Haya Leah Molner, author of Under a Red Sky: Memoir of a Childhood in Communist Romania (Farrar Straus Giroux, $17.99) was almost eight before she learned she was Jewish. Growing up in Communist Romania in the 1950s, in the wake of the Holocaust that obliterated over half of Romania’s Jewish population, Eva, as she was then called, the only child in a sea of adults, carefully pieced together the secrets of her family’s past.
In this captivating memoir, Molner takes us back into the cramped apartment in Bucharest where young Eva lived with her parents, grandparents, aunt and uncles, basking in their love and attention and shielding herself from the constant bickering. Her father, a gifted photographer, had endured the lager concentration camps and Russian POW labor camps. Her mother’s career as a ballet dancer came to an abrupt end, and a previous husband was killed in the war.
While her childhood was better than her parents’ Holocaust horrors, daily life under communism was a fraught game of cat-and-mouse. The most terrifying threat was the Securitate, the secret service of communist Romania, whose dreaded knock in the middle of the night could mean only one thing. “Trust me,” Eva’s grandmother tells her, “you will never return. You will disappear from the face of the earth just as if you had never been born.” Once her family applied for passports to immigrate to Israel, and their Jewishness became public, life got even more difficult. All the adults in her family immediately lost their jobs, along with all the Jews in Romania who had applied for passports to Israel.
Throughout this limbo period of waiting to hear whether they would be granted permission to leave, Eva began to explore her newfound Judaism — and to make sense of her double life: “In school I become more indoctrinated in Communist ideology, while at home I’m a Jewish girl in hiding.” Her grandfather, with whom she had an especially close relationship, gave her a mezuzah, not explaining what it is but merely telling her it contains the “truth.” He also arranged for her to secretly meet with the rabbi to begin learning Hebrew. While Eva embraced her newfound Jewishness, it was puzzling to her. Afraid of being discovered as a Jew by the other kids at school, she asks, “What is a Jew, anyway? More than anything I wish the world would stop hating Jews because I’m still the same person I was before I knew I was Jewish.”
Until the final pages, the reader is left wondering: What will become of the Zimmerman family? And what will become of Eva? And the reader roots for her family to leave the confines of Bucharest to start anew in freedom.
Abigail Pickus, a writer living in Jerusalem, is a columnist and blogger for the New York Jewish Week.