Eva: A Novel of the Holocaust

views updated


Novel by Meyer Levin, 1959

When Meyer Levin turned to write Eva (1959), he was coming off the tremendous critical and popular success of Compulsion (1956), a documentary fiction on the famous Leopold-Loeb murder case that anticipated works by American authors such as Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and the cluster of writers known as the New Journalists. Levin worked best from source materials, and the relative success of Eva as a piece of Holocaust fiction seems owing to its documentary lineage. Borrowing his story line from the personal history of a survivor named Ida Lev, Levin had originally intended to preserve as much of Ida Lev's real life history as possible, but the novel soon evolved into a curious hybrid form. In it the fictionalized heroine Eva Korngold remembers her life more than a decade after the end of the war and approximates, through Levin's narrative style, the rhythms, cadences, and even some of the rhetorical markers of testimonial speech. If for this reason only, Eva is a fascinating work that troubles generic distinctions, especially the line, much insisted on, that is drawn between the novel and Auschwitz, or fiction and authentic witness.

Eva is a young Jewish girl from Hrebenko, a village in Poland occupied mostly by Ukrainians who have hated being governed by the Poles. In the fall of 1941, with the Germans at the height of their power and actions against the Jews becoming more severe, Eva's family decides that she must cease to be Eva and enter the Gentile world as a Ukrainian Polish girl named Katya (Katarina Leszczyszyn). For almost its first two thirds the novel functions as a passing story. As a Jew under Christian cover, the novel's heroine recalls an odd detail from Levin's career—the period during which he was forced to adopt a Christian pseudonym for his Esquire bylines because of racial sensitivities among the magazine's readership. Though often resentful about the restrictions placed upon the Jewish perspective in his writings, Levin consistently advocated both a Jewish particularism he thought compatible with America's language of ethnic inclusiveness and a democratic universalism he thought the best face of the Judeo-Christian cultural heritage. This led to a rhetorical habit in which, as both journalist and fiction writer, Levin expressed a solidarity with Christian language and culture because it had provided, along with Judaism, the very idioms of justice and freedom by which a liberal society could continue to be measured. This posture of politic passing comes out in Eva's Holocaust tale of passing. So when Eva dons a crucifix as part of her disguise, she consoles herself with the thought that Jesus himself had been a Jew, and when she later worries about losing her true self to her Christian identity, she first identifies her common ground with the Christian faith—admiring it "when it helped people and they were true to it"—before she ponders its hegemonic tendencies and dissents in her self-remembrance from Christian culture's attempt to erase the other as Jew.

With most of the novel taking place in the world outside of the camps, Levin makes the historical threat of extermination run parallel with another dimension of genocide, which had been part of the 1948 Geneva Convention's definition of genocide, namely the canceling of cultural identity. In carrying out his legal fight with Otto Frank over the Broadway Diary production and the cultural interpretation of Anne Frank's story, Levin frequently referred to this other aspect of genocide, as he argued that the distortion of Anne's real words and the censorship of his truer account amounted, in effect, to a killing of Jewish identity consistent with the politics of Nazi Fascism. Thus the greatest fictional imperative of Levin's Eva derives through a cultural filter: Eva's struggle to maintain her Jewishness in a world in which it would be easier not to remember her true identity is a version of the attempt of Anne Frank, as someone coming from an especially assimilated family, to reckon with her Jewishness and, by implication, Levin's own attempt to keep this aspect of Anne's identity alive. It is not hard to imagine that for Levin, having so long immersed himself in Anne Frank's perspective, Eva would have seemed a slightly older version of Anne and a vehicle for him to give expression to the imaginative energy he had already exerted toward telling the Holocaust through the eyes of a young woman. Whether or not Levin is entirely effective in achieving the androgynous voice one of his reviewers sympathetically attributed to him, it is nevertheless admirable that he offered a Holocaust story sensitive to the intersection between gender issues and the Nazi repression of Jewish identity. Part of the appeal of treating a woman's story of passing was that Eva's identity could remain, if only for reasons of anatomy and the dictates of Jewish law, a matter of personal choice.

Much of the early portion of the novel employs an associative narrative structure according to which a scene from the narrative present of Eva's story falls back into the past and her life in the small town of Hrebenko. Only some of these recollections are directly attributable to Eva's memory, and Levin's point seems to be that one's identity is greater than the patterns of conscious remembrance. Once Eva crosses the threshold and enters "that other world, the world without Jews," she finds work in Vienna, where she lives with the possibility that she will be discovered at any moment by the Germans. If the external threat of exposure remains a real concern throughout the story, closer to its center there is the risk of losing oneself to the requirements of a self-preservation that is at the same time potentially self-destructive. Much of the drama of the second half of the novel develops from Eva's persistent need to be known as herself. Comparing her own story to tales she has heard about criminals who fled their homes, changed their lives, and married under new names and yet 20 years later revealed their true identities, Eva fantasizes about surrendering her virginity only with her great secret and, as she confesses her true identity in the moment of passion, perhaps finding out that her lover is also secretly Jewish. This fantasy to reveal her true self competes at times with her survival, and Levin's novel runs into difficulty, as Steven J. Rubin has suggested, when he allows the connotations of surviving to make the Nazi genocide seem the occasion for testing and affirming Eva's identity. Eventually Eva does reveal her secret to a Czech man with whom she is in love and again to a Polish woman who has befriended her and turns out to be, in fact, another Jew in cultural disguise. When Eva is finally apprehended by the Gestapo, she is caught because she tells more of her own story than was strictly necessary, almost as though her secret has weighed too heavily upon her and become, at least in her own mind, criminal in connotation.

In the end Eva's ability to preserve her identity is indistinguishable from her ability to survive, since in either case she is marked by what she thinks of as her "special fortune." Even as Eva enters the world of Auschwitz, she tells herself that she has "been caught by a mistake of [her] own rather than by some act of bad fortune," and she fully expects her luck to see her through Auschwitz, as it indeed does. Levin may well intend to draw our attention to the survivor's tendency to rationalize her own fate as if it had been marked all along by a necessity proportionate to character, yet he can do little to separate himself from such a claim. So firmly has the novel been located inside the truth of Eva's testimonial voice that Levin fails to dissent from the way such a perception might distort the luckless world of Auschwitz.

—R. Clifton Spargo