Yesterday we had a visit from my mother-in-law, Lily Phillips. She has had quite a remarkable life – she grew up in Vienna in an educated family of Jewish heritage, and was separated from her parents just before the beginning of World War II. Although she was technically too old – she was already in her late teens – a place was found for her on the Kindertransport, and she was evacuated to England, where she worked, utterly displaced and alone, as a servant in a succession of strangers’ homes. After the war she made her way to New York City, where she was reunited with her parents, who had managed to escape the ovens as well, and where, as a talented artist, she found work as a comic-book illustrator – an extremely unusual occupation for a woman at the time. She was nearly the only one.
Lily is very intelligent and well-read, and has kept her mind active in her later years by taking courses in philosophy and literature at Hunter College. Widowed since 1982, she lives alone on East 72nd Street, in the apartment where my Nina grew up. Her late husband Randolph, himself an extraordinary man, was, among other things, the first chairman of the Committee to Impeach Nixon (before Watergate). He argued before the Supreme Court, despite not being a member of the bar, and was the defendant in a landmark conscientious-objector case during WWII that set the precedent that objectors may refuse combat service on purely ethical, rather than religious grounds.
Anyway, I was driving Lily back to East 72nd Street from our house in Park Slope late last night, and the conversation turned, somehow, to her memories of her father. He was, she said, a sensitive, musical man, a banker, who worked long and patient hours to support his wife and daughter. Lily and her mother used to go away each summer to a lake in the mountains, but her father, who had to stay in the city to work, was only able to join them for a precious two weeks.
Lily recalled that as her father’s visit approached each year, she always grew anxious that the weather would turn – in the Austrian Alps, it can rain for weeks on end – and that her hardworking father’s only respite from his duties would be spoiled. She said that she felt the need to protect him somehow, and knew she was powerless to do so.
I was touched by her story. Her brief description, given almost in passing, evoked with such clarity her little family, so far removed in time and place from 21st-century New York, and so soon to be caught in the gathering storm.
Lily is old now, in her eighties, and she is frail. Her mother and her father are of course long dead, and so far as she knows, everyone she knew as a girl is gone as well. Many, if not most, of their friends and relatives died in the Holocaust. It may well be that there is nobody else alive today who has any personal recollection of Lily and her family from those long-ago days in Austria.
When Lily dies, there will be no one. A mild-mannered Viennese gentleman who worked hard to take care of his little girl, and who liked to play the violin, will be no more than the subject of a third-hand story or two, and a face in a grainy photograph. After another generation or two, the distributed light of memory will fade altogether, and he will be gone.
We live in cities built by the forgotten, speaking in tongues framed by ghosts. We are the distant fruit of the passion of lovers now become dust.
We are like the waves of the sea – the water rises briefly, then subsides.