Remembering eva

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Elana Benjamin

Elana Benjamin found herself cast into the past when she had to make a decision about a dream job.

It's tempting to succumb to the whispers which gently beckon, telling me I cannot change the past.

It's tempting to succumb to the whispers which gently beckon, telling me I cannot change the past. Photo: Stocksy

The job offer I've been fantasising about since motherhood rerouted my life has finally materialised. It's a well-paid, two-day-a-week role back in the corporate insurance industry where I built my career. There's just one glitch: my future employer collaborated with the Nazis during World War II. I have to decide: is this period in the company's history a deal-breaker?

My own family, of Iraqi-Indian Jewish heritage, was blessedly untouched by the Holocaust. Yet years of history lessons have etched the death of six million of my people deep in my consciousness.

Six million - such an impossible number to digest, more suited to balance sheets than accounting for lives lost. There's really only one person on my mind while I see-saw about the job with the German insurer. And that's Eva.

I first met my husband's grandmother on a Sydney summer's day in the late 1990s. My then-boyfriend introduced me to "Grandma" Eva, who pulled me towards her and kissed me on both cheeks, European-style.

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Her warmth immediately put me at ease and we chatted freely over scones and tea, Eva without a trace of her German mother tongue or the Czech she once spoke fluently.

Over the years which followed, Eva and I saw each other regularly. Yet she never mentioned her idyllic childhood in the Czech city of Olomouc, or her coming-of-age in London.

Instead, her blue eyes twinkled as she asked about my work, my family, my life - and later, my children. Her precious great-grandchildren.

Except for one occasion. For my daughter's first birthday, Eva bought her an extravagant doll. "I know she's still too young for it now," Eva's voice faltered, before explaining how her own beloved doll had been taken from her on the Kindertransport train when she was a girl, and then discarded out the window while she helplessly watched, with no one to comfort her.

Kindertransport - German for "children's transport" - was an organised rescue effort which began nine months before the outbreak of World War II. Between then and May 1940, nearly 10,000 children, most of them Jewish, were sent from Nazi Germany, Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia to the safety of Great Britain.

Eva and her sister Anita farewelled their parents in March 1939 and boarded the Kindertransport at Prague station. Just 13, Eva was responsible for her eight-year-old sister, Anita, on the long journey to London. Although they didn't know it, Eva and Anita would never see either of their parents again.

That conversation, when my daughter turned one, was the only time Eva talked to me about the war and the old country. She never mentioned the pain of being separated from her parents and suddenly leaving all that she knew. Of arriving in London, unable to speak English, and the harsh conditions she and Anita endured in a boarding school until close relatives took them in.

Eva never told me the terrible fate of her parents, who were loaded onto cattle wagons from Theresienstadt concentration camp and shipped, hungry and thirsty, to a forest in eastern Poland where they were forced to dig massive trenches which became their graves.

Although I never saw a hint of bitterness, I sensed the ghosts of Eva's past as she sung German lullabies to my babies and rocked them on her knee. The words and tunes from a long-ago life. So much that could have been.

Eva has been dead four years now. Three generations have passed since the unthinkable occurred. The German insurer has officially apologised for its role in the Holocaust and paid millions of dollars in restitution.

So it's tempting to succumb to the whispers which gently beckon, trying to seduce me: You cannot undo the suffering of the past. Your actions don't make a difference.

But I keep thinking of Eva.

If Eva were still alive, how could I tell her that I'm going to work for the same company that insured Auschwitz - the death camp where over a million people people were exterminated in the 1940s - and its engineers? For the insurer that was once chaired by Hitler's Minister of Economics? For the organisation that insured the valuables of deported Jews during the war?

Yet I'm certain that Eva wouldn't condemn me. "Do whatever you need to, darling," I suspect she would say in her gentle, non-judgmental way. You cannot change history.

But as much as I try to rationalise accepting the near-perfect job - none of my future colleagues were involved in the atrocities, after all - I feel myself being pulled away from the company's glittering offices, as if the German insurer and I are magnets trying to meet at matching poles.

Finally, I decline the position. Because unlike Eva's parents, and every other person treated barbarically by the Nazis, I have choices.

And with every choice I make - who I work for, the products I purchase, the charities I support - I quietly affirm what is important to me, what I value, and what I stand for.

True, I cannot change the past. But I can certainly shape the present, if only in minuscule ways.

And as global events continue to illustrate, the seemingly trivial actions - and inactions - of people acting individually are immensely powerful, with consequences which often reverberate into future generations.