This month marks the 70th anniversary of the German occupation of Budapest, which began on March 19, 1944. In 2006, my husband and I went to Budapest to see as much as possible that related to Jewish life during that horrendous time.
Sixty-two years had passed since my second cousins, Eva and Alice Eismann, had been classified as “Exceptional Jews” in June 1944 and had been given lifesaving Swedish protection and sanctuary at the address Rakoczi utca 12. Until then, they had been, literally, on the run.
As my husband, Ken, and I approached the red brick apartment house, we felt exhilaration as well as trepidation. The front door was locked, so we stood nearby and waited until someone came out. Soon a woman exited; we caught the door before it shut, and entered the lobby. Harsh fluorescent lights illuminated cardboard and wooden crates jumbled in a pile on the worn stone floor. Mainly the room was empty, but the air was thick with ghosts and the sounds of people long gone.
When I first located Eva, in 1999, I was searching for information about my late grandfather, not about his extended family. Eva had known and cared for my grandfather at the end of his life. She was 81 years old now, widowed and childless. On the telephone her voice was lyrical and sweet.
“Come to Tel Aviv,” she said. “We will talk and reminisce.” Her Hungarian accent and intonation promised something more than just the facts, and I would soon learn that genealogy doesn’t just help you learn the dates of births and deaths; it can repair family ties severed by wars, the Holocaust and divorce (in my case, those of my parents and grandparents).
Ken and I made plans to go.
Two months later we arrived at Eva’s apartment. Eva was pint-sized and plump. She wore a navy cotton dress, and her white hair was in a braided bun. No makeup was on her face, but her apple cheeks, green eyes and exuberant smile affirmed that in 1944, Eva had surely been a beauty. Alice, who had walked over from her nearby apartment, was slim and fashionably dressed. She wore makeup, and her tinted hair was stylishly cut.
After a delightful and bountiful meal, Ken and I gently asked the sisters how they had survived the war years in Budapest. Their story would be long, Eva cautioned, and “big, like a book.” Hearing this, I asked for their permission to write down their words. Eva and Alice nodded their approval, and began by telling us about their father, Yehuda, who audaciously managed for seven years to save his wife and five children from the clutches of the Nazi “beasts.”