Eva was an only child and lived a cultured life as a young person in the company of many adults. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1924 to Risa Grünwald and Viktor Spitz, Eva’s mother was 20 years younger than her husband. Risa was a very vivacious woman, who enjoyed entertaining, going to the opera, playing bridge and enjoying other’s company. Viennese-born, Risa’s extended family came from Hungary. Viktor, on the other hand, had more of a solitary nature; he was a university professor of commerce, enjoyed fishing, collecting paintings, prints and other works of art, and reading and writing poetry. Viktor’s father’s side of the family came from Poland.
Because her father was a professor, Eva enjoyed long summer holidays in the countryside with her parents. They would rent a holiday house at the edge of a lake, and Viktor would go fishing and the women enjoyed swimming. Eva was a very good swimmer, she also enjoyed exploring, rowing boats, and going for long walks and observing the natural beauty of the places they visited.
The family had always had a maid, and Eva remembered from an early age spending a lot of time with the maid while her parents were busy. One maid in particular was very dear to Eva – Mizzi, a Catholic from Stixneusiedl. Mizzi always went with the family on their holidays and Eva recalled her father catching trout, and Mizzi cooking an elaborate feast. Any spare time she had as a child was filled with reading stories, listening to opera on the radio, listening to stories from the maid (sometimes very scary ones) and hearing her father read poetry. She also enjoyed rhythmical gymnastics, her swimming lessons at a local Jewish swimming club, but less enjoyment came from the regular piano lessons and other sports she had to do.
The family was not religious but faith became a big part of Eva’s life, as a child she had Jewish studies at school, noticed that Mizzi crossed herself when they passed a church and formed her own ideas about God. Viktor and Risa had had a Jewish wedding; Risa would fast on Yom Kippur and light a candle on her mother’s yahrzeit; but the family did not attend shul (synagogue). Her father believed that there was a ‘force’ who had created the universe and her mother taught her a child’s bedtime prayer in German that mentioned angels and ‘Jesu’. Eva remembered once being invited to a Jewish friend’s place for Pesach (Passover) – and experiencing this ritual for the very first time.
Eva remembered clearly when Hitler came to Austria because it was the day before her 14th birthday, in 1938. There was a lot of excitement in the city. Already at school Eva felt she knew who amongst her classmates were Hitler Youth - “undercover Nazis”. As she recalled, “They had a particular style of dress”, girls with long hair in plaits and long white socks and boys dressed in uniforms always looking very smartly turned out.
It became a frightening time for a young girl, she feared being separated from her parents, when there was rioting in the city and when more and more families they knew started to leave. To Eva, it felt like everyone she knew was saying good-bye, except for her family. Even the boy she had secretly loved from afar, he and his family immigrated to the USA. “I didn’t really understand what it was all about.”
Next Eva didn’t understand why she had been kicked out of school and sent across town to a school in a run-down neighbourhood, taunted by the other kids as they went upstairs to the Jewish-only part. She had been a top student in languages and favoured by her teachers, one teacher even took her to see the headmaster when the announcement was made and he said how sorry they were that this was happening. “We had to take all our books back and not come anymore.” Jewish children were also not allowed to go to the movies anymore. It was now that she realised her freedoms were being taken away from her.
Her parents began to talk about ways to leave Austria. They each took hospitality courses so as to acquire skills that might get them employment in another country. Eva was sent to have private English lessons. She had never spoken English before.
Viktor wanted to go to Palestine and buy a piece of land, but Eva’s mother flatly refused and Eva, the city girl, recalled feeling a little relieved. Risa knew a man from England she had met once through her social network when they hosted him at the opera – a Mr Eames. She approached him asking for any help he might be able to offer them to get Eva out of Austria. He sent her photograph to many families in the UK and one family came back saying they could take Eva in for 3 years, as long as she helped with household chores, helped with the care of their 3-year-old son, and that she finished her schooling. Eva was on her way. Whilst she was not an official Kindertransport child, it was arranged that she would travel with the Kindertransport children by train.
It was a painful departure―she vividly remembered the night before leaving, feeling petrified knowing she didn’t want to leave her parents. The next day, her mother told Eva to keep smiling and this was the beginning of a hard emotional journey. “I just cut it, cut, cut cut.” For many years after, it was hard for Eva to show her emotions. She did not know at this point that in fact this would be the last time she would ever see her parents. The trip to England was only to be temporary and they would all be reunited very soon. Some excitement took over and Eva enjoyed the train journey – in particular seeing the ocean for the very first time from Holland. Eva had a big suitcase with all her fine clothing but only two pound ten in cash. Her foster father was surprised to see such a fine upstanding young woman at the train station.
Eva did keep in touch with her parents for a few years by letter, and via the Red Cross, until in 1942 the letters just stopped. Eva had to leave her host family once she was proclaimed an “enemy alien” and not permitted into particular “protected areas”. Eva and many other Jewish children were then accommodated by the Quakers, in Bristol. Eva did finish her schooling but had to get a police permit to go into town to sit her final exam (equivalent to School Certificate) when she was 15 years old.
In 1940, she had to leave the Quakers and sought work wherever she could. Eva moved three times in the space of four months across the north of England working as a cleaner, housemaid, and as a maid in various hotels. By 1941 she didn’t know where to go and lived in a refugee camp for a few months. Eva then learnt typing and because her father had already taught her shorthand she easily got a job as a junior clerk at the WEA. However, because the job was in the city she not only needed a police permit to travel into town, but she realised that she needed to learn to ride a bike to make it easier for her to come and go. Things became more difficult with the blackouts, which meant she couldn’t ride in the dark. Another job opportunity came her way and so Eva moved into town to take up the role.
By the time she was 18 years of age, Eva boarded with a Christian woman and discovered someone who made her feel safe, and who showed her a particular depth of care, respect and love, that echoed that of her parents. Eva was greatly moved and began to identify herself as a Christian from that point on.
In 1945 Eva met an English girl, Suzanne, at a youth group meeting in Bristol. Both new to the group, they became friends and, over time, they both decided to study social work. Eva had obtained higher school certificate to allow her to go to university, and both girls qualified as social workers, remaining good friends for the rest of their lives.
While she was still in contact with her parents, Eva tried desperately to find people to help her get her parents to England, but to no avail. As an adult she held some guilt over this. Eva received a letter in 1946, from a young woman who was the daughter of the porter at the apartments where her parents had lived once Eva left. She found out that Risa and Viktor had been taken away by the Gestapo and their belongings taken also. In later years, Eva approached the Austrian government for assistance to find out what had happened. She was informed that her parents were taken to a camp in Minsk in 1942 where they were later presumed dead. Eva was now 22 years old.
After the war, Eva worked between two hospitals in Oxford for a while. She had always had male admirers, but was somewhat fearful of getting involved with someone who was not right for her, she held onto advice from her father about finding the right man. It wasn’t until she was studying at Columbia University in New York City, having gained a scholarship, that she met her husband-to-be, a New Zealander also at Columbia on scholarship. They were married in 1953, in London, hosted by her foster parents and supported by English friends. Her husband took Eva to Vienna before they immigrated to New Zealand.
Visiting Vienna for the first time since she had left in 1939 was a shock for Eva, she felt an emotional wreck. She just wanted to get out and not come back. However, in that visit she did meet up with friends of her parents, an Aryan couple who had supported her parents, and had been looking after some of their paintings. Then she was reunited with Mizzi and her family, who had taken much of her parents’ furniture into safe keeping also.
“It was complete destruction of Jewish life in Vienna, and we never thought that anything like this would happen. We really couldn’t believe that a cultured nation could do what they did and that’s made me very sceptical of culture and education being the means of getting people to behave decently, because it has to be deeper than that. We had all the culture we wanted, but it didn’t stop the Nazis from behaving as complete beasts.”
Header Image: Eva Spitz at Kindergarten, 1920s. Image/Spitz Family