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Two women who've overcome more than most

New Yorkers Eva Kollisch, left, and Naomi Replansky are staying in to reduce the risk of the coronavirus. The New York Times

New Yorkers Eva Kollisch, left, and Naomi Replansky are staying in to reduce the risk of the coronavirus. The New York Times

Published Apr 5, 2020


For most of us, it is almost impossible to comprehend the ferocity and regularity with which life was upended during the first half of the 20th century. Plague and conflict emerged on an epic scale, again and again. Loss and restriction were routine; disaster was its own season.

At 101, Naomi Replansky, a poet and labour activist, has endured all of it. Born in her family's apartment in the Bronx in May 1918, her arrival in the world coincided with the outset of the Spanish flu.

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The Spanish flu, which claimed tens of millions of lives, many of them children under 5, was hardly an isolated public health emergency. Polio had been designated an epidemic in New York City in June of 1916. That year, 2 000 people died of the disease in the city. Of those who lived, many would have had all too vivid memories of the typhoid eruption that gripped the city nine years earlier.

Until a polio vaccine came into use in the 1950s, outbreaks occurred somewhere in the country nearly every spring. By the early 1920s, Naomi's baby sister was stricken, leaving one of her legs permanently paralysed.

Two weekends ago, as the world was absorbing the enormity of the current crisis, Naomi and her 95-year-old wife, Eva Kollisch, were at home in Manhattan, listening to Marian Anderson on vinyl.

They were not unsettled.

“Confinement doesn't bother me,” Naomi said. “My shaky frame can handle more confinement.”

Naomi and Eva were introduced by Grace Paley at a reading of her work in the 1980s.

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Both Eva and Naomi experienced anti-Semitism at a young age. Eva, who was raised in a family of wealthy Jewish intellectuals outside Vienna, recalls being beaten by a group of children for being a “dirty Jew’’ when she was 6. During her childhood in the Bronx, Naomi was privy to the fascist radio broadcasts of Father Coughlin, which were always emanating from the open windows of East Tremont.

The first of Eva's own upheavals came with war. A year after the Nazi annexation of Austria, in 1939, she fled via the Kindertransport, a series of rescue efforts that placed Jewish children in British homes. Eva, then 13, travelled with her siblings, first by train to the Netherlands and then by ship to England.

“The minute we got to Holland, it seemed so wonderful that there were kind people there on the station platform,’’ Eva once told an interviewer for a feminist oral history project. “They gave you orange juice and smiled at you.”

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At first, she had thought of it all as an adventure.

“And then, when we were in England,’’ she said, “I very soon realised that I was extremely lonely.”

Eva and her brothers were dispersed to different homes while their parents stayed behind. In 1940, the family escaped the Holocaust and reunited in America, landing in Staten Island, New York.

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By then Eva's parents had lost everything, and so her mother worked teaching English to refugees for 25 cents an hour to earn the money to become a masseuse.

Her father, who had been a prominent architect in Austria, sold vacuum cleaners.

Throughout their lives, Naomi and Eva have exhibited a kind of fearlessness, ably nurtured by misfortune. After she graduated from high school in New York, Eva went to Detroit to work in an auto factory.

Naomi graduated from high school at the height of the Depression, in 1934. For years, she worked in offices, on assembly lines and as a lathe operator before she summoned the resources to go to the University of California, Los Angeles. She was an early computer programmer. Her first collection of poetry, published in 1952, was nominated for a National Book Award.

Until the emergence of the coronavirus, Eva and Naomi were out often.

On most days, they took long walks. They were active in a Buddhist Sangha at a meditation centre. They shopped at the farmers’ market and ate vegetarian lunches at Effy’s.

They find themselves longing for what has been lost, more than they dread whatever might come, and they worry more for their “generation”, as Naomi put it, than they do for themselves, even though Naomi had a bout with pneumonia six years ago.

The New York Times

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