Eva Neumann: left for dead on top of a pile of corpses

After managing to barely survive Aushwitz, Eva Neumann spent 60 years in silence. Then she started talking about her experience of the Holocaust


In January 1945, following the death march from Auschwitz to Neustadt-Glewe, 15-year-old Eva’s unconscious, typhus-ridden body was piled on top of corpses. She slipped down, blocking the path of a Russian army medic who happened to be Jewish. He felt a weak pulse and discovered she was alive.

Although Eva’s nine-month enslavement in Auschwitz had finally come to an end, the painful road ahead was just beginning. With freedom came the slow but brutal realisation that she was the sole survivor of her family.

Despite having endured suffering that kept her silent for over 60 years, in recent years, Eva, who is Orthodox, has accompanied many Jewish student groups back to Auschwitz. Her motive is not only to provide a rebuke to growing Holocaust denial, but also to strengthen Jewish identity.

Often, students who have experienced dark times have found in her an unlikely soulmate. Here was someone who could have despaired but instead chose to embrace Jewish life and life itself. To thousands in the UK community, she has become affectionately known as “Bobby”.

Eva Birnbaum was born on March 8, 1929 in Solyva on the Hungarian-Czech border in the Carpathian Mountains. For most of her first 14 years she enjoyed a robust, happy childhood with her parents and two younger brothers. Until the end of 1943, Jews lived side-by-side with their non-Jewish neighbours, many of whom even spoke Yiddish.

Nevertheless, there were portents. Polish Jews on the run frequently came to stay with her family, telling them of mass-killings. “On one occasion my father overheard this and said: ‘Why do you have to tell such horror stories to the children?’” recalls 89-year-old Bobby. “The women said they were not horror stories but true ones, but my father didn’t believe them.”

The day after the end of Passover 1944, everything changed. Hungarian and SS soldiers rounded up Solyva’s Jews. “They were so brutal. We had half an hour to take one suitcase.” They were taken to nearby Munkac where they were forced into one synagogue along with the Jews from the rest of the district. From there they were sent to a brick factory.

After three weeks, they were crammed into the infamous railroad cattle cars. “There was no sense of time, just children’s cries, silence, disbelief.” Days later they arrived at a place of which she had never heard: Auschwitz.

The Nazis had stepped up their campaign — even diverting war resources — for mass murder. Record numbers of Jews arrived day and night.

“We arrived in the pitch dark and we saw chimneys burning,” recalls Bobby. Soon afterwards, her mother and two younger brothers, Shmuel and Yitzchak Isaac, were taken to the gas chambers.

During the chaos, she suddenly saw her father who gave her a blessing: “Keep on going. You must keep on going. Look after yourself and remember that you are a Jew. Hashem will help you.” These words of encouragement stayed with her. In her darkest moments these words kept her going.

Bobby was sent to work in the warehouse nicknamed “Canada”, where she sorted out victim’s possessions. There she had the heartbreaking task of sorting through her mother’s items including her hair — plaits her mother had cut and preserved when she was younger.

Later, she was moved to work outside the crematorium, where she met and spoke to her grandmother before she was sent into the gas chamber.

Bobby risked her life stealing bread for others, which resulted in repeated beatings. But she was beyond caring. “Risking your life wasn’t frightening. To the contrary. Every night we went to bed and made a plan to touch the wire. That was the only way out. But, when it came to it, we always said, ‘Tomorrow’.”

Rebuilding her life in the aftermath of horror was more painful, in many respects, than the horror itself. After liberation, Bobby spent the next three years living with a good-hearted cousin in Budapest, who helped her regain her health. But it did not stop the immense sense of yearning, loss and displacement. “I was all the time looking for my family, hoping to find them. I boarded the tram and went from one end of the city to the other.”

In 1949, she went to say at cousins in Geneva and experienced her first real Shabbat since 1944. “I came up into that room and could have sworn it was our table. There was a mother and a father and three children — an older daughter and two younger brothers. I was crying all the time.

“The father of the house said he would cheer me up and sang the same zemirot [tunes] as we had sung at home. But this made me cry even more.”

The emotion roused her into a resolution — to embrace the religious values with which she had been raised. It was a life-changing moment.

The following year Bobby met and married Leopald Neumannn. The couple moved to Manchester’s Broughton Park where they raised their family of five children and where she still lives. She is the proud mother, grandmother and great grandmother of around 100 descendants. “I think it is a miracle and I never expected it,” she said.

Over the years, she suppressed her sorrow, never returned to her home town and never spoke about her experiences with her family, her tattoo the only evidence of her ordeal.

It took over 60 years for Bobby to finally tell her story. In 2006 she was asked by outreach organisation Aish if she would accompany a group to Auschwitz.

“When I first got to Auschwitz I was unmoved. There was nothing there apart from a few bricks and barracks. The pain is the same pain as it was then. The feeling is permanent and it doesn’t change no matter where I am.”

She concedes she has no answers to the questions of how the Holocaust could have happened. She prefers to get on with her life, dedicating it to giving rather than self-pity.

“I used to try and analyse. But it’s so vast, it’s too big for us.”

Instead she has positively embraced life, with the mantra “giving is living”.

She is often asked if she hates the Nazis. “Hate achieves nothing. Hate destroys you.”

She even retains her sense of humour.

When recently asked by a young student about her tattoo, she said: “It’s to remember my phone number.” The “792” of the “A-5792” the Nazis inked on her forearm happens to form the first part of her phone number.

For those who ask: “Where was God in Auschwitz?” her answer is simple: “With me.”

Her happy temperament and candour and the warm way she embraces life and Jewish values give her credibility to the students she inspires.

So when they ask her similar questions like, “Where is God in my life” they listen to her answer: “With you.”

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