Eulogy for Sonia Wachstein
By Carol Ascher

Ours was a late friendship–later for Sonia than for me. I’ll tell you a little about it, because it was my window onto Sonia’s life and personality, and because I came to believe that friendship was Sonia’s special gift to all of us.

I walked into Sonia’s living room seven years ago, when I was beginning to uncover who my father, Paul Bergmann, had been in Vienna, before he fled the Nazis. I had gone to see Herta Leng, another Viennese Gymnasium teacher, who had then been a professor of physics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute until her seventies. I had heard about Herta since childhood as my father’s "Viennese friend." But it was only that hot summer day of 1994 in Troy that I realized the intimacy of their friendship. A shy, frail woman, with a deep sense of propriety, Herta told me how she and Paul had studied English together during that awful summer of 1938, how they planned to offer themselves as a maid-butler duo to a British family, and how, when Paul’s papers were finally in order, hers were still being held up by the Gestapo. Then, some months later, Herta too finally escaped the tightening noose. She and Sonia were sharing a bed-sitting room, she told me, when Sonia showed her the romantic human interest story, complete with a photo, of the marriage of two refugees–Paul and my mother–in the London newspaper.

"Who’s Sonia?" I asked Herta. It was a completely new name to me.

"A friend, another Viennese Gymnasium teacher, who also knew Paul. Poor Sonia, she heard more than she ever wanted about my side of the story.

Which is how, one evening, a week later I came to sit in Sonia’s recognizably European living room facing the pink neon bowling sign–as if she needed a daily reminder that home in exile was in America. Actually, Sonia’s apartment was uncanny to me for another reason: I walked along University Place daily on my way to work at New York University, never suspecting that a friend of my father’s from Vienna lived there.

"What do you hope to find out about Paul by writing about him?" Sonia asked, with frontal curiosity. Though the stains on her sleeve gave me my first inkling of her troubles with her vision, she seemed incredibly vibrant as she fixed her blue eyes on me to soak in who I was.

That night, as I left, she gave me the memoir she had dictated in English to her niece, Muki. The book, she said, was in the process of being translated back into German for publication in Austria. Reading the story of Sonia’s youth, I discovered that she herself had been romantically involved with Paul B., as she called him, during their university years. The story was even more complicated, as I learned over our next meetings. Paul had come to take a walk with Sonia during their last days in Vienna, and he had taken her hand, as if re-igniting their university days. Yet as soon as she got to England, she herself met the Berlin woman–my mother–he was falling in love with; for the three of them worked together as counselors in the refugee camp for Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransport. Sonia had wonderfully sarcastic things to say about my mother. But that’s another story.

As I came to know Sonia over the next months and years, our relationship became its own thick braid of conversation–about public schools, a world we shared (and for which she had much more certain solutions than I), politics, the lectures she attended at NYU, and the articles in the New York Review of Books she had read to her at the Jewish Guild for the Blind. How impatient she often was with her readers, who seemed so uninterested in the content of what they read to her! Increasingly, too, we talked about those personal conflicts that women even of different ages share, and she was astute at analyzing the way I handled my job and my writing life.

Sonia was a natural raconteur. It didn’t matter whether she had a table filled with dinner guests, or an audience of one–me. Her favorite most lively stories were those in which she figured as the anti-heroine: how she’d been walking with her dog and fallen in the park, and not noticed anything was wrong until someone saw blood on her leg and called the police, who then took her and Polka to the emergency room of some urban hospital, where new adventures befell her. Strategy and intention were foreign to these stories. Rather, they were gentle exercises in self-mockery, with psychological insights and ironic social observations, say, about big city bureaucracies, thrown in to pepper the already amusing narrative. Once, trying blindly to hail a cab, she had crawled into a car with four men in it. If the situation was dangerous, what she recalled was only that they had somehow consented to drive her to her door.

Sometimes, as she reminisced, Sonia would astonish me with a memory of my moody, gifted, autocratic father, or, in response to my telling her that I was reworking my memoir yet again, she would analyze how my perfectionism was an understandable response to his harsh personality.

I suppose it was a combination of fond memories of Paul and more immediate affection toward me that sometimes made her say: "You could easily have been my daughter." This fictive kinship seemed to gratify her. And if she recognized my father in me, Sonia and I–in our competence and uncertainty, our warmth and standoffishness, as well as our intellectual passions–were uncannily familiar to each other.

I want to speak to Sonia’s choice to remain single. To younger people, this may seem odd, given the fullness of her emotional life. Sometimes she made fun of herself for having said no over and over to perfectly decent suitors. The way Sonia saw it, she had kept up an illusion over the long decades of "having my whole life ahead of me." But she also knew from both her brother and boyfriends like Paul how much–and little–men of her generation expected of their women. I can’t imagine her as a full-time Hausfrau and mother. Yet when my father, who had had independent, intellectual, well-educated girlfriends like Sonia and Herta in Vienna, made his sudden decision to marry in England when he was 32–it was to a woman ten years his junior, who had not finished high school, and who had little interest in the life of the mind. It was as easy for him to insist that my mother not work, as it was for her to stand in awe of his every opinion. This is not a relationship Sonia could have tolerated even for a romantic weekend! Like me, the way she often listened was by arguing.

Over the past years, Sonia has taught me three important lessons:

• First, to be less of a perfectionist. Although she regularly berated herself for her carelessness–her clothes, she claimed, had been stained before the onset of macular degeneration–she nightly argued that it would get harder and harder for me to meet my high standards as I aged. And so, as she taught me to be easier on myself, I was able to be easier on her. I was grateful to Joe Doyle for washing her glasses and plates before the dinner parties she loved to give. But when I came by myself after work, I ate the food she cooked–badly–on her stained dishes, and it felt like my small return gift for the important lesson she was teaching me.

• Second, to treat the world as if it is benign. Sonia knew as much as anyone that it isn’t benign. Yet she refused to act out of caution and suspicion. Maybe she was counter-phobic–the way she left her door unlocked, and went out without her keys or purse or both. She didn’t go to doctors, and when she finally did, she wondered if she might have escaped illness had she stayed away. Although I thought her time had come, I also believed that, in her studied innocence, she had created a circle of goodness around herself, from her relatives and friends and Russian students, to the door-men and building superintendent and neighbors at 31 East 12th, all of whom looked after her, to the strangers in New York and in Europe, who lent her money, hoisted her bag or suitcase, or helped steer her to the right subway or train.

• Third, and finally, I learned from Sonia what a wonderful thing it is to be able to love to the very end of life. We had a regular point of banter, Sonia and I. She would disparage her dog: Polka was passive, undemanding, content to live with a woman who did little of interest from the point of view of a dog of any worth. I would counter that she didn’t deserve a dog like Polka, who was loyal and loving and glad to be with her.

One day about a month ago, when Sonia had returned from her second trip to the hospital and was back in the metal bed that had been installed in the living room, I walked in to find Polka lying in her arms. The dog’s head was in the crook of her neck, like a lover, snuggling. Sonia had her fingers in Polka’s black curls, and I knew that, whatever she might have said, she felt how much the dog loved her, and she had given in to her love for the dog.

Sonia was a loving woman these last weeks. I know she let herself cry with Muki when she realized that the backache that had plagued her all winter was cancer. As her Viennese irony and independence slipped away, a word or gesture conveyed how pleased she was to see each of us, and how much she needed us. When Marjorie King came to take devoted care of her, as if she herself had been blessed with years of Sonia’s edgy warmth, Sonia would call out, "Marjorie!" just to make sure Marjorie was near. She was beautiful, and somehow elegant, lying there, with that inch-wide crown of white hair that had finally grown under the honey-colored dye.

Last Thursday, I came to see her for what I knew would be the last time. At first, I didn’t think she was even conscious of my presence–she had receded too far from life. But when I kissed her forehead, a smile of rapture crossed her bony face, and she reached out to embrace me.

May we each of us give so much at our hour of death!


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