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How Hungarian Sisters Outwitted the Nazis To Create Haven for Jews

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.”

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.

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.”

As the soldiers tramped by, people presented their papers. One man said he was the son of a Jewish World War I hero and showed his father’s gold medal. But the soldiers smacked him, cursed him, grabbed him by the neck, shoved him into a corner and killed him. Next, a man who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism and married a Catholic woman said that the pope said you’re not a Jew if you converted before marriage, but the soldiers dragged him into the corner and killed him, too.

Eva and Alice waited in a far corner. “Near us was an old woman and her middle-aged daughter who had a little dog, a corgi she adored. It was like her child,” Eva said. “They were looking for their papers when the soldiers reached them. The dog started barking furiously. ‘People are dying of hunger, and you are feeding this beast?’ one of the soldiers shouted. He kicked the dog to death with his boots.

“The daughter howled, and beat the soldier. She wanted to kill him! There was great tumult until both soldiers pushed her away and said, ‘Let’s go!’ The one who had been not as vicious turned to me and asked, ‘Did you legitimate yourselves?’ I knew he meant did Alice and I show him our papers. I was shaking, but I said, ‘Don’t you remember?’ He left, and the cyanide stayed in my hair. That dog saved us. To this day, I have a fondness for corgis.”

These stories and others kept spinning in my head as Ken and I stood in the silent lobby; so much had happened here, not that you could tell. But for us to be in this ordinary-looking building and know its personal history was to see Wallenberg stride across the tiled floor, to hear the stomping of soldiers’ boots and the gunfire in the basement below. We knew these things and more because Eva had told it all to us before dementia began to steal her memories.

The sisters fled Budapest in March 1945, when a sympathetic Soviet soldier secured passage for them on one of the last trains out of the city before the Iron Curtain shut the borders. The soldier had knocked forcefully on their door, Eva recalled, and said: “Hurry! The train is waiting for you now!” She sensed that he was a Jew, especially because “he kept looking at me, and looking at my mezuza by the door. He wanted me to see him doing this.”

Six months later, she and Alice were reunited with their family in Denmark and Sweden. They lived together for a while, until Eva went to Palestine in 1948 to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. Eventually she moved to New York; in 1979 she made aliyah and “came home” to Israel. But she never went back to Budapest.

Alice died in 2006, a few months before our trip to Budapest. Eva died in 2010, at the age of 92.

Before Ken and I left my cousins’ building, I wanted to climb upstairs to see if the mezuza or its indentation still marked the doorway. I wanted to go down to the basement, too, but Ken was apprehensive. “We’re in a country that was long under Communist rule,” he said. “We must be careful not to overstep our bounds.”

A middle-aged man walked into the building. He approached us slowly, and when I gestured that we didn’t speak Hungarian, he nodded and asked, in broken English, who we were and what we wanted.

I explained that we were curious to see where my cousins lived long ago. “Do you know the building’s history?” I asked. “Well, I’ve lived here 30 years,” he said. I paused: “Oh, I mean before, in 1944.”

His face was closed. Now, it seemed, he had nothing to say. “No,” he said curtly, and left. But his behavior made us uneasy and reluctant to explore.

We headed out and walked to Sip utca 12, the local Jewish community center where Eva and Alice helped other Jews. We climbed to the top floor and looked down at the interior courtyard. Set in the middle of the 19th-century brick floor was a well-worn, large Star of David; I wished I could tell Eva it was still there.

Susan J. Gordon has recently completed “100 Kisses,” a memoir that combines World War II and Holocaust history with modern family tree research and the breakdown of family ties after two generations of divorce.

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