Tag Archives: women’s rights

Eliane Vogel Polsky

My best friend Eliane’s birthday

Today would have been my best friend’s 91st birthday, and she would be mad at me for crying about it.  But there’ll never be another Eliane Vogel Polsky, for me or anyone.  I’ve even forgiven her for keeping a secret from me for 19 years.

I first admired Eliane as a professional mentor – a labor lawyer who devoted herself to the cause of women’s rights and won landmark cases in the EU, a distinguished law professor who oversaw all the EU-funded research to improve women’s employment in Europe.  The first day we met in Brussels, I fell under her spell – an elegant, brilliant woman, not one to suffer fools gladly but with the warmth and generosity of a huge bonfire. There was no hint of what I would learn about her later.

An hour with Eliane was like a month with anyone else, so intense was her attention to any given moment.  Taking a walk in Brussels, her home city, brought forth a stream of stories about the garret room her father reluctantly allowed her to rent so she could have some privacy before she married, about the cascades that used to rush from the fountains in the center of the city.

Over the years, we became ever closer – especially after Eliane retired, and was free to come to the U.S. every year.  Our conversations had, I thought, covered everything.  Then I spent a week with her before my first long stay in Amsterdam in 2001, and she told me something she had never revealed before.  As a Jewish teenager, Eliane had been hidden in plain sight in a convent school in Liege.  She took me to that classically beautiful city, a river town.  This time, her stories seared rather than delighted me.  We saw the train station where she was almost caught without her false papers.  The bridge where the Nazis had made “une piege a soucieres – you know what it is?  A mouse trap.”  The convent itself.

Eliane and Mary

If Eliane had told me that she’d been kidnapped by pirates, I couldn’t have been more astonished.  I had simply never done the arithmetic to realize that of course she would have had to hide.  For the first time, I felt the truncheon of Nazism crash down on my head.  They would have killed my best friend, a woman of endless accomplishment and dearer to me than I can ever express.

So when I went to Amsterdam the next week for a long stay, I was open to learning about the Nazi occupation as never before.  After discovering that we were living inside the Jewish Quarter, I began to research it in earnest.  Over the coming 13 years as we came and went from Amsterdam, Eliane visited often from Brussels. Our 2002 flat was under an attic where Jewish people had been hidden.  I was so haunted that I had to learn more about their world and write about it for others.  Rachel Klein, the heroine of An Address in Amsterdam, and her parents began to appear to me, not in the supernatural sense but in some ethereal way that characters come to writers.

Eliane played a crucial role in developing the book – not only because I was so disturbed by her own relatively narrow escape, but because she told me many more stories about that time.  For example, she recounted the reluctance of her father, a decorated World War I veteran, to believe that their family could possibly be vulnerable; or how it felt to be a 15 year old keeping a huge, terrible secret from absolutely everyone except the Mother Superior in the convent school.  Her sensibility, her sense of her predicament, her fear and courage are all woven into An Address.  As I wrote, Eliane read my work to see whether it “rang true,” and read the revisions until they did.  She accompanied me to exhibits and sites even though they disturbed her and gave her bad dreams.

In our very last conversation, she asked me about the book, and I promised that it was coming.  It was, but she died a year before An Address in Amsterdam was published – the story of a young woman with Eliane’s spunk and love of life, who never lets fear stop her.

When Eliane died the death of the just, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, even I could accept that it was time.  Most days, but not today.

Why I Had to March in Washington, Not Elsewhere

I had to march somewhere the day after the Inauguration for the same reasons as everyone else.

I could have joined my neighbors at the statewide rally in Montpelier, Vermont.

But I had to join the Women’s March on Washington.  Why?

Marchers and capitol

Because that’s where the man lives now.  The one who received a minority of the popular vote and now has the nuclear codes in his hands.  A privileged white male who has inspired and legitimized hate crimes, and is about to commit them at the policy level.  A self-admitted sexual predator – no, a braggart, about what he should be ashamed of.  An aggressor who takes what he wants no matter to whom it belongs, like the early “settlers” who invaded Native lands.  A sleaze who will do anything you’ll let him get away with. A perpetual liar whose incessant degradation took down one of the world’s most experienced and distinguished women politicians.  The first President for whom the White House will be a step down in luxury from his own residence.

I had to march within a few blocks of that guy.  To clog his streets – not just Independence Avenue, but the Mall, Constitution Avenue, everything he sees from his back windows. To be part of the roar that would penetrate even the double glazing.

I had to walk in the footsteps of the civil rights activists like Fannie Lou Hamer and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the peace marchers, the women’s rights advocates.  To be on the march that began long, long before this one, seeking justice in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”  I needed to be brave in that land, rather than despairing.  To remind myself that other marchers won at least partial victories – the Civil Rights Act, withdrawal from Vietnam, the right to choose, the Equal Pay Act. I owed it to those earlier marchers to show up where they did.

Marchers by National Gallery Women's MarchI needed to walk in my own footsteps, too.  To remember stumbling sleepily off an overnight bus as an 18 year old to the roar of a megaphone that said “Good morning, Antioch.”  I returned to march again and again – to protest the Vietnam war, then to support women’s rights.  Then marching wasn’t enough, and I spent ten years in Washington, working first in public interest groups, then for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Federal Women’s Program.  I worked for almost everything Donald Trump is attacking.  I take it personally.  I lived in Washington long before that man did, and I’ll still be marching and supporting good causes there long after he’s gone.

I needed to march in Washington to reassure myself.  No matter who is dominating the House and Senate, no matter who is sitting in the President’s chair, no matter how powerful they are, women and our allies can still fill the streets of Washington as full as they’ve ever been.  Not just with old fogeys like me, but with a new generation who will also be marching for decades ahead.  Not just white women like me, but women of all colors, women in headscarves and pink handknit hats, women of all persuasions.

Washington is the center of what I fear in our country now, and even in its best moments it’s a flawed city of the rich and poor, full of puffery and vanity, racism and sexism. “I envy you North Americans,” Che Guevara said.  “You live in the heart of the beast.”

sign about womanhood and unity

But Washington is also the essence of what I love about the United States.  It’s a diverse metropolis with a huge, open space at center of the city where absolutely anyone can come.  The Mall is lined with free museums which honor who we are as a nation: the Natives who were here first, the slaves who created so much of our wealth, the Constitution we are still learning to fulfill, the immigrants who made the United States what it is.

On Saturday, we marched in all our variety and humor and enterprise and determination and sisterhood.  We, the people of the United States.  In our nation’s capital.  Ours.