How Hungarian Sisters Outwitted the Nazis To Create Haven for Jews

Bringing To Light the Heroism of a Family

Mother and Child Reunion: Eva Eismann poses with her mother, Sarah, after the two reunited after the war.
Courtesy of Susan J. Gordon
Mother and Child Reunion: Eva Eismann poses with her mother, Sarah, after the two reunited after the war.

By Susan J. Gordon

Published March 16, 2014, issue of March 21, 2014.
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In December 1938, Yehuda and his wife, Sarah, secured permission to take their younger children (whose names were on Yehuda’s travel document) for a “holiday” to Denmark, from where they subsequently made their way to Stockholm. Eva, 20, and Alice, 16, were expected to follow, but new anti-Jewish restrictions barred them from leaving Budapest.

After that, they could not attend school or work. Although they were Hungarian born, they no longer had rights of citizenship.

“Without legitimate papers, we were always in danger, and moved around constantly,” Eva said. From time to time, they lived with relatives or friends, but mainly the sisters slept in deserted buildings, shops that had closed for the day, basements or attics of sympathetic Christians, or abandoned barns and chicken coops. Sometimes they fled only moments before random police raids.

By 1944, Hungary was on the verge of capitulating to the Allies when the Germans invaded. In May, almost half a million Hungarian Jews were deported from the countryside and sent to Auschwitz, Mauthausen and Buchenwald.

Alice’s dark Semitic features put her at great risk of capture, but Eva’s fair skin and strawberry blonde hair enabled her to “pass” for a gentile. She had been in the resistan ce for several years, but now her participation was intensified. She stole and forged documents with false names for herself, Alice and other hidden Jews. Later she would also work with Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

In June, Yehuda learned that his daughters were living in Budapest with a Swedish woman named Ellen. He called the woman from a public telephone in Stockholm’s Astoria Hotel, and was comforted to hear that everyone was all right. But Eva recalled: “After 10 minutes, the phone rang again, and a stranger said he was calling from the Astoria Hotel. Ellen gave me the phone, but… it was a Gestapo officer at the Astoria Hotel in Budapest! Father’s call had been overheard! The officer demanded that Alice and I be [at the hotel] at 9 the next morning. We knew that Jews who went to the Astoria were lost and never came back.” Immediately she called Yehuda in Stockholm, hinting that she and Alice had been found. He understood.

Fortunately, Yehuda had befriended a journalist who knew the secretary of King Gustav V. Within hours, the “stateless Hungarian Jew” was received by the king, who listened sympathetically and commanded that Swedish citizenship be granted to Yehuda’s daughters at once. Early on June 14, they stood before Per Anger, the attaché at Budapest’s Swedish Legation, as he dialed Gestapo headquarters at the Astoria Hotel. “What do you want with my citizens?” he asked. “Nothing now,” the officer said snidely.

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