Philanthropist Eva Haller on Risk Taking

  • Eva Haller_social activist

Philanthropist Eva Haller on Risk Taking

For the new impactmania and UCSB program: Human Mind and Migration (HMM), we are featuring migrants who have been contributing cultural, social, and economic wealth and health to their adopted countries.

Add your migration story to the HMM program: www.hmm.ucsb.edu. 

Eva Haller, a social activist at age 14, created anti-Hitler leaflets while she was in the Hungarian resistance with her older brother. She talked her way out of the hands of a Nazi officer and helped facilitate the release of a 10-year-old boy whose life was entrusted to her. From Hungary, she fled to Ecuador, and years later moved onward to the United States.

In the U.S., Eva went from cleaning houses to supporting countless arts and cultural organizations around her. She has been recognized as a mentor to a wide community of arts and business leaders on both the East-and West Coasts of the country she so loves. Forbes Women’s Summit honored Eva Haller for her work with the Inaugural Mentoring Award in 2013.

BY PAKSY PLACKIS-CHENG

Eva, where did you migrate from and to, including the places you settled in between?

We are all immigrants. Some of us call ourselves the daughters of the American Revolution, which is such an interesting idea. What makes you the daughter of the American Revolution?

Those who came to this country, and fought [the Native Americans and the British Empire] for this country, are a fairly conservative group that feels very strongly that allowing people in is not good for our country. Yet, this country let them in, they let me in, I am in. Not only am I in—I also deeply believe that more of us are needed in this country to widen our horizon. To make us understand what humanity is today, versus what it was maybe 100 years ago.

We really have to figure out how we coexist, because our coexistence is no longer between Wisconsin, Maryland, Virginia or California. It now has to do with every country on Earth. If there is an Ebola outbreak in one country, you can feel the effect around the world.

I am an immigrant, a multiple immigrant. I tried to get away from my country because of Hitler and the Nazis. Then when I finally was able to escape, I was not escaping from the Nazis, I was escaping from the Soviet military occupation in my country, Hungary. By the time I was 18, I had been under Hungarian, German, and Soviet Russian occupation. A lot of identity questions come up: Who am I? Who do I want to be and what language do I think in?

I left Hungary when I was 18, and was able to get a visitor’s visa to Ecuador. Part of my father’s family escaped Hitler and fled to Ecuador. During Hitler, every country opened its doors to those who tried to run away.

But after the first hundreds of people arrived in Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, they said, “Oops, we are overrun by immigrants,” and they closed their doors. By the time my relatives tried to leave Hungary and arrived in Panama, they said, “No, we no longer want you.” Ecuador didn’t yet have any immigrants.

And of course those who became Ecuadorians were the first ones to create factories, stores, schools, and universities. They brought the country into the century that the rest of us were living in. I arrived to Ambato, Ecuador in 1948, after having lived in a very cosmopolitan city of Budapest. Ambato was a small village at 8454 feet above sea level without electricity or sewer system.

For an 18-year-old who loved opera, it was a bit of a switch. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish. My family was very “Ecuadorianized”. My cousin was eight months younger, but she was a señorita. Communication wasn’t easy and culturally we were very different.

After three years in Ecuador, I was able to get a visitor’s visa to the United States.

I know that you did everything that was needed to make a life for yourself in the U.S.—cleaning houses while going back to school.

My American relatives were very comfortable. While they were willing to send me money to arrive here, they really didn’t want to deal with a relative who they last saw when I was a very, very little girl. Now as a divorced woman with a two-year old kid, I wasn’t exactly what they wanted or needed in their lives.

The first thing I was advised is to get a job, because I needed to make money and to get a Social Security card. I had to do something about the fact that my visa was for six weeks. There was no place for me to go back to. Hungary was totally under Soviet occupation. I left Ecuador because I could not find jobs to support my kid and I couldn’t stay in a marriage of such abuse. I was never beaten by a man—I never had a relationship with somebody who was always drunk. And I was not diplomatic about handling this situation at the age of 19.

When I came to America, I found jobs through the ads in the New York Times.

They were looking for house cleaners and since the need was immediate, I gladly took the jobs that were offered. At the same time, I learned about getting a student visa. I always wanted to go to school. So I went to school at night, and I cleaned houses in the daytime.

Then, I heard about the International House [of New York] where foreign students live. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. created the International House and so many of the students were sons and daughters of presidents of countries. The Americans there were from diplomatic families.

And since the people who would live in that house would be the future leaders of the world, they had very strict rules.

And you ended up living there?

I applied and I was told, ”No, you can’t have a child.” Which was okay, because my son was still in Ecuador with my aunt and uncle. “No, you cannot go to work, and you have to be a graduate student.” So I explained to Mrs. Miriam McDonald, who was the admissions person, that I was totally not qualified. She looked at me and she said something to the effect, “it will be a welcome change to have somebody who has to struggle to survive.”

And I said, “I can do that.”

[Laughter.]

I got a job at the United Nations in the gift shop in 1955. The UN delegates’ dining room was the only place to eat if you wanted something. You could park your car in the garage because nobody drove a car. There was no asphalt; it used to be all grass. So in the summertime I would lie in the grass and get a suntan. Because how else could I get a vacation?

How was living in a house with other women who were in such a different position from the one you were in?

I was older than most of them. I think that when women are together in a group, who are very different from each other, the sorority becomes so strong, so great, so amazing.

My room was on the seventh floor and so there were nights where we would all meet in the bathroom to curl our hair or to wash our face or to brush our teeth and have a conversation, “How did your day go?”

My two best friends were sisters from Paris, who are still my dearest friends. My very, very best friend Barbara…I lost her this year. They became my family.

If we look at the timeline from arrival, bewilderment, then a total sense of loss, to becoming a joyous student and money earner — it wasn’t easy. But I knew that I only had one chance. As soon as I left Hungary, I became stateless. They removed my citizenship and my passport. Ecuador never gave me status. There was very little choice for me if the United States decided to deport me. Most of my earnings the first years went to a lawyer to help me change my student visa into permanent visa. It took until 1956, when I got a Green Card.

Bringing to mind your former way of life, what aspects did you have to leave behind?

I think when you leave your mother tongue; when you leave your language, you become somewhat a different person. There is something very comforting knowing the commonality of history, music, language, and art.

What you need to do is to learn to love Gershwin and understand the beauty of Cole Porter. I never lost the classics, but added to it.

You speak another language, added new arts and culture to your being, and adapted. Who is Eva now compared to Eva then?

I’m 89 years old, almost 90. Nobody ever lived long in my family. I don’t have a reference point. I have no way of validating who I am. I think what happens to people who have no history left to exchange or to validate, you become who you want to be.

When the borders around you restrict and restrain who you are — because of your life experience and the reinforcement that comes from those that you relate to — fall away, you can invent yourself.

I feel privileged that there is an international part—you belong to humanity—not just one strand of that.

Is there a strand that is still Hungarian which you brought into the United States?

No.

There is no pleasure connected to Hungary. It was the Hungarians and not the Germans who killed off my family. It was not the Soviets who made our life miserable after the occupation. It was the Hungarians.

If you look at Hungary today, it is considered the most fascistic country in Europe and has been for years now. It would be very hard for me to identify myself with a country that not only rejected me, but threatened my life, and took away the life of my family.

After the war, I tried to go back and claim what my parents left me. There was no way that my claim could be honored, because why would they give back what doesn’t belong to them, when they don’t have to.

Eva, you are clearly international, but do you feel American?

Yes, I do. I love this country. I love the values that allowed me to grow into a woman of achievement. I love the nature; I love the people. I really love America. There are times when I’m very angry about the values that we seem to lose. But I’m hopeful that those values will come back.

What value do you think we’ve lost?

We lost our memory cells that relate to who we are. How did we get here? What do we owe this land? I wish we would remember that we left behind—terror and horror and misery and killing and hunger.

All of us came to this country to find freedom and success. Why do we want to deny it to others? We have been given opportunities; we have been given an open society. 

Do you have advice for people in the process of leaving their country or trying to establish in a new country?

When I migrated, every country seemed to have a quota. England had a quota for Jews and America had a quota. But within that quota, there was acceptance of a certain number of people. Today, we are so threatened by people coming in. The truth is that the people who are coming in are not like us. People come who are so different, with different values and customs. Yet, look at Israel. The Soviet Jews and Indian Jews who were so culturally different…but they let them in. A generation or two later, there are no more memories of those who wanted to move into houses with their camels. Migration takes time. Acculturation takes time. We have to be patient with the new ones, and the new ones have to be tolerant of our intolerance.

What helped you acclimate to this country? Were there some things that helped you settle?

What made life easier for me is that I spoke the language. It helps when you know the language. It helps when you can reach out and not feel defeated.

I’m a survivor and have the muscles of a survivor. I kept on saying, “I need an education; I don’t want to clean houses for the rest of my life.” I need to get a profession where I can bring my kid who’s waiting [in Ecuador] to America.

The most important thing I learned during the German and Soviet occupation was how to fight for others. When I came to America, I realized that I have the privilege of marching with Martin Luther King and I am not going to be arrested for it.

One morning, I was in front of the White House, with the Psychiatric Association, protesting against the Vietnam War and that afternoon I was a guest of President Johnson at the White House for tea because a friend became the head of the Small Business Bureau and was sworn in.

Only in America!

Do you have a word that describes your journey?

I think that my journey was heroic. I am glad that the heroic part happened when I was very young and I didn’t know how dangerous it was. The sense of adventure is what made it so interesting and so challenging. It’s been a heck of an adventure.

Do you think you would be a risk-taker if you were not set up in environments where you had to? Are you by nature a risk taker or you would you have been a nester?

No, I don’t think I would ever be a nester. I wasn’t born to be a nester!

I don’t think so either, Eva!

[Laughter]

Risk-taking, yes. Every day you take risks, not taking risk is a risk. Therefore we all take risks. Some of us take such negative risks, few risks, or flawed risks.

But if you feel at any age that there’s still a horizon out there that you haven’t touched. If there is still something you haven’t done. If there are still ideas, flavors, savors, smells that are alien to you. Go for it. What else is there after all?

Human Mind and Migration is an impactmania program in partnership with the Neuroscience Research Institute, Department of Religious Studies, and the Art, Design & Architecture Museum at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB).

Add your migration story to the HMM program: www.hmm.ucsb.edu.

 

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