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Eve Nussbaum Soumerai, teacher, writer who drew from her Holocaust experiences, dies at 97

For many years, Eve Nussbaum Soumerai was a teacher in Connecticut, where she staged multimedia tributes, involving dozens of students, that honored historical figures. Courtesy of the Soumerai family

As violence that became known as Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, spread through Berlin on Nov. 9, 1938, Eve Nussbaum Soumerai and her family stayed inside their home. Clasping each other in the dark, they looked out a window at flames down the street where a synagogue stood. Chants of “Death to the Jews” rose above the sounds of sirens.

“The terror lasted throughout the night,” Ms. Soumerai wrote decades later.

Several months after that night, her father was only able to negotiate a single spot on the Kindertransport trains that were taking refugee children to England, sparing them from the Nazi threat. The family sent Ms. Soumerai and kept her younger brother, Norbert, behind in hopes of getting him out later. In the packed railway station, she bid her family goodbye.

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“It was supposed to be temporary, but in our hearts we feared that it might not be so,” she wrote. “My mother’s last words were, ‘Look at the stars and pray.’ "

Ms. Soumerai, who spent decades keeping alive memories of the Holocaust as a Connecticut schoolteacher and in Greater Boston presentations, died Feb. 2 in Providence House in Brighton, her assisted-living home for the past year.

She was 97 and previously had lived since 2010 in Brookline, where she had moved from Connecticut to be closer to her children and grandchildren.

Only 13 when she boarded the train that brought her to a ship to England, she lived for a time with an older couple who had no children of their own and were unaccustomed to living with a teenager. That home was emotionally distant from the happy family in which she had grown up.

“Loneliness envelops you gradually like an oncoming illness. For a while you protest to the world and to God. You believe the world knows and God knows that it’s not fair,” she later wrote in an essay she titled “Refugee.”

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“Thank God for the tears,” she wrote. “They relieve the pressure built up inside of you. They make life bearable. And suddenly one clear night you notice the moon outside your window.”

The moon’s craters formed “an all knowing, all understanding face shining on you the refugee and also those you love, and had to leave behind,” Ms. Soumerai wrote, and “gradually over many years you begin to acquire a sense of mystery and peace.”

As an educator in Connecticut schools, and in her presentations at Greater Boston schools, community centers, and temples, she taught children and adults the necessity of remembering and the importance of kindness.

While teaching in West Hartford, Conn., high schools, she organized tribute performances “to help students be in touch with good, courageous people who spoke up and did something.”

The multimedia tributes honored historic figures such as Anne Frank, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, and George Gershwin.

Her guiding principle was that everyone could participate. Several students shared the role of King on a single night. The chorus swelled to more than 100 voices, spilling into the auditorium.

One tribute to Gershwin that she directed was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in the 1970s.

About 25 years ago, Governor John G. Rowland of Connecticut issued a proclamation honoring her lifetime contributions to education.

In a 1999 letter, Joseph Lieberman, then a US senator from Connecticut, wrote that although Ms. Soumerai’s classroom lessons drew from her experiences during Hitler’s rise to power, “Eve’s work transcends the story of the Holocaust; her teachings reinforce the notion that we are all members of a larger community and the forces that bind us are much stronger than the forces that seek to tear us apart.”

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And in 2008, nearly 70 years after she and her family heard Nazis in the streets calling for Jews to be murdered on Kristallnacht, she testified before the Connecticut Legislature’s Education Committee, asking lawmakers to ensure that all students would learn about that period of history and other times when large populations have been killed because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

“I am the sole Holocaust survivor of a large, loving family,” she told them. “I am here today to underscore my belief in the importance of mandating genocide education.”

Eva Nussbaum, who was known as Eve after emigrating to the United States, was born on May 15, 1926, in Hanover, Germany, and moved with her family to Berlin a year later.

Her father, Berthold Nussbaum, was a World War I veteran. A manager at a down comforter factory, he was a bon vivant who “loved life” and was devoted to his family, she said in an interview with the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation.

“I really think I appreciate it more than ever, even after all these years, what he gave me at the very beginning of my life,” she said. “I did know he was special, even then.”

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Her mother, Frieda Fabisch Nussbaum, “had this sort of poet’s sensitivity about what was to come. You know, some people feel it more than others.”

After Ms. Soumerai went to England, her brother, Norbert, who was 18 months younger, sent letters, sometimes signing off with “many greetings and 10,000,000 kisses.”

All three were killed in the Holocaust — her father and brother days before Germany surrendered, though she didn’t learn specifics until years later.

“The pain was overwhelming,” she later wrote of the moments of chance that let her escape while her family was killed.

“Maybe I should never have left,” she wrote. “Why had I survived? My father, my mother, and my brother were better than I. What had made me special?”

In England, she left her foster home at 15 to work at a shelter for displaced children, and subsequently was an assistant to Dr. Donald Winnicott, a renowned pediatrician and psychoanalyst. She also was interviewed by Anna Freud — Sigmund’s daughter — for Anna’s research into how war affected children.

As a civilian employee of the US Army, Ms. Soumerai returned to Germany as a translator and interpreter, and then went to Switzerland, where she met Henri Soumerai.

They married when she was 19 and emigrated to the United States, settling in Massachusetts and living in Springfield for more than a decade before moving to Connecticut. Their marriage later ended in divorce. He died in November.

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While her three children were growing up, Ms. Soumerai finished bachelor’s and master’s degrees and began teaching, later expanding her Holocaust presentations to Greater Boston when her grandchildren were in school.

With each grandchild, Ms. Soumerai “was playful and curious,” said her granddaughter Leah Soumerai of Jamaica Plain. “As children we were so lucky to have her, because time with her was full of fun and creativity and humor.”

On trips for ice cream, for example, Ms. Soumerai introduced her grandchildren to the flights of imagination she and her father had shared on Berlin’s streets in the 1930s.

“She called it ‘lick and look’ — licking your ice cream cone and looking at every person who walked by, and imagining stories about what was happening in their lives,” Leah said. “It was like a lesson in creative storytelling.”

In addition to Leah, Ms. Soumerai leaves two sons, Stephen of Brookline and David of Hartford, Conn.; a daughter, Heidi of Brookline; four other grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

A gathering to celebrate Ms. Soumerai’s life will be announced.

Her writings included coauthoring the books “A Voice from the Holocaust” (2003) and “Daily Life During the Holocaust” (2009).

In memoirs and oral histories with the Shoah Foundation and Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, she made sure to highlight memories of happiness she and others shared, even in the shadow of encroaching terror.

“People had a knack of continuing to live right up to the end,” she said of birthday parties held on the cusp of Kristallnacht.

“It was a very loving society,” she said, “at least my particular impression and memories of it.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.