Sarah Hesketh meets Eve Kugler

Poet Sarah Hesketh met Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler over tea in north London. Eve survived the Holocaust as a child, escaping Nazi persecution by fleeing France for America. The pair discussed Eve’s heartache at missing her family as she was displaced across the Atlantic, the significance of memory, the creative process, and whether art can capture human experience for future generations.

This is Sarah’s poetic response to Eve’s story – you can also listen to Sarah reading her poem aloud. 

1.

boots brown boots brown boots brown boots

this is how history advances

you now you now you now you

scarring the earth with its straight lines

carting a lusty song of rubble

 

impossible to say if this

is where the shatter started

if here in the swoop of a uniformed arm

you begin to come undone

           

            such an exquisite child

            such perfect Aryan features

            a child of the fatherland, dear lady

            you are to be congratulated

2.

this night is sung

a vile opera of glass

your sister cracking

her fingers in the dark

as your father is led away

 

            wherefore is this night different

            from all other nights?

 

plug your memory as you

might plug your ears

the black notes will still

press in

3.

years made of the white

squawk of paperwork

 

names fade to spaces as

the lists get longer and

unlit men in office chairs

commit a genocide

of envelopes and ink

 

this will take you to family

this to a town of mountains

and rain

it is enough to hear

your mother keep muttering

next year, in Jerusalem

4.

to survive is just a matter

of being somebody else

 

live now, consent to forget

the way you must give thanks

for sickness

how you win at life

as other children rot

 

you suffer the breach

expect no forgiveness

 

make each one you leave behind

record their name in your autograph book

5.

in Lisbon, a bitter ring

of sunshine sours your belly

the pineapple’s yellow sin

is all you can remember

 

years later, Aaron will

describe its flavour

and the bright taste suddenly

is yours to carry again

6.

the new world is a pier

flashbulbs on the innocents

and everyone here

has a silky accent on war

 

you want to rewrite the label

round your neck:

 

the number 24 is too small

the word you don’t know how to spell

is murderers

7.

Hebrew Orphans Asylum

all children are good at hiding

buttons smuggled like a pirate hoard

a glove that still holds

mother’s fingers in its grasp

 

your sister remembers everything

her treasure is a handkerchief

tied into a knot

 

you press between the pages

of your copy book

yellow and purple pansies

buttercups

two rare and lucky

four leaf clovers

8.

home begins again then again

you get lost in the wide beds

of others, you learn what it is

to walk a dog down the street

 

and the last thing to be forgotten

is the shape of home in your mouth

you swallow its din

those metal edges

so that when the letter

finally comes

the words of reunion

are broken runes

and the only thing

your father wants

is never to see Ger-man-ee again

9.

sunny day

take a look over your shoulder

your shadow self

still isn’t there

 

here’s where she might be hiding:

in a tape spooling slowly from Ruth’s shy mouth

on papers the eagle’s claw grapples to the ground

 

and then your mother

lifts her eyes from the table

stops counting as if

her life depended on it

10.

there was luck, but there were also

choices

my pain no stronger

or smaller than yours

 

aleinu, it is our duty to illuminate

even now in this

ordinary dark

When Sarah met Eve

Sarah remembers that “When I first met Eve and heard her story, I was overwhelmed by just how much had happened to her and her family. Although Eve can remember nearly nothing of her childhood, there were so many striking details in what she had to say to me. There was so much for me to write about, at first I couldn’t see how I could possibly tell such a complex family story in just a single poem. The topic of the Holocaust too, is so large; it is terrifying for a writer or artist to be faced with contracting such a major event into a single piece of art.

Whilst Eve’s story is incredibly interesting as a narrative, what struck me most of all was her own battle with forgetting and remembrance. As a victim of traumatic memory loss, she has had to suffer a double tragedy, surviving both the horrors of Nazi Germany, and the subsequent undoing of her own identity.

In recovering her own story through the memories of her sister and her mother, as well as other child survivors and documentary evidence, certain images and incidents seem to have become touchstones for Eve: the time a Nazi soldier scooped her up and threw her into the air as a young child; the bad stomach she suffered whilst in transit to America; the small numbered tag she was wearing when she arrived in New York. I decided to structure my poem around these small ‘flares’ of memory. By writing a sequence of short poems, I felt that I could attempt to mirror Eve’s own experience of fragmented rediscovery. ”

Eve’s story

Image of yellow park bench marked only for Jews. Image courtesy of Wiener Library

Woman on a ‘Jews only’ bench, image courtesy of the Wiener Library

Eve’s father was the owner of a small department store in the German city of Halle an der Saale. After the Nazis took power Eve’s father applied for a visa to Palestine. But as a businessman he was considered low priority and four years later they were still waiting.

The family felt the danger of the Nazis as posters exclaiming ‘Juden Verboten’ (Jews forbidden) appeared all over the city, books by Jewish writers were publicly burned and their shop’s customers abandoned them.

Eve was seven when, on 29 October 1938, the Nazis arrested all Polish Jews living in Germany and deported them to Poland. It included Eve’s beloved grandfather, as well as more than a dozen other family members.

Ten days later six uniformed Nazis came for Eve’s father. She stood at her bedroom door and watched as they stormed through their apartment. They overturned furniture and emptied cupboards, trampling on the contents. In a frenzied attack in her grandfather’s room, they tore apart his religious books.

Poet Sarah Hesketh and Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler enjoy lunch together

Eve and Sarah sharing lunch

Image of Kristallnacht courtesy of Wiener Library

A smashed shopfront after Kristallnacht, image courtesy of the Wiener Library

In the morning Nazis ordered Eve’s mother to sweep up glass from the shattered store windows that littered the pavement. During the Nazi rampage that was Kristallnacht (Night of the Broken Glass) they torched the synagogue that Eve’s grandfather had established decades ago, while firemen watched until nothing was left of the temple.

In the afternoon Eve’s mother walked to the police station and was told that her husband was in Buchenwald concentration camp. If she could produce a visa, he would be freed. It took her six weeks. The week Eve’s father left for France with his forged visa, the Nazis evicted the family from their flat. Eve’s mother sent her daughters to Leipzig to live with their other grandfather, although he was already sharing his flat with five other Jewish families. It took her another six months to obtain a second illegal visa.

They escaped to Paris at the end of June 1939 with one suitcase each and a total of 40 Reichsmarks – all the Nazis permitted them to take out of the country. But the reunion of the family was short-lived. When war broke out in September 1939, the French interned Eve’s father as a German national. Now destitute, Eve’s mother sent her daughters to a home for displaced Jewish children run by the Jewish welfare organisation Ouevre de Secours aux Enfants (OSE). Just before the city fell, the children were hastily evacuated to other OSE homes in central France.

Now living under the Vichy government, which collaborated with the Nazis, their future was uncertain. The children were always hungry; in the winter they shivered in unheated rooms. In 1941 the United States issued a rare visa for several hundred Jewish children trapped in French concentration camps. When the French Resistance could not smuggle the children out of the camps, the visa was given to the OSE. At the last minute Eve and her older sister Ruth took the place of two children who had suddenly become ill and were forbidden to travel. Eve remembers nothing of the long, hazardous train journey through France and Spain, nor of sailing across the U-boat infested Atlantic Ocean, which she attributes to selective amnesia.

“I did not believe that I would ever see my parents again. Our family was reunited in New York in 1946. We started again with nothing except the Jewish beliefs and values that the Nazis could never take from us.”

During five years in New York, Eve lived in three different foster homes. She did not believe that she would ever see her parents again. She could remember little of her experiences in Europe, but the guilt she felt for securing a place of safety at the expense of a sick child never left her.

Eve’s parents and younger sister Lea did survive. With the help of the French Resistance, Lea was hidden first in a Catholic convent and then on an isolated farm. Eve’s mother and father survived four French concentration camps, twice spared from deportation to Auschwitz. Eve’s father struggled as a forced labourer before he managed to escape from a labour camp.

Eve’s family was reunited in New York in 1946. She worked, earned a university degree and became a journalist. But for years she was plagued by her inability to remember what had happened to her during the first 11 years of her life.

In her 40s, Eve finally asked her mother to tell her all that had taken place. The story of her family’s survival is recounted in Eve’s book Shattered Crystals.

Holocaust survivor Eve Kugler smiles at poet Sarah Hesketh over a cup of tea

Eve sharing her life story

Sarah Hesketh is a London-based poet. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies including The White Review, Soundings, Catechism: Poems for Pussy Riot and Binders Full of Women. In 2013-14 she was a poet in residence with Age Concern Central Lancashire – which she found to be an amazing experience that has strengthened an ongoing interest in working with older people. The Hard Word Box, a collection of poems and texts inspired by her time with Age Concern, will be published in December 2014.

Sarah enjoys using poetry to uncover and explore untold stories. She wanted to hear the remarkable personal stories of Holocaust survivors, to help bring new audiences to this most important of topics.

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