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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Forthwith, the eternally grateful sisters moved into a third-floor apartment under Swedish protection at Rakoczi utca 12. Their apartment would be a perpetual godsend and safe harbor for 20–25 homeless Jews who slipped in, ate, slept and tiptoed out silently, lest nosy neighbors question excessive noise.

Around the corner was Sip utca 12, the local Jewish community center. Until December, when the Nazis sealed the ghetto, Eva and Alice shepherded Jewish children from the ghetto to the center for hot food and a safe place to play in the interior courtyard.

Wallenberg arrived at the legation in early July, around the same time that the roundups stopped. After they resumed in late summer, he began distributing Schutz-passes (special Swedish passports) to Jews onboard trains heading to the death camps. German soldiers accepted the official-looking passes, and thousands of Jews were let go. “To get a Schutz-pass, all you had to do was show Wallenberg a document — any document,” Eva said. “If you gave him a receipt for your dirty laundry, he accepted it.”

By late fall, “everything was breaking down,” she said. “You could go outside to buy bread and be shot to death. That happened to my dear friend, Teri.” Aerial attacks drove terrified inhabitants to basement shelters repeatedly. Food supplies dwindled, and dead bodies lay in the streets. The top floors of Eva and Alice’s building were bombarded; windows were shattered, and there was no electricity or heat. Water came from only one pipe in the building basement. The sisters dragged home splintered wood they found and burned it indoors.

In early December they heard the cries of an abandoned baby outside their windows. The infant lay on the freezing pavement all night, but they couldn’t save it, because Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazi) soldiers blocked the building exits. “By morning it was dead,” Alice said. We could tell she still was sad about this.

“On Sylvester night [New Year’s Eve], there was great chaos in the streets,” Eva said. “Germans and Arrow Cross were fighting the Russians, and our building was at the edge of two fronts. Alice and I rushed to the shelter, but this time we forgot our identification papers. About 150 people — mostly Aryans, some Jews — were crowded in.

“Into the shelter came two Arrow Cross soldiers — young thugs with weapons, wearing heavy warm uniforms and big boots. ‘Out with the exceptions when good Hungarian blood runs in the streets!’ they yelled. ‘We came for the stinking Jews with the exceptions!’ Carefully, I felt in my braided hair for two cyanide capsules I had hidden there; if necessary, Alice and I would use them now.”

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