Kathryn Eisman shares the heartbreak that brought her to the US and the dark tragedies of the Holocaust that her grandmother left behind in Europe.
You know you’ve come a long way from home when not only do things around you look different, but the things you brought with start to look different too. My vivid lilac and green floral mini-dress was one of these things. Sipping iced tea on the powder white sands in Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula it looked perfectly suitable, chic even. But now, standing goose-bumped in the grey of JFK Airport in the dead of winter, surrounded by puffer-jacketed and cashmere-coated Manhattanites, it looked ridiculous, scandalous, completely out of place. And so did I. It was then that I realized the greatest journeys in life aren’t the ones we plan (or pack) for. They’re the detours that happen along the way, the ones we’re inappropriately dressed for.
“It was then that I realized the greatest journeys in life aren’t the ones we plan (or pack) for. They’re the detours that happen along the way, the ones we’re inappropriately dressed for.”
Twelve hours before I arrived in New York on 4 January 2003 – the place I would call home for the next four years – I had no intention of being there. I had been with my long-term boyfriend on a romantic holiday to one of those private estates in Mexico – the ones that are so luxurious and remote that as you sit opposite one another eating fresh papaya you have to convince yourself that you’re relaxed because you’re paying too much to admit you’re bored out of your mind. It was the last few days of our trip before we returned to Sydney and life, as I knew it. That day we’d shared the ancient Mayan ritual of a temazcal volcanic sauna, which sounds exotic but in reality consists of two people sweating side by side in a cramped rock and plaster hut. We were carefully removing the toxins we had just as carefully consumed the night before in the form of sapphire-blue cocktails and a meal that climaxed in a flambé, which the waiter theatrically poured from gravy tray to gravy tray until it stopped blazing. We watched our dessert go up in flames, not knowing that the following morning our relationship would do the same.
Now standing at the luggage carousel awaiting the arrival of my suitcase, shivering in my tropical scrap of a dress, I discovered that in my hurried post-break-up packing I had omitted the one warm coat I owned – the beloved cream mink that my grandmother had brought with her from Europe. Instead I was reduced to adorning myself with a sarong for warmth, in an unforgiving shade of tangerine that instantly made me look like an escapee from a maximum-security prison. I could feel the disapproving and pitiful stares all around me, as if to say: ‘Why is she dressed like it’s the middle of summer?’; ‘Did she catch the wrong flight?’; ‘Why isn’t she waiting tables at a casino?’ These were all legitimate questions to which I really didn’t have answers (except for the last one, which is because I’m an appalling waitress). What I did know was that for some reason fate had brought me here – fate, and a friend called Marc Honaker.
I met Marc two years earlier while on a short internship at Fox News in New York during my semester break from university. He was a charismatic Tennessee-born transplant and had a knack for sweet-talking his way into back entrances, be it the Marc Jacobs show at New York Fashion Week or Marc Jacobs himself. Marc also happened to be flying through Mexico on his way home from a “boys weekend” in Cuba at the exact time that my romantic life went the way of Mayan civilization. He briefly stopped off at the hotel in Cancun that I had fled to, and upon hearing of my highly flammable break-up insisted – in his flamboyant girl-what-are-you-thinking? way (complete with finger snap) – that there was no point going back to my predictable life in Sydney and that New York was the place for me. It should be noted that at the time of imparting this advice Marc was suffering from second-degree sunburn and his crimson skin was bubbling beneath an inch-deep layer of aloe vera gel. He obviously sensed that if I stayed on any longer in Mexico in my current state I too might attempt suicide through sunburn. Seeing him was all the encouragement I needed.
Stepping outside the terminal, alone, at night, a burst of bone-chilling air instantly turned my brown, exposed legs the color of ash. My eyes were so swollen from crying that I looked like a blind newborn marsupial and my voice had evaporated somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico. From the plane’s double-glazed porthole the New York fairy lights beneath me looked serene. Now, dragging my suitcase through the grey slush to the taxi rank, thrust in front of car lights and tooting horns, it was anything but. I had no idea where I would be spending the night. I couldn’t stay on the couch at Marc’s apartment in Hell’s Kitchen because his roommate’s Jason (who would later go on to become the Multi Tony Award winning creator of Avenue Q) mother had just passed away. And with precisely $1000 (which at an exchange rate of 52 cents to the US dollar was so little I refused to do the math) staying at The Plaza wasn’t an option either.
The yellow trunk slammed down behind me. ‘Where to ma’am?’ I hadn’t a clue. What I did know was that going home to Sydney wasn’t an option. I was in the city that never slept and given that since the break-up neither had I, perhaps it was exactly where I belonged. Staring out at the falling snow as we drove over the Queensboro Bridge I couldn’t know that within six months I would become NBC’s youngest news correspondent and a columnist for Men’s Health magazine, writing about how color was back in fashion. Yes, even vivid lilac and green floral dresses.
‘Would you like an ice-cream?’ was the first thing Anna Reich remembers hearing on setting foot on Australian soil. She was disembarking the Castel Bianco, a freighter that had crudely been converted into a passenger ship to transport migrants from Europe to Australia after the Second World War. After five weeks at sea, during which Anna had suffered debilitating seasickness, she finally placed her small, black velvet shoe down on dry land. It felt like a dream, and so did the idea of an ice-cream. It was late December 1950, days before Christmas and as the full-fat vanilla melted into a pool of cream in its cone Anna looked around at the unlikely country that she would call home.
As a young girl Anna hadn’t given much thought to this distant land at the bottom of the world. When she was twelve she had briefly met a young Australian girl who had come to visit her neighbors in Krakow. Anna had a vague memory of the eight-year-old girl wearing a fur coat and thinking that Australia must be a wealthy country if even children got to wear fur. She had forgotten about the girl after that, growing up and enjoying the rich culture of Krakow with its coffee shops and five o’clock dances, occasions for which her and her younger sister Pola would have dresses specially made. The dance halls always made Anna’s sensitive brown eyes water from plumes of cigarette smoke.
At nineteen she had just completed a degree in commerce and had dreams of studying medicine. But then the war started and everything changed. Life changed, dreams changed. Some people stopped dreaming all together. Anna never did. It wasn’t her idea to come to Australia. She had longed to visit New York, but after word got out that immigrant friends were robbed there and the jewels they’d painstakingly sewn into a corset were stolen, her husband convinced her that their future lay in Australia. ‘The last frontier’ he would joyously call it, his eyes sparkling with possibility.
In the Jewish ghetto in Krakow Anna married Mendel (as many of their peers did when the war began) because she loved him and because she didn’t want to die a virgin. They had met years earlier walking home from school. An angry storm had erupted and frightened Anna, but her older companion had taken her fragile hand and sheltered her from the rain beneath a tree. Anna’s brown eyes grew wide as she watched him revel in the danger. She wasn’t to know then that that same fearlessness would eventually save his life. Edmund, as she called him, carried her books to and from school from that day on until the age of nineteen when he married this alabaster beauty, so that the graceful landscape of her high cheekbones and delicate nose would be his to gaze upon forever.
At first he hadn’t recognized that beloved face when they were both liberated in May of 1945 by a proud Russian soldier in a fur Cossack hat. They stood small in Schindler’s factory, searching for each other through a wire fence that separated the men from the women. Paler than white, Anna’s naturally high cheekbones now almost pierced through her flesh. She was still wearing the wooden clogs she had managed to grab at Birkenau concentration camp; one very large, one very small. They were the same clogs she was wearing when she was marched out of the gas chamber because of a crack in the glass. It was in the moments that followed this, one of her many brushes with death, that a German SS officer appeared and called her name. She was to forever become number 204 on Schindler’s List.
At Port Melbourne the sun reflected off the crest of lapping waves like drifting silver necklaces. Anna sheltered her sensitive eyes and white European skin, this time from the unforgiving Australian sun. Everything was brighter. The sky was an intense azure blue she’d never seen in the hazy sun-dappled skies of Europe, and devoid of the smoke that bellowed from the chimneys night and day at the death camps. How she went from possessing just a single bolt of fabric given to her by Schindler before he escaped into the night, to arriving with a bag of hand-tailored gowns and a cream mink coat, can be attributed to her mighty spirit and a humble bag of fat.
In the weeks following their liberation word had spread that the Red Cross was reuniting loved ones at an abandoned synagogue in Berlin. Anna longed to see her little sister Pola again, to bury her own shaved head in the arms of her mother and father. To get there they hitched a ride with a truck of boisterous Russian soldiers and found Edmund’s love of song matched by his new Baltic friends. They belted out songs of victory and wept tunes of melancholy the entire 354-kilometre journey. And as they climbed down from the truck a soldier handed Edmund a bag of shpeck without a word.
It was just a simple bag of fat, but with the food shortages in post-war Germany it might as well have been a bag of gold. Anna and Edmund would turn that one bag into a thriving black-market business, running cigarettes and other desired good across the border. Like the day he danced in the storm, Edmund’s courage prevailed. From black-market goods Anna moved to pure white diamonds, gaining a reputation for fetching the best prices selling jewels from the now desperate Germans to the Russians. She was happy to take back jewels from German hands, knowing that many of them had been cut from the fingers of Jews.
Anna would only see her family’s beautiful faces again in her dreams. Months passed and she eventually stopped looking for them. The five years she spent in the cemetery that was Berlin were now filled with much searching within herself – for the will to go on and to rebuild her life from the ashes of the people she loved most. Anna knew she had to leave Berlin and had packed her finest clothes for the journey.
Standing in the broadest of daylight the beige, gabardine two-piece suit she wore – fitted at the waist with a skirt that fell just below the knee – looked odd now in this new climate, covered with black flies. Her jet-black short coiffured hair soaked up the summer heat. Despite the hardships he had endured on board Edmund was determined to make an entrance. Standing proudly in one of ten bespoke suits he’d had made for his new life in Australia, he wiped the perspiration that coated his brow with a handkerchief and dotted on some fresh cologne. In his arms he carried all of their possessions, a total of 150 kilograms of baggage. In Anna’s arms was their smiling two-and-a-half year old daughter, Sylvia. Like three black-and-white characters stepping out of the past into a new technicolour future.
Australia was geographically as far away from the bleakness of Europe as they could get. Within a year, Anna had opened her first fashion boutique. Her European-inspired collection sold out in twenty-four hours. And a few years later they built one of the most celebrated arcades in the suburbs of Sydney.
My grandmother Anna and I could not have dreamt that our lives would take us in opposite directions across the globe. But what we both discovered when we got there was that sometimes the plans God has for us are even more spectacular than the ones we have for ourselves.
An excerpt from Kathryn’s essay featured in “Modern Woman’s Anthology”, showcasing a range of insights through personal stories based around what it means to be a woman in today's world. All proceeds from The Modern Woman's Anthology will be donated to the Black Dog Institute, a not-for-profit, educational, research, clinical and community-oriented facility offering specialist expertise in mental health.