In 1932, the designer Eva Zeisel was living in Berlin and, according to her grandmother, becoming “inebriated on amusements.” She worked for the Carstens factory and at home often gave large parties for all sorts of artists and intellectuals—her guests included the young physicists Leó Szilárd and Victor Weisskopf, the writers Anna Seghers and Arthur Koestler (a childhood friend), and two future husbands, Alex Weissberg and Hans Zeisel. Then rather suddenly one day she decided to “see what was behind the mountain.” A visit to Russia turned into five years there, the last sixteen months in prison, mostly in solitary confinement. She was caught in the early Stalinist purges and accused of plotting to kill Stalin.
According to her daughter Jean Richards, “For many years Eva did not want to make her prison experiences public (in part because she was afraid that the KGB would come after her in the U.S.—this fear was not far-fetched). When a friend read these memoirs, he found them disingenuous. He did not believe that one could write about such a serious situation with so much humor and charm. But that is Eva. She often saw herself from the outside. She felt like a tourist in life. This allowed her to see herself in a different, sometimes bemused way. All the details of Eva’s memories that we could check have been accurate.” Eva Zeisel's Prison Memoir appears in APS 14.
Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself—slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise reporting my memories.
It all started with mother bending over me to wake me up. It all ended with this. This, for a long time, was the end of my good life. Even today, my heart repudiates this memory bitterly. Even now, I think of this moment when my mother bent over me as one of the happiest of my life. I had slept particularly well, probably dreamed very happily, and when I saw her, I put my arms around her neck and we smiled at each other. It was only four o’clock in the morning, hardly light, and no time to get up.
The day before, I had been particularly cheerful. I do not remember why it was such a happy day. I had gone to the beauty parlor and had my nails manicured, my hair done, and a facial massage. I felt pretty when I got back to the office to have a meeting with my boss’s boss; there was a flirting atmosphere between him and me. It was May 27, 1936. I walked home through the park. There were people lying in reclining chairs, children playing. Everything seemed clean and friendly.
I do not remember the evening. Mother and I shared a room in the little apartment in Moscow we rented with my brother, his wife, and small child. After dinner together, we must have had a good evening before I went to bed. And now Mother was bending over me to wake me up. Mother was very pretty, but it was not customary between us that she was openly tender or loving. So her smile and maybe her kiss (this I forget) must have come as an unexpected present.
“Well,” Mother said, “there are some people here to see you.”
It never occurred to me that I could have done something wrong. Not even then did it occur to me that something might happen to me personally. I looked around and saw a woman and the building superintendent. I got up and put on my housecoat, a green-checkered one of wool flannel. Suddenly there were more men in the room. I became quite ill at ease. They looked at my letters and at my photographs. They stopped at two of them. One was an enlarged snapshot of me on a beach with my eyes closed. It looked like a mask of my dead face. The men passed the photograph from one to the other and they smiled, and it scared me. I do not know whether I realized then or later that they thought I would soon be dead.
They also found a picture of a pistol, an enlargement I had made. It had been the fashion at that time to make partial enlargements of things so they looked like something else. Like speaking a word over and over again and changing the meaning of a syllable. At the time I got my camera, which I had bought with my first earnings from the Schramberg factory, I was living with the Leichsenring family. They had a little girl, and I took pictures of her dolls’ heads, heads of broken dolls. I also took a picture of her father’s pistol, a tiny one, with many little bullets laid out in a row, and I enlarged it into a pattern. They took other photographs, too. It must have been interesting for them to see what a foreigner had among her letters and photographs and personal belongings.
I remember feeling life receding from me and myself being set apart. They were not rude. They were extremely polite. After a while they said, “Well, you’d better come along.” This was a shock. They showed me the order for my arrest. I started to pack a few clothes and Mother helped. Then the woman said, “Take more handkerchiefs, you might need them.” And I wondered, “Just for a few days? It can’t be for long.” The woman answered, “Just take your handkerchiefs and a little more underwear.” She watched while I dressed.
My garter was broken. The button that held the stocking was missing. As usual in such cases, when I didn’t have a penny or a kopeck I took a little piece of paper, folded it into a square and put it into my garter holder to hold my stocking. The woman pointed toward the wad of paper and said, “Give me that piece of paper.” She unfolded the little piece of newspaper, which was not much bigger than a fifty-cent piece, noted that this had been clandestinely put into my stocking, and took it away. I asked her whether I could talk to my mother alone and she said no, only in front of her.
I had to go through the other room, where my brother and his family lived. When I passed them, my brother, Michael, had a doll in his hand, a puppet, and holding the arm of the puppet between his fingers, he waved the little hand to me good-bye. The baby was in the corner sleeping. I do not know whether I kissed my mother good-bye. I might have, under the eyes of this woman.
Then we all walked down to the car. The light of the morning had flooded the courtyard, unexpectedly gray and cold. The man and woman asked the building superintendent to cut them some branches from the flowering bushes surrounding the house, and he got a knife and cut big branches of Japanese cherries and peach blossoms. They filled the open car with flowers. I sat in the back, between two of them. There were two more plus the driver. It seemed so incongruous that I forgot that it was me they had arrested, and I smiled.
One of them turned back and asked the other, “Do you have a cigarette?” I had some and offered my packet to him, saying, “Here, have one.” But he refused. Suddenly I understood that I was no longer a part of the people who were well and harmless. To take a cigarette from me was wrong. I was set apart, and my heart fell again.
They asked where else I had things and I told them I had been given an apartment recently. I had to put something in there, to take possession, kind of like a squatter, so I had some old suitcases filled with newspapers. We went to my new apartment and they said, “Eva Alexandrovna, is this all you have?” And with their saying “Eva Alexandrovna,” I felt a part of humanity again. It was good to be called by my name and my father’s name, and for this, I was grateful to them.
I do not remember entering Butyrka Prison. I do not remember the door opening and closing behind me. I remember walking through the courtyards with a Red soldier behind me, being led to be searched, showered, and photographed. I was surprised that the photographer was just a simple man, like any photographer, who asked me to look forward and sideways. He put a number in front of my chest and I thought, This will make me look like those pictures of criminals one sees, Wanted for Murder. Then they took me to be fingerprinted, one finger rolled in the ink after the other, and again I thought, It’s like the movies. Again, we walked through many courtyards and the funny thing was that I did not see anybody. It was all empty. Finally, I was in my cell, and I still did not know what it was all about.
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