Five years ago, I wrote the first draft of a novel titled The Center of the Earth. Since it is a historical fiction book, I had to do research to make sure all my facts were correct. The novel takes place during WWII and it is about a young, German-Jewish boy who meets an Ecuadorian girl in Berlin and they soon become best friends. Eventually, as Nazi Germany gains power, the boy finds himself at risk of execution, so the girl, being the daughter of an Ecuadorian diplomat, convinces her father to provide him refuge in Ecuador.
I became inspired to write about this topic after I watched a documentary called An Unknown Country. Considering I am Ecuadorian-American and a history lover, I wanted to create a novel using real-life accounts. But as I wrote my draft, I had large chunks of empty spaces because I was lost on how to formulate the story once the plot reached Ecuador. I dug around in library archives and found next to nothing about Jewish refugees in Ecuador during WWII. Holocaust Museum Houston and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC had resources, but not the information I needed to truly construct a story. To be clear, I am not a professional historian -- I am someone who enjoys history and seeks truth, especially about people who lived during the period I happen to be studying. For example, one can read a textbook about the Vietnam War, but speaking with a veteran or civilian who was there tends to be more meaningful. Historical events are not just dates -- they include real people who were changed by the outcomes. Unfortunately, I hit a wall when it came to finding European Jews who found refuge in Ecuador. So, I decided to dig deeper.
In November 2018, I discovered a Facebook group managed by the son of two of these refugees. I requested a membership and the moment I was approved, I asked the group for help finding people to interview for my book. One of the members who immediately came to my aid was Michael Desrosiers. He mentioned his mother, Eva Fisch Desrosiers, found refuge in Ecuador when she was nine years old and she was willing to discuss her life experiences with me. The next day, I called her. We spoke for an hour and close to the end of our conversation, she mentioned she lived in the DC area. My ears perked up because I was going to DC the following month to spend a day at USHMM's archives collecting resources that were not available online.
"Why don't you come over then?" she suggested. "We can talk more in person."
I wrote down her address and we set a date and time.
Eva with her parents and brother. Vienna, Austria. Early 1930s.
Eva's Austrian passport, circa 1938.
The first time I met Eva, it was a cloudy winter day. As David (my husband) and I maneuvered our rental car around the DC area, I felt a little nervous about meeting Eva. Socializing is not one of my strengths and it takes me a few conversations before I can fully open up. When we reached her apartment building, I rehearsed my words in my head, something I do every time I'm going to speak to a new person. Eva waited for us at the end of the hallway with her arms open and a big smile. She was 88 but had the energy of a young adult. We hugged and then she led us inside her warm home and the aroma of fresh cooking wafted through the room. She served us full plates of food and tall glasses of sangria. As we ate, we talked about her life in Vienna and Ecuador, but soon the conversation became less formal and I no longer rehearsed my words in my mind. Talking to Eva felt natural, easy, and comforting, as if we were close friends. The following day, I called her and apologized profusely because I had forgotten to take a picture with her. She immediately answered, "Oh dear, don't worry about a thing. Come over right now. I would love to see you again."
Six months later, David and I visited Eva a second time. It was a warm summer afternoon and we walked from her apartment building to her town center where we had lunch at a hamburger restaurant followed by ice cream for dessert. At the restaurant, I only ordered a small salad and at the ice cream shop, I asked for the kid-sized portion. Eva playfully scolded me for not eating much. Honestly, I was still hungry but I didn't order larger portions because I didn't want Eva to spend more money on us. The minute we returned to her apartment, Eva made me a sandwich. I insisted I was satisfied with what we ate, but Eva, being quite observant, saw right through me.
"You can't leave my home with an empty stomach," she said. "I will not allow it."
After that visit, COVID separated us for three years, but we stayed in touch through phone calls and emails. We would also send each other greeting cards and occasional gifts. For my birthday in 2020, Eva sent me a warm, brightly colored sweater which she knitted herself. During our phone conversations, we discussed various topics, usually politics. Eva was a very educated woman with knowledge about all sorts of subjects. Every time we talked, time slipped away quickly. Sometimes we would talk for an hour, yet it never felt that long. With each conversation, I learned something new, whether it was about her or a life lesson in general.
When I finally visited her again in the summer of 2022, I gave Eva a big hug and felt so grateful to be in her presence. After our visit ended, I promised her I would come again as soon as I could. A year later, we had another visit. Eva cooked an incredible Hungarian-style stew I still think about to this day. By then, she was 93, but still doing well. She walked daily for exercise, drove her friends to their medical appointments, read informative books, and knitted new creations. On this visit, she gave me a book she had recently read titled A Lucky Child by Thomas Buergenthal. I read most of the book during my flight home, impressed by the story and the writing style. The day I finished it, I looked up Thomas Buergenthal because I wanted to tell him how much I enjoyed his story. Unfortunately, he had died just ten days prior. I remember calling Eva to discuss the book with her and then I mentioned Buergenthal's recent passing. I told her, "He was younger than you! I am glad you are still with us." She responded, "I hope he didn't suffer. That's what I wish for -- a quick, painless death."
"Oma," I said. Oma is the German word for grandmother and I called Eva "Oma" as a term of endearment. "Don't think about that so soon."
"At my age," she said. "You think about death every time you wake up."
While I understood her point of view, I honestly thought Eva would live to be a hundred years old or even a few years past that. I never worried about her because she was so active and alert. I often imagined her still going on brisk walks in her late 90s.
Eva during her scout days in Ecuador, circa 1945.
On September 17, 2023, I called Eva to wish her a happy and prosperous Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). Most of the conversation was like our others: politics, recent news articles, and books we were reading. One part that seemed different was Eva's comment about her health. Usually, she would say phrases like, "I was a little tired today, so I only walked two miles instead of three." This time, she said, "You know, I am really feeling my age these days." I tried lightening the mood and answered, "Of course you feel sixty! That's how old you really are." Knowing Eva, she would have agreed or said, "I'm actually fifty-nine." Instead, she said, "No, I'm definitely ninety-three."
About ten days later, Eva was put on hospice care, a decision she made. She suffered a fall about three months prior, but as I mentioned earlier, Eva seemed resilient, so even though her fall was frightening, I expected her to bounce back to her old self soon. October 3rd was the last time we would ever speak to each other. Eva's once strong and soothing voice now sounded low and fatigued. She told me she was so happy to have lived a wonderful life and she was overjoyed I had been a part of it. Trying to stop my voice from cracking, I asked, "Oma, do you really have to go now?" She answered, "It's time, dear. I loved knowing you. Promise me you'll get your book published. Goodbye, Darlene."
A few days later, I asked one of Eva's relatives if I could call her again, but they said her voice was extremely weak and if I were to call, they were not sure Eva would be able to respond clearly. So, I decided to let Eva rest. I distracted myself by listening to podcasts, watching documentaries, and attending extra professional development sessions at my workplace. On October 11th, I went to my podiatrist to have a minor procedure done on my right foot. The doctor assured me I would not be in pain for long, but a few hours following the procedure, I was not able to walk. David had to carry me into the bathroom every time I needed it. Disappointed, I told David I should have waited to have my procedure done in the future. I was not sure how much time Eva had left and since I planned to go to DC for her funeral, having a procedure that limited my walking was a giant mistake.
"Honey, your foot was giving you a lot of issues," David said as he hugged me. "You didn't know you would be in this much pain. Oma would tell you to rest until you're better."
The following day, I went to work using a cane to get around campus. With each step, I either groaned or teared up as my foot throbbed. When I returned home, David helped me get upstairs so I could stay in bed for the rest of the evening. Eventually, I hobbled to my laptop and responded to work emails instead of relaxing like I should have been. During the email answering session, I received the notice.
Eva was gone.
Even though I was not able to attend Eva's funeral, a mutual friend filmed the service for me, so I was able to be there in spirit. That day, I was able to walk a tiny bit more, but only when barefoot. I told David I was going to sweep the kitchen floor before going to bed and he stayed close by in the next room in case I needed him. Little by little, I swept the floor with music playing on my phone. The pain in my foot was still present, but somewhat tolerable. When I was halfway done, the song "Try Not to Breathe" by R.E.M. came on my playlist. It is a song I have listened to numerous times, as it is one of my favorites by the band. But a moment later, the lyrics hit me.
"I will try not to breathe
This decision is mine
I have lived a full life
And these are the eyes
That I want you to remember."
I had to put the broom aside and sit down because my tears fogged my vision.
Eva in Guayaquil, Ecuador, circa 1953.
Since Eva and I were in regular contact, she is on my favorites list on my phone. Rather than seeking out her number each time I called her, all I had to do was tap on her photo. However, I can't bring myself to remove her from the list. Indeed, I will never be able to call her again and maybe I should accept this new stage of life, but I am not yet ready to do so.
Though Eva and I lived about 1,400 miles away from each other, it didn't mean we weren't close. She was my Oma and I cared for her as much as I cared for my biological grandparents. When I first started interviews for my novel, I was not expecting to gain adoptive Omas and Opas, but it happened. I interviewed seven people for this novel, the youngest being 87 and the oldest 95. Only four of them are still alive today. There is a poem by Chaim Stern called "'Tis a Fearful Thing" and the first line reads: "‘Tis a fearful thing / to love what death can touch." The more I interviewed them and got to know them, I sometimes thought about 'death touching them' because of their advanced ages. Once a bond is formed, it is much more difficult to cope when the other person dies.
Yet if I could go back in time, I would not change anything. My novel still has not found a publishing house, but the relationships built from its writing process are priceless. Having Eva in my life, though I wish it could have been longer, is something I will cherish forever. There's a Spanish-language podcast I regularly listen to called Radio Ambulante which focuses on little-known news and history from Latin America. In January 2020, Radio Ambulante released an episode called "The Extraterrestrials," summarizing the February 1949 Quito radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Many listeners did not know they were listening to a fictional story and became convinced aliens were invading Ecuador's capital city. I called Eva to ask if she remembered this event and she said, "Yes, of course! I found it ironic that I escaped Nazi persecution, but then aliens found me."
"I'm so happy you survived, Oma," I told her. "I really enjoy knowing you."
"And I do too," she said. "I'm so glad we crossed paths."
Eva died soon after the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah and right before the first reading of Bereshit (Genesis). Simchat Torah marks the end of a Torah reading cycle and the following Shabbat (Sabbath) is when the Torah is read all over again. Though Eva was not overly religious, Judaism was a major part of her identity. She fasted every Yom Kippur. She celebrated Rosh Hashanah with the classic apple slices and honey snack. Every so often during our phone calls, she would ask if I had any good news. Whenever I did, she would say, "That's wonderful. I don't pray much, but I pray from time to time for all the people I care about, including you."
Eva had a traditional Jewish funeral, just the way she wanted. She got to see one final Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur right before leaving this world. Her life coincidentally ended with the last Torah cycle. There is a poem by Merrit Malloy called "Epitaph" and it is sometimes read before mourning prayers at Shabbat services. The final lines are "Love doesn’t die / People do. / So, when all that’s left of me/ Is love, / Give me away."
The love Eva provided to me and everyone around her was so immense that I could give it away endlessly for centuries and never run out.
Eva's final request was for donations to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. Donations can be made here. In 2013, USHMM interviewed Eva about her experiences in Nazi-occupied Austria and her life in Ecuador and beyond. The full interview is available here.
Eva Fisch Desrosiers
June 10, 1930-October 12, 2023
Rest peacefully, Oma. We will never stop missing you.