Happy 105th birthday, Eva Zeisel


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Reaching the amazing age of 105 is an incredible accomplishment, but that’s not all Eva Zeisel has done. An immigrant to the U.S. after World War II, she became a noted ceramist. Chronicle Books released a photo book of Zeisel’s work as part of a series featuring designers Ingo Maurer and George Nelson.

But -- as they say -- wait, there’s more. Living the high life in Berlin in 1932, Zeisel traveled to Russia, where a visit turned into a five-year stay. The last 16 months she was imprisoned, accused of plotting to kill Stalin and often being thrown into solitary confinement. For many years, Zeisel kept mum about her time in Russia, fearing reprisals by the KGB, although it is said they in part formed the basis of ‘Darkness at Noon,’ written by her friend Arthur Koestler.


The literary journal A Public Space has recently run Zeisel’s autobiographical prison memoir. Zeisel’s daughter told the magazine, ‘When a friend read these memoirs, he found them disingenuous. He did not believe that one could write about such a serious situation with so much humor and charm. But that is Eva.’

Memories of long ago are not true. They have been gilded by time, the way I remember them now, with love for my youth, sentimentally, of myself—slim and energetic, resistant, sad, alert. I speak of myself as much as of the things that happened to me. None of it is true, but I shall be precise reporting my memories.... It never occurred to me that I could have done something wrong. Not even then did it occur to me that something might happen to me personally. I looked around and saw a woman and the building superintendent. I got up and put on my housecoat, a green-checkered one of wool flannel. Suddenly there were more men in the room. I became quite ill at ease. They looked at my letters and at my photographs. They stopped at two of them. One was an enlarged snapshot of me on a beach with my eyes closed. It looked like a mask of my dead face. The men passed the photograph from one to the other and they smiled, and it scared me. I do not know whether I realized then or later that they thought I would soon be dead. They also found a picture of a pistol, an enlargement I had made. It had been the fashion at that time to make partial enlargements of things so they looked like something else. Like speaking a word over and over again and changing the meaning of a syllable. At the time I got my camera, which I had bought with my first earnings from the Schramberg factory, I was living with the Leichsenring family. They had a little girl, and I took pictures of her dolls’ heads, heads of broken dolls. I also took a picture of her father’s pistol, a tiny one, with many little bullets laid out in a row, and I enlarged it into a pattern. They took other photographs, too. It must have been interesting for them to see what a foreigner had among her letters and photographs and personal belongings. I remember feeling life receding from me and myself being set apart. They were not rude. They were extremely polite.

Today, Eva Zeisel turns 105. Her prison memoir is in A Public Space 14, available in bookstores and from the journal’s website.


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-- Carolyn Kellogg