When I first came to Chicago in the early 80s I volunteered at a city mission. It was fairly disorganized and chaotic. I never knew from one day to the next what my assignment would be. Often the mission got requests from the elderly for help with household chores. Some of this was ridiculous—they didn’t need help, they needed a bulldozer. I got used to heading out with an address in my pocket expecting anything. I remember wading through an apartment filled thigh-high with trash. Mixed in were bags of money, just randomly tossed about. I wrote about visiting Ida and her vermin-filled apartment. Later she was found dead beneath a blanket of newspapers. (see "That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do", Spring 2012, Adroit Journal)
The point is you didn’t know what you’d get.
In these current unsettling times I’ve been having déjà vu. My mind keeps flashing back to past visitation ladies.
Back then Ronald Reagan had been elected on a wave of populism. Supposedly a happier day was on the horizon— after deregulation, after the recession, after the factories closed. There was an explosion of homelessness. AIDS was largely ignored, a plague visited upon gays. The only thing that made facing each day easier was that there was no Internet or constant news cycle. Now I wake up and am instantly bombarded: attacks on Jewish community centers, Jewish daycares, Jewish cemeteries. White supremists marching in the streets, waving their flags. Hundreds, thousands of people being rounded up and deported. Citizens afraid to leave their home. Journalists derided as the “enemy.” Rumors of a Muslim registry. Travel bans.
Several visitation ladies had lived through the worst of times. Niki, Nevena Stojcic, was 18 years old when she was kidnapped off the streets of her town in Serbia by German soldiers and forced to work in a submarine factory. She had been born with a dislocated hip. Back then something as simple to correct was left, so she was hobbled. Consequently her back became twisted with scoliosis. Permanently small, she was perfect to get in to tiny, tight spaces to rivet. She lived through air raids and bombings of the factory, daily she was threatened with sexual assault, always she was in physical pain. At the end of the war, unwilling to return to communist Yugoslavia, she went first to France and after five years as a displaced person, she was able to immigrate to the United States. By this time, 1950, she was 24.
Hilde “visited” Niki until her death in 1999. Towards the end of her life, after several surgeries and a hip replacement, her body began to give out. Infections caused her body to become septic and she had to have a leg amputated. She became wheelchair bound. According to Hilde: “One amazing thing about Niki was that in the midst of all her hardships she knew that God loved her and would listen to her. She loved the psalms in which David would pour out his complaints to God. ‘If he could do it, I can do it,’ ” she would say. Hilde once told me that if she had another daughter she would have named her Nevena.
Hilde memorialized Niki in a song that she wrote and performed with her band The Crossing.
Eva was a Jew who escaped from Nazi Germany in 1939. As she matured into a teenager she saw the writing as it were on the wall. She complained to her father about perceived injustices. Her father, a doctor, basically told her to chill. It’s not going to happen; it’s not going to get that bad. Our neighbors will never turn on us.
Nevertheless, Eva and her boyfriend and two other friends just 19 years old make plans. She bribes an official to get papers for the four of them. They have to figure out (pre-Internet!) how to safely cross borders. And, they cannot take anything with them. Luggage would be a dead give-away. So the day arrives and Eva and her boyfriend set out. Her mother comes with her as far as she can, as she has no papers, and at a certain stop they say good bye.
She never saw her mother, father, and sister again. She never knew what happened, their letters suddenly stopped.
After a series of connections Eva and her boyfriend arrived in New York City. He proposed to her in a comic fashion. He went to get a driver’s license and came back with a marriage license instead! Afterwards they settled in Chicago to wait out the war.
Meanwhile her brother made it as far as Canada where because he was a German citizen he was interred in a camp. It was only later Eva learned the truth about the rest of her family. Her father died of an illness, but her mother and sister were rounded up and transported to Auschwitz. Eva and her husband visited the Holocaust Museum in DC soon after it opened. A staff person took her aside—would you like to go to the Archive Room. There, was the records the Germans had kept of all the deportees. Eva’s mother and sister were killed immediately after arriving at the camp.
Eva and her husband never had children and he passed away before her. She was sick and lonely when Sarah Sullivan, my friend, met her. Little by little age incapacitated her and she’d complain. Sarah told me she’d have to say to Eva: Listen you escaped from the Nazis, you can do this! Until the end she attended the opera. She lived until age 94.
|Eva and husband at outdoor Berlin cafe, right before leaving, Eva in the middle|
|Eva with friend who was killed during war as a spy/saboteur|
|Eva when Sarah met her|