when Jews were hunted and no place was safe?
The answers to these questions, and many others like it, are the subject of Metz’s insightful memoir.
Metz is both a graphic designer and a freelance writer, and her dual talents drive the narrative with both visual color and verbal clarity. The book takes place in several time frames: her mother’s past, the author’s present, and the years when Eva, now called Eve, was actively mothering Metz. Although Metz plays with time, the transitions are smooth and we always know where we are in the story, ever anxious to learn more of each experience to see how it weaves together with the others.
At first, Metz feeds us teaspoons of history, but soon the force of the story itself plunges us into the violent past with a cold splash. The book is tenderly written, particularly when we are so drawn in that it can feel like we have wandered into a diary, complete with details about the weather and the bloom of nature as the scenes unfold.
Yet at other times we receive formal historical information about the critical events that took place in Vienna between the years 1938 and 1940, when the Singers were finally able to flee. This successfully brings into focus the enormous roadblocks the Nazis constructed to prevent the Jews from leaving the country, despite the imperative they placed on them to do so, plus the devastating hardships they imposed on those who found themselves caught between these two diametrically opposed forces.
Alongside the account of the stories and facts that enabled Metz to piece together her family heritage is a layer of interwoven commentary on today’s culture and politics in the U.S. as they relate to immigration policy and practice.
Yet despite the connection Metz makes to today, she tells us she did not always feel a connection to her mother’s past, nor did she know how much it affected her own. She only became interested in her hidden heritage when, after her mother’s death, she came across a small book in the back of a drawer that her mother had never shown her. It contained handwritten messages, and she learned it was a “poesie album,” a child’s autograph book commonplace in Vienna at the time. What other secrets had been hidden from her, Metz wondered.
We experience the power that the little album exerted on Metz’s curiosity in the flow of the story she tells. In a way, her mother’s death gave her new life. The research journey it propelled her on was long, arduous, and intermittent, alternating among search, serendipity, and success. We follow the narrative with a good deal of hope that she will find out not only the answers to her questions but the peace that comes with fully knowing and accepting the past. Clearly, the Holocaust has left a significant stamp on Metz and her worldview, and in the end the fact that she now recognizes its force is the crowning achievement of the book.
Linda F. Burghardt is a New York-based journalist and author who has contributed commentary, breaking news, and features to major newspapers across the U.S., in addition to having three non-fiction books published. She writes frequently on Jewish topics and is now serving as Scholar-in-Residence at the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center of Nassau County.