Éva Heyman was born in Nagyvárad (Oradea) in 1931. Her great grandfather, Sándor Rosenberg, was a reputed member of the Neologue stream of the Hungarian Jewish community; her grandfather was the scholar and rabbi, Lipót Kecskeméti. Éva’s grandfather worked as a pharmacist in Nagyvárad. The pharmacy was first confiscated in 1919, then by the Communist Hungarian state. In 1940, the family was thrown out of the pharmacy again, built with the work of a lifetime, when Nagyvárad (Oradea) was returned to Hungary from Romanian rule and the Hungarian state began the confiscation of Jewish property. Ágnes Rácz, Éva’s mother was also educated to become a pharmacist.She divorced from architect Béla Heyman, her first husband after a brief marriage. Later, she married the reputed opposition journalist, Béla Zsolt, who thus became Éva’s foster father.
The girl grew up in a typical, Hungarian speaking Neologue Jewish upper middle-class family. They observed important Jewish holidays, Éva attended Jewish school. She learned languages and wanted to become a photo journalist. The girl’s thinking was shaped predominantly by her mother’s and stepfather’s leftist sympathies, as opposed to the more conservative views of the grandparents.
From the window of their house, Éva was watching Regent Horthy marching into Nagyvárad on September 6, 1940commanding the Hungarian troops. The girl waved at Horthy in excitement but her mother scolded her saying Horthy had killed Jews at Lake Balaton, so goes the family story. Her mother referred to the white terror period between 1919-1920 and the antisemitic atrocities committed by Horthy’s commandos. Later, when with the Hungarian army, anti-Jewish policies also arrived in Nagyvárad, Éva agreed with her mother: „she was right to have called Horthy an old murderer” – she wrote in her diary.
It was a defining trauma for Éva that her best friend, the Jewish Márta Münzer, was arrested and deported with her family to German-occupied Ukraine in the summer of 1941. The Hungarian authorities expelled ca. 20,000 Jews under a pretext that they did not have Hungarian citizenship.
Most of them were executed by SS units and local Ukrainian militiamen. Márta was having their tea time at Éva’s family when her baby-sitter appeared and took her home because „you also have to leave with mom and dad”. Éva never saw her friend again. News soon came that the deportees had been murdered.
According to Éva’s mother, the girl did not stop maniacally fearing, that she and her family would be slated for the same. When on a Sunday afternoon, on 19 March1944, her stepfather came home from the café mortified, her nightmare turned into reality: Hungary was occupied by the Germans.
What Éva and most Jewish children and teenagers studying in Jewish schools sensed from the unfolding catastrophe during the first week was the abrupt termination of the school year. She was immensely depressed by the continuous antisemitic instigation coming from the radio. Much of their belongings had already been seized by the end of March and the yellow star of David had to be patched on their clothing. When, as prescribed by the order, authorities came to confiscate Éva’s bicycle, the girl held onto the rear wheel sobbing and crying and was not willing to let it go, to the utmost bewilderment of the police officers. „No bicycle for the Jew kid” so yelled one of them, „not even bread, Jews devour it from the soldiers”.
At the time when news about the imminent mass incarceration of the Jewish population in ghettos spread, Éva could have been rescued twice. First the family’s Christian needlewoman offered to take the child with her. The grandmother turned down the offer. Secondly, Béla Zsolt’s influential friends sent a good man of theirs from Budapest to Nagyváradwith forged documents. Zsolt did not want to leave his wife, as the woman was recuperating from an operation, but suggested that Éva should go and be rescued from the horrors about to come. Éva agreed to go, and her mother, not easily, agreed to the plan as well. The grandmother who still had unquestionable authority in the family despite her failing mental condition, objected again and said no.
The Jews of Nagyvárad had to go to move into ghetto in the first days of May 1944. Two isolated areas were designated. Local Jews (some 27,000 people) were locked up in an area of just a few blocks, fenced off by planks. This became the largest ghetto in Hungary outside of Budapest. 8,000 Jews from Bihar county were locked up in a timber yard. Éva was put in the town ghetto, sharing a room with twelve other people. Water, medication, food was in short supply. Béla Zsolt later recalled that the ghetto was infested with pervasive stench „coming from decomposing corpses, the abominable latrines, overs pilling sewage canals”. Men assumed to be wealthy (later all men with a few exceptions) were tortured by gendarme detectives in the nearby brewery. Some were beaten to death; others lost their sanity due to the torture. Many Jews committed suicide. Dezső Rácz, Éva’s grandfather was also tortured. As a pharmacist, he was able to hide a few capsules of cyanide and was ready to end his life. He succumbed to the begging of Éva’s mother and did not do it in the end.
The family was separated before deportation. Ágnes (Éva’s mother) was in the ghetto hospital. BélaZsolt arranged for his own admittance under a feigned name. The hospital was set up in the former house of the Hassidic rabbi. The establishment resembled more of an infernal nursing-home or a morgue than a health institution. „Although right next to the horrible toilet there is a washroom turned morgue, but yesterday already some half a dozen naked wax legs were sticking out of the half-open door” – remembered Zsolt. „Two child corpses are on the top of this hill of bodies, which now reaches up to the ceiling”. Éva remained with her grandparents in the ghetto building in Szacsvay street – 200 meters from the hospital, yet an insurmountable distance because of the air tight isolation.
A Nagyváradon összezsúfolt mintegy 35 ezer zsidót kilenc transzporttal deportálták a német és magyar hatóságok Auschwitz-Birkenauba május 22-e és június 5-e között. Évát és nagyszüleit a harmadik szállítmánnyal vitték el. Az Évával egyidős Leser Ellát és édesanyját is ezekben a napokban deportálták Nagyváradról, talán éppen ugyanazzal a transzporttal. Ella 1945-ös beszámolója szerint „75-en voltunk egy vagonban, négynapi útra csak egy darab kenyeret adtak, a vagont lezárták. Útközben csak akkor nyitották ki a csendőrök, ha feljöttek rabolni. Kassáig kb. hatszor raboltak ki bennünket.”
This was a countrywide phenomenon. Following the dispatching of the trains, the gendarmes did everything they could to acquire Jews’ last bits of hidden valuables. Márta Klein,a young woman deported from Ungvár (Uzhgorod) recalled that the „gendarmes harassed us all the time, once they wanted money, then jewels and threatened us and fired their guns”. Salamon Lőb, deported from Beszterce (Bistrița): “we were given water to drink only once during the three-day journey. The gendarmes tormented us terribly on the way, they took whatever valuables we still had hidden, and all this did not go too smoothly, they did not spare us”.
Not only intimidation was used to force deportees to hand over their cash or other valuables. A survivor from Hajdúböszörmény recalled that in exchange for 100 Pengős (Hungarian currency), gendarmes were willing to give one glass of water to the Jews in the summer heat, many of them already half-insane from thirst. Jews deported from Kolozsvár (Cluj) were only given a bucket of water in exchange for jewels and fountain-pens. András Kertész, a jeweler from Nagyvárad and his family were deported to Auschwitz with Éva’s transport. When the gendarmes came again to loot, the man offered his until then hidden wristwatch for some water. “The gendarmes took the watch but gave no water saying, you have drunk enough champagne until now, do not drink even water now. My son who saw the scene asked me „I will be given milk when the war is over, right?”. I still hear his words, I will never get rid of this, my poor son died in Auschwitz”.
Béla Zsolt and his wife (Éva’s mother) were finally smuggled out of the ghetto hospital and were not deported. Ágnes thought for long that her parents and daughter would soon join them. “On the third day in the basement”, as Zsolt wrote “she learnt that she was misled andthe family and the child had been deported. A gruesome nervous breakdown was followed by a six-hour faint, and then she set out on passivity, muteness and hunger-strike”.
Ágnes survived the war in the end and searched several survivors to learn what had happened to her daughter in Auschwitz. The transport arrived at the Birkenau ramp in the first days of June, allegedly on June 6. Éva’s grandparents were most probably killed immediately after arrival in one of the gas chambers. The little girl survived the first selection round. She had to lie about her age as SS physicians kept only healthy deportees over 16 years of age alive. This vital information was shared by prisoners opening incoming trains and making deportees get off, usually by whispering broken sentences. They risked their lives and probably saved Éva’s – for the time being.
Everyone remembering her (Éva’s mother, stepfather, fellow inmates, former classmates) recalled that Éva was determined since March 1944: she will survive and will not share the fate of Márta Münzer, her friend murdered in 1941. “She was beautiful, strong, healthy and did not want to die under any circumstances. Survival instinct was radiating from her eyes so wild, that we felt responsible for all that horror” – wrote her stepfather in a newspaper article in 1947. This strength and obviously also luck played a role in her being able to survive in Birkenau for four months. According to her mother’s information, on 17 October 1944 she was no longer able to avoid the attention of SS doctors hunting for weak inmates unable to work. As far as Ágnes was aware, it was Mengele himself kicking her daughter in the truck going to the gas chambers. This probably happened in Sector BIIc, the Hungarian female camp in Birkenau.
Ágnes published her daughter’s diary of 1944 in 1947. The verbatim authenticity of it is debated, a part of the narrative was probably written by Ágnes. In any way, the editing and publishing of the diary was part of the mourning mechanism of a mother who lost her child, suffering from a sense of guilt. “With this book, my accusation of myself for having survived becomes a public matter” she said to a friend. She often visited cemeteries, she imagined that her child was buried somewhere there. This thought was probably easier to bear than accepting that the girl disappeared without a trace. Béla Zsolt remembered his stepdaughter in 1947: “Éva would turn 16 now. I cannot request the terrible soil to be gentle to her. I can only ask the autumn wind to soften to a mild breeze when it carries her ashes”. Like so many Holocaust survivors, Ágnes committed suicide in 1951.