Julie Metz, EVA AND EVE

Julie Metz, EVA AND EVE

“As soon as we can all go out again, I really think it’s so important to recapture that feeling of connection to our friends and our family.” Julie Metz tells Zibby about the journey her research took her on through the histories of Vienna and her own family tree. Her latest book, Eva and Eve, paints vivid pictures of the world her family lived in prior to the Holocaust as well as of the life Julie lives today.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Julie. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Julie Metz: Thank you so much for having me. I’m really pleased to be here.

Zibby: Hold up your book. I saw a finished copy. It’s so exciting.

Julie: This is the finished. They did such a nice job. It’s embossed and and all kinds of stuff. That’s really exciting when you finally get one.

Zibby: I can’t wait, oh, my gosh. As I’ve told you over Instagram and a few minutes ago and everything, I have just been so riveted by and immersed in this book. I have not been able to put it down, which is the best feeling. Yet I’ve been reading it slowly, which I also rarely do, because I feel like your sentences are so beautiful, the way that you write and how you conjure up images with your words. It’s this great confluence of a great story and a great way that you told it with the modern day and back in Vienna. I’ve learned so much. I am just such a big fan of this book.

Julie: Wow, thank you. That’s amazing to hear. It is hard when you work for — I worked on this book for many years. The research part took, I won’t say how many years. I know a lot of people are very interested in doing family history. They just don’t understand how far back you end up going. Sometimes you go down some rabbit holes. The rabbit holes are exciting, but you might find nothing. That took a lot of years. Then really, I did have a wonderful editor. All praise to editors who help you put the whole thing together in a way that pleases readers. I’m glad it worked.

Zibby: There’s so much in here because you also share so much of your own life and your relationship with your daughter, mostly her teenage years. Now I know she’s older towards the end. All of the mothering and your mother, just all the generations, it was amazing.

Julie: There’s a lot of moms. There’s my grandmother whom I never met. I only know about her from a few stories I would hear my mother tell, but mostly, actually, from my father who adored her. I think my mother, some stories were just really too painful for her to talk about, so I didn’t hear a lot. My dad just thought she was the most wonderful person. That’s the way that I’ve learned about my grandmother and also my grandfather. When my parents were first married, they lived with my grandparents.

Zibby: I feel like I didn’t explain this well enough for somebody just picking up this book to understand. Maybe give a little background on what’s involved in this book and the central themes and everything.

Julie: It’s the story of how my mother’s family, the Singers, they were a Jewish family in Vienna, how they got out of Vienna in 1940. This was a story that always troubled me as a child because it just sounded kind of crazy and so chaotic. No one could really explain it to me. How did they get out when a lot of people, of course especially a lot of Jews in Vienna, got stranded? Most were deported and did not survive the war. My mother would tell me this story. This was the story. All the stories were kind of unbelievable, actually unbelievable. One of the stories she would tell me was that what had saved her father’s life was that he ran a factory that manufactured packaging for the pharmaceutical industry. One of the items they made was this lovely little thing here. I always call it the paper fan. My mom described it for me when I was a kid. I just couldn’t get a visual. I wasn’t able to find out about what this thing actually was and what it looked like until I became connected through the wonderful world of the internet and serendipity to the person who is now occupying the space where my grandfather’s factory was in Vienna. He is running his business there. I think it really captured his interest too. He just started doing all this research for me. A lot of people helped me do this research. I was just amazed, actually. If you are open and you ask, maybe people will say yes and they’ll help you.

He found this object which is still being produced today for the homeopathic medicine industry. They pop the medicine in these little channels and then fold each pouch separately. That’s how they dose it. It was patented in about 1905. It was a very successful little product. Even though pills were coming into use in the 1920s and 30s, they were still using this item. The Nazis considered it essential for the war effort. My mother would always say the machine was so complicated that they kept him alive to make sure that it ran. I thought, how complicated could a machine be? I believe I’ve seen the machine, and it is complicated. It looks really like a one-off. I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s just like something that there’s only one in the world. Maybe there’s a few. I don’t know. You can see that it’s been tinkered with over many, many years. Little repairs have been made, and adjustments. This is the machine that’s producing these items now. The company bought it in 1951. I am pretty sure it’s the same one. Maybe I’m wrong.

Zibby: That was one of the best scenes in the book, was when you were reunited with this machine. I couldn’t believe it. I was getting chills even imagining you standing in that room next to the machine, oh, my gosh.

Julie: I have to say that all these moments of encountering my grandparents’ life and my grandfather’s factory and just all the pieces coming together — I’m a very practical person. I’m not so supernatural. I’ll just say that I did have moments of feeling very connected to the past. I don’t know how to explain it, but there you are.

Zibby: I get it. The image is so striking because there you are standing next to this machine without which you wouldn’t be standing there. That machine is how you are here. It’s mindboggling. You even had a scene in the book where your grandfather is taken off a train. I hope I’m not giving anything away.

Julie: No, it’s okay.

Zibby: I could not believe that. The new operations manager who he had hired to take over, it was just too complicated. They go running down to the station and grab him off the train. How many times could that have happened? That’s a miracle.

Julie: The thing is that this was the other story my mother would always say, that he was pulled off the train that was going to Dachau. This was the story. You’re thinking, no, this is just beyond the beyond. This was the story. A lot of my work was, I wanted to see if my mother’s stories were true or whether she was a completely unreliable narrator. In fact, most of the stories were true enough. Of course, she was observing everything as a child. When everything started to be terrible in Vienna, she was ten years old. How does a ten-year-old look at all this? With terror and disbelief, but also a kind of magical thinking that I wanted to explore a bit. In fact, that story looks like it probably happened. They may have held him somewhere in Vienna in tried to describe. This is what happened. Then the other crazy story was that family that lived in the building that I’d never heard anything about. Eventually, because the world is weird, I’m now in touch with the descendants of that family too. It all just came together in ways that you can’t explain. I mean, I did my work. I did a lot of work. Sometimes I just think that once you start pushing open the doors and if you stand there and wait and you’re patient, things just sort of come. I’m going with that.

Zibby: Part of what made this book so compelling is not just the story itself, but you tell it in such a visual way, even the way you have all these paragraphs. There’s a picture that shows X, Y, Z. Then you say, this scene, there is not a photo that shows X, Y, Z. I didn’t say that very well. You wrote it much better. Here’s the picture. Now we can imagine you looking at the picture. You’re like, but this picture doesn’t exist. Then we see your grandfather sitting reading the newspapers at this café. I can just see the whole thing, and the drink. I can smell it. You paint a picture of what Vienna really was, and the Jewish community there and the classiness and glamor, the sophistication of the city. I’ve read so many books about the Holocaust in different ways, shapes, or forms and seen lots of movies and whatever. Yet this was, I feel, the best encapsulation of Vienna itself. That was another character. I could just see your family there. The fact that then you bring it back — even yesterday, I ripped this out of the paper. You probably saw it. Was it yesterday or the day before? This new photo from Gustav Klimt they actually restored back to the family in Vienna at the time. I was thinking, I wonder if your family knew that family. Maybe they all had dinner. Maybe they all knew each other. It was a small world, in other words.

Julie: It was. It was important to me to recapture that world because the more research I did about that world of the Jews in Vienna before the war, the more I realized how unique it was, how special it was. It had collected just an enormous number of very ambitious, hardworking, creative people. Many had come from an area that doesn’t really exist anymore, Galicia. It sort of straddles Poland and Ukraine. It doesn’t exist anymore as its own country. They all came to Vienna the way people, say, go to New York to make good. They really established themselves. Then also, there was that café culture that we’ve all read about. You had Sigmund Freud. Then you just had families like mine which were upper-middle-class family. People worked hard. They had a very good life. It was a very cultured life. People read. They went to the theater. They went to the opera. When I went on my trips to Vienna, that world is gone. That very magical world of that time is gone. I really wanted to try to find it in a sensory way so that when people read the book maybe they could appreciate what it was and what was lost. Also, my mother was a wonderful cook. I grew up with all that food. I really wanted everything. I wanted the food, the smells, the way the city looks, the sweet treats, the coffee, everything.

Zibby: You made so many jokes about how many sweet treats you were eating and how you weren’t going to fit in your pants and all this stuff. I’m like, now we’re having dessert again.

Julie: My host, who was this guy Franz that readers will meet, he’s a wonderful guy. That guy can eat so many desserts. I just can’t explain that either. It seems to be that is the life. You work. People work. Then it’s time to go the café and sit down and chat. I learned a lot when I was there just about, you know, I think we all need to make a little time to do that. We don’t make that enough. Right now, of course, it’s impossible. That’s one of the things we’ve really lost during this last year. I’ve had my first vaccine. Yay! As soon as we can all go out again, I really think it’s so important to recapture that feeling of connection to our friends and our family. I think that’s what that time in Vienna was all about. I’ve often noticed when you’re in Europe, people don’t ask you what you do for a living and you don’t really ask them because you have other things to talk about. In fact, in some countries, like in Italy, I would say it’s quite poor taste to do that, to ask someone what they do for a living. It’s sort of irrelevant when you’re not at your office or not working. Even the people that I spent so much time with who I met as colleagues — they were helping me with my research. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about what they did for a living. We were there to go explore a thing and do that together. That’s what we did.

Zibby: Then there were two other parts of the book that I just wanted to mention because they stuck out. One is that you and your daughter smoke pot together.

Julie: Yeah.

Zibby: I have not heard of moms and daughters doing that. I haven’t read that anywhere before. Tell me about that. Was that a one-off? Do you now do it regularly?

Julie: It was a one-off. It was just during that time. Full disclosure, I grew up, people smoked a lot of pot. It was just a thing. I grew in New York City. Then you find yourself in this terrible situation where your kid’s school is telling you to tell them not to smoke pot. Do not smoke pot. Furthermore, don’t tell your children what you were doing when you were a teenager. There you are being asked, maybe, to lie to your children. It became so absurd after a while that in the end I just raised the white flag. It started because my daughter had stuff in the house. There were some seeds in there. I’m a gardener. I thought, what the heck? I sprouted the seed. I put them in my Brooklyn backyard. They grew very nicely. Really, you don’t have to do very much. This was the little joint that I brought with me to Vienna. I don’t know what it was. It was just a feeling like, I want to connect with my kid who’s still kind of mad at me because they’re fifteen. Fifteen is terrible. Who wants to be fifteen again? There we were together on this trip. I won’t ever forget that evening, five minutes, ten minutes together sitting in the courtyard behind this apartment. It was sort of a bonding moment. I thought, okay, now we can drop that façade. We’ll all just be ourselves. We’ll let it all out and just connect in that way.

Zibby: You really captured that sullenness of the teen years quite well.

Julie: I was the same. Part of the painfulness of parenting a kid that age is you have to remember your own fifteen. I don’t know anybody personally who loved being fifteen and was having a great time. I think it’s reliving it that is so painful and just knowing how hard it is to be in that place. I’m glad we took that trip together for all the hardship of it. I think of that section as the comic relief, sort of the dark comedy of the whole book, just trying to travel with your fifteen-year-old.

Zibby: That could be its own book.

Julie: It could be.

Zibby: I don’t know if you’re willing to discuss it at all, but there was the very traumatic part of what happened to you in the hotel when you were traveling. I’ll just leave it vague like that to see if you want to share. You don’t have to.

Julie: I think being on that trip did — I hate to overuse that word triggering, but it did bring up a lot of feelings. It did bring back the memory of when I was raped when I was twenty. I was in the South of France staying at a dormitory with some friends. I felt safe. I’d grown up in New York. All kinds of weird and unpleasant things had happened to me. Then this happened. What I would say is that I know so many women to whom this has happened when you’re young. It is an experience that there really is a before and an after. You are changed. It did change me. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t do things that might surprise you such as travel alone the following summer. That was almost like I had to prove to myself that I could do that, that I could be by myself and independent and feel powerful. It took me many years after that experience to really make sense of it and understand that surviving that experience, however you did it, however you got through that experience — you’ve heard all kinds of stories from other people who also had to talk their attacker out of the room the way that I did. Sometimes a weapon was involved. It changes you. The reality is that if you talk to friends, it’s so many of us. I honestly don’t know a woman who has not had some kind of experience where they felt vulnerable and assaulted simply because you’re female. You carry it with you. It’s a burden. I think the best that can happen, really, is that you make peace with it and find yourself. You find that you are powerful. You’re a survivor. You did it. You’re alive. That’s, I think, the best .

Zibby: I’m very, very sorry that happened to you. It’s really amazing that you included it and are open about it. I know that will undoubtedly help other women.

Julie: I hope so. We see every day, there’s still so much silence around these issues. I had never written about it. I thought, okay, I’m ready to do it now, and that I would put it out there. I hope other people will feel that they can also talk about it.

Zibby: Wow. Do you have advice to aspiring authors? You must after pulling this off. Seriously, this is a lot to weave into a book. It’s not even too long. It’s very manageable in length. Yet there’s so much information. What advice would you have?

Julie: I’m a very hard worker. I’m very disciplined. I don’t think anything can replace that. I really feel it’s very important to have faith. I think one of the things when you’re writing a book is there’s a long period of confusion. Maybe there’s writers I don’t know who sit down and write beautiful paragraphs and it all makes sense. They figured out the structure. They just zip right through it. I don’t personally know any of those people. I’m not that person. For me, there’s a long period in the wilderness. I think it’s that period when you might give up, but you must never give up. You just have to keep on plugging away. For me, the best book I’ve ever read on writing — there’s two. One is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which is really just, break it apart into small pieces. Chew the pieces. You’ll get there. The other is my very well-worn copy of Dani Shapiro’s — I don’t think you can see it — Still Writing which got left in the rain, but I kind of like it. I was reading it up in Maine last summer. It got left outside. I kind of like that it’s gotten some wear. Dani’s advice is very similar. You just have to keep doing small pieces, move forward, and don’t give up. If you feel like you have a good idea, you probably do. Also, if you’re scared about what you’re doing, you’re definitely onto a good thing. I think the more terror there is in that middle place where you’re really not sure that any of this is going to work or make sense, you can work with that.

Zibby: Anne Lamott and Dani were both on this podcast and both did virtual book clubs. Anne’s is coming up I think in April. Yes, those are two of my favorite books too. I’m glad you mentioned them.

Julie: They’ve been very helpful to me. The other is Stephen King’s book, On Writing.

Zibby: I was waiting for you to say that. I thought, actually, that was what you were going to say first.

Julie: That’s a fabulous book. His philosophy is the same. He writes in a genre that couldn’t be more different. I’m never going to write a horror novel. He’s a wonderful writer, really very, very skilled, such skilled storytelling. His work ethic and his commitment is really what it’s all about. I feel like with writing a book, it’s really, what you put in, you will get back.

Zibby: I’m so glad that I found this book, that I was reading it over March 11th, 12th, 13th when all the events went down in Vienna originally. Also with Passover around the corner and the whole Passover service, I just feel like this was a perfectly timed release, obviously, and will add another layer of meaning to Passover as well. Plus, now I am dying to go to Vienna. Now that is at the top of my wish list of travel spots.

Julie: I mentioned it just briefly in the book. I’m in the process of applying for Austrian citizenship.

Zibby: Yes, I saw that.

Julie: Much delay. The Austrian government has now offered, it’s like a restoration of citizenship to the descendants of Holocaust survivors. My brother and I are in the midst of it now. I’ve always felt connected to that city long before I first went. I felt like there was a piece of me there that I had to go find. I feel like having that passport is going to be very meaningful to me and to all the other people who are applying. There are many, many people.

Zibby: My dad’s dad’s dad came from Austria. Now I have to go back and figure out where they lived. I need more information now.

Julie: We can talk about that because I know where to go.

Zibby: I’ll be in touch about that. Thank you, Julie. Thank you so much. Congratulations on this achievement.

Julie: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it. It’s been great.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Julie: Bye.

Julie Metz, EVA AND EVE

EVA AND EVE by Julie Metz

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