In New York, it was mid-August on a Sunday morning. In Tel Aviv, it was afternoon. I took a deep breath, picked up the phone, and dialed 14 numbers.
"Shalom?" said an elderly woman.
"Shalom," I replied. "And hello. I am looking for Eva H___. Are you Eva?"
"Yes." Her voice sounded guarded and cautious. "Who are you?"
Another deep breath, and I began. "I am the granddaughter of Aaron Bell, calling from New York. I want to thank you for taking care of my grandfather years ago, before he died."
Silence. Eva paused. Then: "Aaron? You are Uncle Aaron's granddaughter?" She stopped again; was she also holding her breath? She resumed, speaking slowly and deliberately. "If you are calling me about my great-uncle Aaron, then there is justice in heaven, after all. And I am happy to speak with you."
"Even if that was all you did, Susan, that phone call to thank Eva was enough," my rabbi assured me recently, when I described the event to her. "The fact that you called her surely meant a lot to her. It was a call she would never forget."
But of course, that call would not be enough. Quickly, Eva concluded that we were second cousins, since our grandfathers had been brothers - although hers had been much older than mine. Her next question was stunning. "Do you know that you are calling me on the yarhtzeit of Aaron's death?"
No, not really, although I did know that he had died in August. But Eva was correct; 32 years ago, my grandfather Aaron died Erev Tisha b'Av, which was now. She had been lighting candles in his memory ever since. In all likelihood, Eva and I were the only people who even thought about Aaron anymore. His siblings had died before him, and his children never mentioned him. For years, Eva had remembering a long-forgotten man, and now, family tree research had driven me to find this woman who had called herself his "next of kin" on his death certificate.
"There is a photograph of him on my bureau, and I am looking at it now," she said. "Come. I would love to meet you and we will talk and talk. You can stay with me; your only expense will be your airfare."
Did finding Eva just happen, or was it meant to be? Had it simply been chance that I had called her on the anniversary of Aaron's death? The concurrence of these events was remarkable. "I do believe that our ancestors... want to be found," writes genealogist Henry Z. Jones, Jr. in his book, "Psychic Roots: Serendipity and Intuition in Genealogy." Jones contends that unseen forces are at work when we actively search for something, and that "serendipitous and intuitive events do indeed influence our research."
Swiss analytical psychologist Carl Jung said "meaningful coincidences must be valued and examined, and not simply taken for granted. Clues are always there, but usually we don't notice them unless we sense we are in the right place at the right time.
I'm a big believer in happenstance, especially when I pursue family tree research. When I began my work, all I planned to do was fill in the gaps of missing information. I had not yet realized that genealogy helps you connect to your heritage; you're not just writing down birth and death dates, you're also reuniting dispersed families torn apart by wars, geography or breakdowns in family ties due to all kinds of reasons.
I found Eva because I went looking for Aaron, whom I had met only once or twice when I was very young. By then, my grandmother had left him, and their daughters had drifted away, too. Many years later, I applied for a copy of his death certificate, and what I learned inspired me to dig deeply into family history, search for missing relatives fly to Israel, Eastern Europe and Ukraine.
Eva had signed the certificate, but no one knew who she was. For months, I contacted all the relatives I knew and all the relatives they knew.
Metaphorically leapfrogging across domestic and international borders, I phoned, wrote letters, and sent emails asking, "Do you know Eva H___?" Respondents kept saying no.
At the same time, I plowed through microfilm rolls at Federal Archives offices and almost disregarded the 1901 ship manifest of a young man with Aaron's last name, until I sounded out the word, "Uren," and realized it was, indeed, him. Online, through www.Jewishgen.org, I also discovered a faraway third cousin whose great-grandmother had been Aaron's aunt in Galicia.
Finally, a previously unknown relative, whom I had queried, asked his elderly mother who said, "Try Lici in Toronto, although she's not a blood relation, more like a 'waving relative.'" I sent Lici an email introducing myself and asking my perpetual question. A week later, she responded: "Your grandfather's caretaker was indeed Eva, who now lives in Tel Aviv. She's past 80, widowed and childless, and will fall in love with you immediately as she loves old family tales."
Finding Eva was the start of peeling the onion of my family's world before most of my relatives came to America. The stories she would tell were not only about my grandfather, but also were powerful recollections about how she survived the Holocaust in Hungary, and how other family members did not. You can't investigate 20th-century Jewish history and ancestry without colliding with the Holocaust. Even if I thought everyone in my family was "here" in the United States, the Holocaust had hacked off branches on my family tree.
Connecting the dots of family and European history happened whenever I listened to Eva. Eventually, her stories inspired my husband and me to visit the sites in Budapest she so vividly described. With her Aryan features, strawberry blond hair, and a safe apartment under "Swedish protection" in 1944, Eva took in Jews with no place to stay for short or extended periods of time. Her grandparents came often, until they found sanctuary in a Swedish Red Cross hospital even though, technically, they were not ill. "But they were starving," said Eva. "All of us were, by then.
"By December, everything was broken down. There was little food or water, no heat, no electricity -- all was chaos. Some days, the only 'food' we had was salt."
Even so, Eva agreed to hide Peter, the young son of a desperate Jewish mother. Eva put on one of the Hungarian-Nazi armbands she had made for the underground, and brought Peter to an 18th-century church run by Franciscan monks known to hide Jews in their secluded cloister. A few days later, as the Red Army advanced toward Budapest, the Nazis emptied the cloister and killed everyone, including the monks.
Probably, Peter was dead, but Eva was determined to search for him. In what she would later call "my bravest act," she "rushed to the cloister, ran inside and down a long narrow corridor, turned right, came to a door, opened it and there was Peter in a corner, crying. 'No crying! We have to run!' I whispered, as I helped him into a coat. I grabbed his hand and we turned left, ran down the corridor and went out the door to the street. Then we walked slowly, as if nothing had happened. I felt that we were invisible." Peter lived with Eva for several months, until his mother came for him.
My husband and I searched Budapest neighborhoods for days until we found the Franciscan church on the corner of Kossuth and Ferenciek streets. Situated beside it was another building with tall, wooden doors. Did they open on a long corridor? After about 10 minutes, a man unlocked the doors and disappeared down a dim passageway. Other people entered, and we followed. Turning right at the end of the hall, we saw a middle-aged monk in the sacristy. His eyes shifted uneasily when we introduced ourselves as Jews, but a younger monk named Clement spoke English well and listened to our story about Eva and Peter. Quickly, Clement led us to a room with windows facing only an interior courtyard, safely hidden from the street. Elderly nuns had once told him that this was where Jews had been sheltered in 1944. The air was thick with ghosts.
I remembered Eva saying that most of the monks had not been "friendly" to the Jews. Now, I told Clement, "What the monks did, helping Jews, was a brave and very good thing. We came here to thank you, and to let you know that such bravery has not been forgotten." Clement smiled modestly, and promised that our gratitude would also be known.
This is just one of the stories that Eva told me. There also is a story about her in a 1993 book written by Hungarian-born adults who were children during the war years. They remembered "Eva the Swede," a kind woman with reddish-blond hair who worked in the underground in Budapest, gave shelter and food to many Jews, and helped them obtain lifesaving identification papers.
I'll never forget Eva's words, before she slipped into dementia a year ago. It was the last time we had a meaningful conversation. "We met too late, dear Susan," she said.
Oh, but we did meet, Eva, and hasn't it been amazing that we met at all?"
Copyright (c) Susan J. Gordon, 2009. Published in The Jewish Week of New York.