Small Stones Interviews: Eva Kaye-Zwiebel

“Institutions are just habits. They’re nothing. When they’re broken, they’re broken.”

Eva Kaye-Zwiebel is a co-founder of Small Stones. In June she attended a Voice of Witness oral history workshop, where she talked about the 2016 presidential election against the background of her grandmother’s life. She told this story in an interview, which we’ve edited to create a first person narrative.

img-20161108-wa0000-e1500056801450.jpg
Eva on Nov. 8, 2016 after casting her vote.

My brother was at my house on Election Day, November 8, 2016, when a giant box arrived from my Cousin Nancy. I looked at it and thought, “What the heck is this?” As we were opening it, I remembered Nancy had told me she had the steamer trunk Manna used to move from Germany to the United States. I’d said Nancy could send it to me. Manna was my grandmother. Her name was Marianne, German for Mary Ann. When she was little she called herself ‘Manna’ because she couldn’t pronounce her own name, and that became the family variation on grandma.

Before the election my brother and I talked a little. My reputation is as the professional worrier in the family and I didn’t want to dump too much of that on him. He knew I was worried and that I had gone to Nevada to knock on doors because I didn’t have a good feeling about the election. I wanted to be able to say I’d done what I reasonably could.

The box was absolutely empty. It’s an empty wooden crate. I guess I expected a more finished trunk. The wood is raw, like, ‘be careful when you touch it, you might get a splinter.’ It has metal hinges and a place to put a lock on it. It’s maybe three feet by eighteen inches by twenty inches. It’s sturdy. It has Hamburg Line stickers on it and the address she was going to in Harrison, New York.

Trunk
Manna’s trunk on Nov. 8, 2016.

I laughed when we opened the box because it was too ‘neat’ for it to arrive the day of the election. Manna left Germany in 1935, and this is the trunk. If it happened in a story, you’d get mad and throw the book because it’s too neat.

Manna was a force of nature, and she was grumpy. I think she was like that before her country fell apart and the whole family left. But she left early; she was one of those people. She was in medical school in Switzerland and, if I remember my history right, the Nuremburg laws or some of Hitler’s legislation went into effect in Switzerland before it did in Germany. She had to leave school because she was Jewish. As a result, she looked around and said, “This is not the place for me. This is not going to go well.” And she up and left before the family. She ended up getting her US citizenship the week before Pearl Harbor. Of course then Germans couldn’t get it and my grandfather was an enemy alien in Los Angeles during World War II.

My grandparents’ marriage was a love match. Their fathers were both bankers and I think knew each other as business partners. They were from two different towns in Germany. Manna talked about being introduced to sons in various families, so there was probably a little bit of planning on the parents’ parts. But Manna didn’t do anything she didn’t want to do.

She went back to Germany after war had broken out in Europe but before the US had declared war. We have this packet of stateless-person papers, because the Nazis cancelled Jews’ passports. The paperwork says she’s traveling on the papers because of the so-called Aryan laws, and it’s typed out, ‘Aryan laws.’ Even thought she was insulated from danger because the family had money, I can’t imagine getting on a ship back to Europe in 1939 and going to tell your family, “You’ve got to get out!” [In fact, she went to visit her sick father in Switzerland].

Non-Aryan
Excerpt of Manna’s US non-resident alien papers. It reads, “according to the new German Law, she is a “Non-Aryan”.

Today, I have German citizenship. They call it ‘reclaiming’ citizenship and I got it in 2012. At the time I joked, “Oh, you know, it’s insurance if things ever get strange in the US. Wouldn’t it be ironic?” When I picked up the naturalization document at the German Consulate in LA there was this stereotypical German man working at the service window. I said, “I’m here for my naturalization papers.” He said something to me in German, and I said, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak German.” He made some comment and I just thought, “F**k you.”

The Muslim ban in January made me wonder if we should leave, but it didn’t apply to citizens and I think that would be the line: if there’s demonization of people with US citizenship. It’s not a moral line, it’s a legal line, but if we start revoking the citizenship of US citizens based on country of birth or travel history, I think I’m out. I have friends who say, “We’re people of privilege, we should stay and fight.” But I think there are cycles in history and I’m not convinced individuals can stand in the face of them. I mean, certainly they can, it’s morally important, but I don’t think it’s effective. The lesson in my family—which had money in Germany, versus my husband’s family in Poland, which didn’t—is that there are windows in which you can get out administratively, and the people who got out lived, and the people who didn’t died. I don’t think we’re there, but I also don’t think we’re special or different as Americans. I hope we are, but… institutions are just habits. They’re nothing. When they’re broken, they’re broken. They can end.

Manna 1938 Passport
Manna’s photo in her 1938 German passport. Note the swastikas on the stamps, gripped in the eagles’ talons.

The back story to all of this is my life is shaken up right now. I’ve been looking for a job for about 14 months. I have a PhD in political science, I speak French. I can be a researcher or teacher, but I don’t have a job right now. I’m sure that has an impact on how I’m feeling about the country as a whole. The personal sense of rejection from the economy matters, the fact that on first glance, what would I be losing by leaving? What am I rooted to here right now? That makes it easier. My husband and I don’t own property, we don’t have kids. It’s easy for me to say I want to leave.

It’s an interesting lens on how much circumstances play into big life choices. Manna left Germany because she was 24 and she was pissed. She didn’t have the roots that would hold her and make it more complicated to leave. She was a young person, she wasn’t married yet. Whereas her parents’ generation, they owned a bank, they owned a home. Her husband Walter, my grandfather, was seven years older. He was more established, he had a career. She went to him and said, “It’s time to go.” At least that’s the family lore. I don’t know all the details. I think partly it was force of character and partly it was her age and circumstances. You have a different view when you aren’t rooted to a particular place.

She was not prescriptive, but I have lots of things that, in my mind, I learned from her. My mom died when I was young, so my relationship with Manna was direct, not mediated through my mom. Manna was unapologetically her own person. She knew what she thought. I’m more shy and self-censoring, at least at this point in my life—though more than one family member has said I resemble her. Manna, if you could sum her up, it was, “Don’t take sh*t from anybody.” Like, you might not be right, but there’s nothing to say they’re right, either.

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