“I didn’t even dream about being alive at the age of ninety-one,” Holocaust survivor Eva Klein tells me over the phone on her birthday, seventy-five years after she was liberated from Theresiensdadt by the Red Army, on 8th May.
Yesterday she celebrates her birthday, alone under lockdown. Having been through so much during her life, including dodging a bullet aimed to kill her, it is her resilience that has enabled her to cope well throughout her life, even in isolation today during Covid-19.
Eva Klein, nee Adler, was born on 6 May 1929, the youngest of four children in an orthodox family. Her father had died when she was very young, so her mother, who owned a grocery shop, raised her single-handedly in Debrecen, Hungary.
When the Nazis invaded her home town in April 1944 the Jews were moved to a small ghetto, then a larger one, before being sent to a brick factory, where they were imprisoned for a week. In May 1944, Eva and her family, were forced onto the waiting cattle carts, one bucket of water for the group of eighty Jews. The destination, she later found out, was Auschwitz. But as the railways were bombed the train turned around and was redirected to Austria. They were sent to Strasshof Concentration Camp, near Vienna, where they worked as forced labourers.
Many of the Debrecen Jews managed to keep together in one group. For fifteen-year-old Eva this meant she was lucky to remain with family members including her mother and older brother, talented artist Miklos.
With the approach of the Red Army to Vienna in April 1945 the Jews were made to “evacuate” and march to the German front. In the dark of night Eva and her family group came across a shed in which they hid. But they were discovered by the Nazi militia – the Volkssturm - and from there taken to the small Austrian town of Stockerau, before being transported to Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic. By then there was a sense of impending liberation.
“We heard the Germans are retreating, but we didn’t know what was going on,” says Eva. “Days before we were liberated, I looked through the window of my barrack and I saw a Nazi. He saw me, aimed his rifle at me and shot. The bullet came just above my head, making a hole in the wall. It just missed me.”
After the War, Eva and her family returned back to Debrecen. Her brother Miklos, a thirty-six year-old accomplished artist, had just one mission – to show the world what the Nazis and their collaborators did to the Jews.
He had been beaten up in his home town by Arrow Cross members and all his life suffered kidney pain beause of the attack. He had an intrinsic and overwhelming need to tell the world what he had endured and witnessed.
As soon as we got to Hungary Miklos said that the world had to see what they did, the way they tried to kill the Jews, from the beginning to the gas chambers. “He wanted to pay homage to the murdered Jews as the world was silent,” says Eva. He created a series of sixteen woodcuts, which was printed as a limited edition of five hundred immediately after the War. They were signed Ben Binyamin, in honour of his father.
Miklos made aliya in 1957 after the Hungarian Revolution, where he lived as an artist, till his death in 1965.
He was totally unaware that seven of his powerful woodcuts made its way into a man-made Hagggadah - called 'A Survivors' Haggadah, for survivors and liberators in Munich for Passover on 15-16 April 1946. The unlikely publisher was the occupying American Third Army, a copy of which was found many years later by emeritus law professor Saul Tauster in New York, among his father’s late books.
The Haggadah was like no other. It was written in Hebrew and Yiddish by Yosef Sheinson, a Hebrew teacher and survivor of the Kovno Ghetto, and illustrated by Miklos Adler, another survivor. The displaced persons, gathered in Munich’s Deutsches Theatre restaurant, were no longer in bondage to Hitler, yet neither could they feel free.
Reflecting the modern-day reality of the biblical story, the opening page of the Haggadah stated: “We were slaves to Hitler in Germany.” The seven haunting woodcuts included summed it all up. One illustration corresponds with the well-known sentence “for not only one has risen against us to destroy us.” It depicts a soldier shooting several prisoners. Another image showed a hard-faced Nazi officer separating a boy from his mother as Jews trudged off toward smokestacks. In the final woodcut, smoke was seen curling up from tall chimneys, becoming the disembodied heads of an old couple and a child.
In a preface, the artist wrote: ''My means, I know, are modest and old-fashioned; my style, I know, is poor. And yet I feel that I, too, must tell what follows in these pages. Oh, my murdered brothers and sisters, you who sanctified God's name! I will mourn you until I die.''
Says: Eva “Before Claude Lanzmann's Shoah film and Anne Frank’s writings, it was my brother who told the story through art.”
As for Eva, she moved with her husband Laszlo to London in 1960 where she has lived for sixty years. Her arrival followed a traumatic episode of hospitalisation following a miscarriage, while living in Vienna.
“The virus is not my first hurdle in life,” she says stoically. “I take each day as it comes. I’ve lived under the Germans, the Soviets, and as a prisoner. With Codiv-19 I am completing the circle. Let’s hope that the end will come soon.”