Wednesday, May 8, 2024

Q&A with Eva Umlauf




Eva Umlauf is the author of the new memoir The Number on Your Forearm Is Blue Like Your Eyes. It was translated from German to English by Shelley Frisch. Umlauf, born in 1942, is a Holocaust survivor and a physician. She lives in Germany.


Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how was the book‘s title chosen?


A: I believe that it is important to know your own story - especially when it is as dramatic and traumatic as in my case. As a mother, I pass on many of my emotional inheritances to my children. That's why it was important to me for my three sons and two granddaughters to know our family history. 


The title of the book is a line of poetry. My Slovak-Canadian friend Jan Karsai wrote a poem about my youth in the Slovak camp Nowaky and in Auschwitz. I like the title because it doesn't make such a massive reference to Auschwitz.


At the same time, the term “blue eyes” – which generally refers to German, non-Jewish women – and “number on the forearm” create a tension that hopefully arouses curiosity.


Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn many things you hadn't known before?


A: I knew little about my family history and had only a few documents that were passed down to me when my mother died. Many archives have now been digitized and many new documents are accessible.


I don't know much about this area myself - but I brought an experienced historian and journalist on board. Together with Stefanie Oswalt I browsed through archives and came across a surprising number of new documents.


Also we traveled to Israel and Slovakia together and met contemporary witnesses and historians. Slowly we learned more and more about the fate of my family.

Q: The scholar Michael Brenner said of the book, “Eva Umlauf reveals what it was like to live in the shadow of the Holocaust under Communism, and in an emerging Federal Republic of Germany. Her story will surprise even those who think they know everything about the Holocaust." What do you think of that description?


A: Many survivors' stories abruptly end after the war. The people had survived and what happened to them, how they survived after surviving, was no longer reported.


I did it decidedly differently. I wanted to tell about life as a Jew in the communist Czechoslovakia, where you had to hide your Judaism. And about Jewish life in the Federal Republic: Here I was able to live my Judaism for the first time, but at the same time it was a life in the society of perpetrators. Of course I describe what happened to me in my life in Munich.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write the book, and what do you hope readers take away from it?


A: Writing the book enriched me enormously. I gained a much deeper understanding of myself and my family. We have developed a more intimate relationship with each other within the family.


I hope that my biography might also encourage my readers to look at their own family history, trauma, and repression - even if it hurts. I am sure that on such a “journey through family history” you will come across many surprising twists and turns. Maybe it's even a way to "reconcile" yourself with your own history and fate.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: The book has given me so many inquiries and orders that, despite being 81 years old, I am always busy with media inquiries and eyewitness appearances, conferences, and other obligations.


I support scientists in the development of new media formats in order to make contemporary witness reports easily accessible to the younger generation. And quite apart from that, I also run my psychotherapeutic practice.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Thank you for your interest and I very much hope that the book finds a wide readership in the USA. My eldest son lives there – and I look forward to sharing my biography with the American audience.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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