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Laurie Nardone was raised in the coastal town of Westerley, Rhode Island — a proper New Englander, a pious Catholic school girl.
“We went to church every Sunday, I was confirmed and baptized,” says Nardone, a financial adviser who now lives in San Anselmo, California. “My father was Italian — the whole town was either Irish or Italian where I grew up. But my mother’s background was always sketchy…All I knew was that she was born in the Czech Republic, I knew that she was sent to live in a convent, and that she came over to the U.S. to go to college.”
Nardone’s mother, Eve Thieben, had lived her life as an English schoolteacher, carefully guarding a dark secret about her childhood — taking it with her to the grave, when she passed away in 2010.
Only with the help of modern technology has that secret been revealed.
“Her family all came from Europe and spoke five languages, my mother never had brothers or sisters, and my grandparents lived far away.”
It was only when Nardone took a 23andMe ancestry test in the summer of 2017 that she discovered that 48% of her background was, in fact, Ashkenazi Jewish.
When Nardone and her brother started researching their mother’s background, they stumbled upon her name and birthdate on the list of children rescued by British humanitarian Sir Nicholas Winton.
Her mother, it turns out, was not only Jewish — she was a Holocaust survivor.
Born Eva Thieben in Brunow, Czechoslovakia, Eve was raised by her mother and stepfather Karl Weiss, who had a prominent role in the town and likely used his connections to put Eva in a local convent. There, a nun named Sister Mary Xaverne secured Eva’s evacuation through Nicholas Winton. According to Winton’s records, the young girl went on to study in the Manor House School (formerly a convent, now a Jewish school) in Finchley, northwest London.
Winton, who died in 2015, was a 29-year old London stockbroker who, on impulse, created a rescue operation out of his hotel room in Prague. By 1939, he saved 669 children, arranging seven trains from Germany to the Hook of Holland, and then moving the children to a boat across the North Sea to the Harwich port in Essex. The majority of the parents and siblings of the children Winton saved perished in Nazi camps. Winton himself was silent about his humanitarian work — until his wife found his records in a scrapbook, hidden in the attic, fifty years later in 1988. There, she discovered detailed lists of names, photographs and contacts for the children he saved.
Winton barely spoke of his motivations. “One saw the problem there, that a lot of these children were in danger, and you had to get them to what was called a safe haven, and there was no organization to do that,” he told the New York Times in 2001. “Why did I do it? Why do people do different things? Some people revel in taking risks, and some go through life taking no risks at all.”
Eve Thieben was one of those children — though she never told her own family the truth. According to documents, though her original name was “Eva”, she was known in America only as “Eve”, and would quickly correct people if they called her otherwise. “Eve was a good old Christian name,” Nardone says. “Eva was ‘Eva Braun’.”
In retrospect, Nardone thinks her mother considered her Jewish identity as a liability.
“My little New England town was not the environment that’s conducive to sharing that story,” Nardone says now. “In New England, you kinda fit in a box there — and if you’re not from there, your family wasn’t from there, you didn’t really ever fit in. She never wanted us to know. Ever.”
Though mother and daughter traveled together to their Czech ancestral town of Bruno in 2000, Eve never breathed a word about her wartime experience. “She wanted to find the place where she lived, we went all over the Czech Republic, hired a guide — but she never mentioned it. There was no indication whatsoever that the Holocaust was part of our background,” Nardone says, and then pauses. “It was shocking because we were very close.”
Seven years after her mother’s passing, Nardone was not entirely surprised when she received her results. “I had a feeling I was Jewish,” Nardone says. “I truly didn’t know, something must have triggered that thought process in my head. I remember talking to my brother, I told him, ‘I bet we are Jewish.’”
But many details still remain unknown — primarily, how exactly Thieben arrived in America. “She came to America at 17, where she joined her parents who had escaped separately, and went to Brown University, where she met my dad,” Nardone says. “But there’s a black hole there, I don’t know how it all happened.”
Nardone and her family are continuing to research their family tree, trying to piece together the entire story.
“When I tell this story, I’m always filled with a great deal of sadness and also great deal of pride. My mother was so remarkable — but now, she is more remarkable than I even thought she was.”
Watch Sir Nicholas Winton interviewed about his humanitarian work, in this clip from ‘Nicky’s Family’ by Matej Minac:
Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt is the life editor at the Forward. Follow her on Twitter @avitalrachel.