The day the Germans thundered into Vienna, Eva Berger was ponderously gazing upon a half-finished painting that she had been working on for nearly three months. To an ordinary person, the painting might have seemed somewhat simple, but hour after hour she stood there, her head crooked to the side, silently debating where to place the right amount of contrast, where to shade, where to center the focal point, what colors to use and mix. It was certainly mind-numbing work, and she felt ill at ease - not to mention she was somewhat distracted by the clamor coming from the streets. Her studio, however stimulating of an atmosphere she had tried to create, was helping little to calm her nerves enough to wield a paintbrush. In her mind’s eye, she was creating the image of a lush landscape with just the stroke of her fingertips - so beautiful and untouched by the ills of this world. Eva and her mother had spent countless summers in the Austrian hinterland, and memories of such unspoiled land inspired her to mostly paint landscapes. However, she was determined to create a masterpiece by portraying Paradise, far superior than any view found in Austria or elsewhere. If only she could be inspired just then!
Her work was finally interrupted by her younger brother Herschel, who whisked her down to the city centre to view the procession of Wehrmacht soldiers flooding the city. Like a tidal wave they poured in, their gunmetal gray uniforms flowing past in a melancholy blur. Their trucks and motorcycles sounded like distant thunder echoing off barren hills, and the planes that whizzed by kept close watch over the scene like vultures. Some people seemed happy to welcome their liberators, their arms raised in a disturbing salute, with wicked smiles spread across their faces. The Germans did not return their enthusiasm per se, but they only stared on, like puppets on strings, without the comedic gestures of an affable children’s puppet show. Herschel jittered uneasily next to his sister, and grabbed for her hand: “Eva,” he said, “What will happen now?”
“I do not know Herschel,” Eva replied. She only knew that war had come to Vienna, but she did not yet know that they were the enemies.
When the Nazis annexed Austria in 1938, the horrors began right away. First, Jews were not allowed to go to certain public places, like a café that Herschel and Eva frequented, the cinema, or the opera house. Even certain parts of the city were shut to them.
And then there were the curfews, the patrolling of streets and the random arrests, the white armband with the blue Star of David that they were forced to wear on their overcoats. Every commodity and privilege they had once known was taken from them. Many Jewish-owned businesses and factories were confiscated and closed, or sold to the highest Aryan bidder. Eva’s one room studio where she worked above an array of both Aryan and Jewish-owned offices, was taken from her, and so she had to relocate her paintings to her uncle’s bakery, where they hung proudly for a short time, until November, when his bakery was destroyed during a Nazi pogrom called Kristallnacht.
Eva, her mother, and her brother would have left the country, but they could not afford to pay for outrageous exit visas. They would have gone into hiding when they learned that Jews were being deported, but they knew no one who would be willing to hide them. When the S.S. came for them in late 1941, the Berger's assumed that the war could not go on much longer, and the Allies would find victory soon. They had much hope for the future, because they did not know anything else.
Herschel, Mrs. Berger and Eva were rounded up with all of the other unfortunate souls and were sent to Theresienstadt. Upon arriving, they found a prison - completely surrounded by fences and walls, and guarded by Nazis and their ferocious dogs. They decided to try to make do with the situation, however difficult, and Eva was able to at least garner some paper and pencils so that she could draw. They worked during the day, and were permitted to their own devices at night. Instead of sleeping, Eva sat awake vigorously drawing by the moonlight. She did not have any variation of colors to work with, but it did not matter since everything about the camp was so very gray. Her drawings were of people, were of the camp, were of the guards…anything she was inspired to record as an image rather than a paragraph, since she hadn’t the mind to keep a diary. Her art is what kept her going. It is what kept her sane.
The Germans attempted to make the prisoners seem like highly privileged inmates to the outsider, but in reality they were very much in suffering. Mrs. Berger grew wretchedly hungry, so hungry that Eva was sure her ribs would burst through her near translucent skin. Herschel returned to his sister and mother day after day warning them of possible deportations to other unknown destinations, many of them in the East. Friends they had made were growing thin as more were selected for transfers. Eva worried that Herschel or her mother would be sent without her, or she would be sent without them.
Mrs. Berger died in late 1942, almost a year after they had arrived. Night after night, and sometimes during the day, Eva plunged herself even further into her drawings. Some mornings she would wake to find that her creation from the night before was nothing more than a dark circle that she had drawn numerous times over and over again, like a black hole. It was the representation of her misery.
Eva knew there were other artists within the camp, and she was witness to some of the many interesting works they had created, all obviously related to life at Theresienstadt. Some of the Czechs called the place Terezin, and they said that “nothing grows in Terezin.” They said, “I do not see birds in Terezin.” They painted and drew pictures, and wrote songs and poems about how life ceases to thrive in Terezin - that they were existing in a lifeless void, awaiting an inescapable fate that would surely come.
In late 1943, Herschel and Eva were sent to Auschwitz. After the grueling train ride to the camp, they arrived under cover of night to the sound of shouting and barking dogs. The siblings were immediately pulled off the car without the chance to grab what little belongings they had brought. Eva tried to hold onto Herschel, but he was torn away from her. She tried to fight her way back to him but the baton of an unseen S.S. guard was bludgeoning her so hard that she had no choice but to turn away and run with the current. She never saw Herschel again.
Instead of being selected to die, Eva was sent to be washed, her head was shaved, her arm tattooed with an identification number and her body sheathed in itchy prison garb. They transferred her to Buna, in another section of Auschwitz, where she would work in a synthetic rubber factory and would live in barracks with other women laborers. She did not have any paper or pencil and had no outlet for her suffering. But she now had a new habit of keeping herself going every day. At night she laid awake, painting imaginary murals upon the otherwise lifeless ceiling and walls. The images were so vivid and the colors were so bright.
As the Red Army drew near in January, 1945, the SS began to move the prisoners, some, like Eva, were sent to other forced labor camps. On one of the coldest days Eva could remember, she was sent back to her birth place of Austria, to the camp Mauthausen, where she served again as forced labor. She was able to secure some paper and a bit of chalk but found that she could not conjure anything to memory - the ideas she had fabricated before her long ordeal at Auschwitz had begun to fade as the days grew longer and her body was growing weaker. All around her, people were starving and dying. It was like a cemetery but the corpses were upright, moving in slow motion. It was a living hell. Even the most beauteous scenes of Paradise could not erase the evil and the misery that Eva witnessed, and she was greatly changed by it.
In May, 1945, Mauthausen was liberated by the Americans. Never before had Eva seen more jubilant sick people. Many of them were so excited they leapt off of their cots and went to welcome to the victors, only to be found a short while later dead from mere exhaustion. By this time, Eva had retired to her barracks indefinitely, waiting for a miracle or death, whichever one came first. Had the Americans been any later, she may have not survived.
After weeks of waiting for any sign of Herschel, she finally received confirmation that he had been killed at Auschwitz upon their arrival from Theresienstadt. She no longer had any family, and for the first time in seven years she wanted to die.
Some months later in Britain, Eva bought a blank canvas, and looked upon it, struggling to remember how she had once envisioned Paradise. But she found that she could not. She knew then that even though art had saved her during those long years of tribulation, it had now passed away and she was left with a story to tell, in speech, in writing, but no longer in paintings or drawings. She was left with a hollow mind in which no liveliness, no color, no hope existed. She wished then that art had never been a part of her life during those years. She wished that she would have been killed, one way or another, because nothing in this world could replace Herschel, her most beloved brother. Eva was alone, and she could not escape loneliness.
She never picked up a paintbrush again.
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