I’ll never forget the day I got the call. I was at my uncle’s house in Warwick, Rhode Island for dinner. My cell phone rang as we were sitting down to eat. Who did I know with a 919 area code? And then it dawned on me.
Eliska’s voice was deep, with a thick accent, her English impeccable. “I was so happy to get your letter,” she said. Her excitement was palpable. “Your grandfather and I were, as they say…quite an item!” I coughed, caught off guard. She laughed. “You mentioned you were coming to North Carolina—we have so much catching up to do, let’s talk in person.”
Soon, a letter arrived with several snapshots of Eliska and my grandfather, beginning in the early 1940’s when they first met—aboard the Alsina, a ship full of European refugees fleeing war-torn Europe for South America. She was stunning.
A month later, my mother and I flew to Chapel Hill, where Eliska insisted we spend the weekend as her guests in her retirement community. My stomach was a cage full of butterflies the day we parked our rental car in front of her home. How much did she remember, I wondered? Would she be comfortable talking to us candidly about her wartime experiences? About my grandfather?
For two days, we sat around Eliska’s small living room table, surrounded by a montage of photographs and documents she’d gathered in anticipation of our visit. Her Alsina ticket. Her temporary Brazilian visa. A beautiful leather-bound book that my grandfather had made from scratch—selling books was his means of supporting himself when he finally arrived in Rio without a coin to his name, Eliska said. “Addy was infinitely resourceful, and clever with his hands.”
At 88 years old, Eliska’s memory was impressively sharp. She filled my voice recorder with hours of colorful stories—about the concerts performed in the Alsina’s first class piano lounge (“Your grandfather shared the Steinway with some big names,” she said, “like the famous concert pianists, the Kranz brothers”); about the French battleship, the Richelieu, anchored next to the Alsina during the four months they were detained in Dakar (“Every day we wondered if the Allies would bomb the Richelieu…if they had, we’d have gone down with it”); about how her mother had been adamantly against her relationship with my grandfather, despite the fact that he treated la Grande Dame, as Eliska referred to her, with the utmost deference (“My mother was aloof, but Addy never gave up trying to win her over”).
Eliska not only helped me patch together my grandfather’s gripping WWII survival story, she also gave me a glimpse into his personality—into the man he was at 28 years old, when he left his home and his family and sailed for South America, without a clue as to what the future might hold—or whether he’d see his family again. “Your grandfather was ebullient and outgoing, and at the same time sensitive and introspective,” she said. “There were many occasions when his optimism, his faith in life’s goodness, kept the rest of us at bay of despair.”
Eliska laughed when she talked about my grandfather’s quirks—his unconventional style of attire, his hell-bent determination to learn the game of tennis—a sport she’d grown up playing, and one that he took up during their time in Rio.
Eliska and my grandfather never married. I wondered why, and asked the question on our last afternoon together. Eliska laughed. “Oh, we had our fun. Plenty of it.” Her blue eyes twinkled. “But your grandfather and I, we were too much alike. If we’d gotten married,” she said, raising her hands over her head, waving them at the ceiling, “there would have been fireworks!”
My mind turned to my grandmother, who is about the most gentle, honest and unflappable soul I’ve ever met. Eliska must have read my thoughts. She fumbled through her photos, retrieving one of my grandmother, flanked by her two best girlfriends. “When Addy met the beautiful, serene Caroline, we both knew she was to be his mainstay and love for the rest of his life.” I stared at the photo, blinking, and for a moment, I couldn’t speak.
“How is sweet Caroline?” Eliska wanted to know. I explained that her memory wasn’t so sharp, but that she was well. Eliska smiled. “Please tell her I say hello, wish her the best.” I nodded. “Of course,” I said. “I sure will.”