The Holocaust is one of the most well documented events in human history, despite all efforts to suppress the atrocities. The horror is the means by which Germany was able pursue the “Final Solution” and ultimate world domination through the systematic extermination of the European Jewry by way of bullets, death camps and gas chambers.
In a 2013 article, The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking, the NY Times wrote about the co-research of Dr. Geoffrey Magargee and Dr. Martin Dean that catalogued a total of 42,500 camps which included 30,000 slave labor camps, 980 concentration camps, 1000 prison camps, and thousands of other camps, estimated the total number of murdered or imprisoned occupants to be 15 million to 20 million. Leaving little doubt, despite frequent post-war claims of ignorance, the German citizenry was well aware of what atrocities were happening at these camps during the Holocaust.
According to co-researcher, Dr. Dean, “You literally could not go anywhere in Germany without running into forced labor camps, P.O.W. camps, concentration camps. They were everywhere.”
In a system where work makes you free, arbeit mach frei, women and children as well as the elderly and the disabled were the first to experience Zyclon-B upon arrival to the now infamous Auschwitz – Birkenau, operating in Polish territory from 1940 – 1945. As the 70th anniversary of the liberation comes to a close, though, the survivors are now in their 80’s and 90’s and, of those who speak of the war, there are few still alive, but, a new generation of survivors is emerging in the foreground with a unique perspective on the events from 1939 – 1945 and thereafter.
These people are “the hidden,” those children who survived German occupation either by the charity of those who housed them or by their own evasive resourcefulness. Two Allentown residents, Eva Rosenberg Derby, 73, and Eva Levitt, 73, were born in Humenné, Czechoslovakia as WWII broke out.
Humenné is a small town in present day Slovakia. After WWI, Czechoslovakia was created (1918), and Jews were given the right to be considered a separate nationality. In 1939, Slovakia proclaimed its independence and, with it, the protection of the Third Reich, while Czech Jews lost the right to own guns and cars and were segregated to designated areas. Humenné had a Jewish population of 2,172 Jews, approximately one third of the town’s population on the eve of deportation in 1940.
While Jews prospered, Anti-Semitism also took hold and laws (Judenkodex) were passed excluding Jews from government positions and certain professions as well as ousting their children from schools and targeting all Jews for daily persecution.
By 1941, Jews from Bratislava were exiled to Humenné, bringing the population to 2,285 and that is when they were forced to wear the Yellow Star of David, forced to labor camps and, by 1942, the Hungarian and Slovakian government began to deporting Jews to concentration camps. An estimated 2,200 Jews were murdered and 5 children in total survived, according to Eva Levitt.
It is only recently when Eva Derby moved from St. Louis to Allentown that the two Eva’s met but, their stories share striking similarities indicative of “the hidden,” albeit very different outcomes. Their witness keeps the memory of the Holocaust in the forefront of human consciousness so that no one takes for granted the human capacity both to accomplish extreme evil and the greatest good.
EVA ROSENBERG DERBY
“On the train (to the holding camp), my mother held me between her legs so that I wouldn’t get crushed.”
Born July 15, 1942, Eva Rosenberg Derby was welcomed by no family members. Her father, Alex Rosenberg, was deported three months before her birth. She later uncovered an affidavit that recorded her father’s registration at Auschwitz in 1942.
While in hiding, her mother, Julia, built a seat up in the chimney and placed her in it, with only a pacifier to keep her from making a sound as the German soldiers searched their residence. Her mother also was hiding her grandparents in the root cellar. Up until recently, though, Eva kept her past hidden.
“There was a hierarchy of survivors,” said Eva, “Those who were in camps never considered we who were hidden as survivors and we who were hidden never considered ourselves as survivors because we were too young to remember. We were nobody, in no-man’s land—guilt on one side and guilt on the other,” said Eva.
“…we who were hidden never considered ourselves as survivors because we were too young to remember. We were nobody, in no-man’s land—guilt on one side and guilt on the other.”
-Eva Rosenberg Derby
She came to the United States when she was six and started school. Memories of Europe were avoided until 1995 when, in a joint interview by the Principal of her children’s Jewish Day School, where her husband Albert was being honored, asked her to affirm that she was born in New York. She answered, “Right.” Her husband of 53 years promptly responded, “Wrong.”
“He spilled my story because I just was not interested in people asking me questions. I was truly caught,” said Eva, “Am I a survivor or am I not a survivor? Now, lo and behold, all of St. Louis knew I was a survivor. Once the box was open, everything came gushing out.”
The Germans’ occupied the front of her grandparents’ dried fruit store and the family was living upstairs. Her father went to see if there was more room at his parent’s house but, he never returned. At the time, 15,000 able -bodied men and women were deported on the eve of Shavuot, the Jewish holiday marking the giving of the Torah to the nation of Israel at Mount Sinai and as the harvest of the wheat. Her father and grandparents were Hassidim, Hebrew for “pious ones” belonging to a special movement within Orthodox Judaism. For this group, sacred traditions were accompanied by expressions of joy and faith through ecstatic prayer, song and dance. The wheat harvest had special significance for Eva’s family because her grandfather was trusted to receive the delivery and distribution of flour for matzah.
“My mother talked about how they cleared off the dining room table, put a white cloth on it and spilled the flour out. My mother was a child at the time. She and her siblings would wash all the humates off their hands and separate the dark flecks. The whitest flecks, that flour would be used for the Seder. That’s all gone,” Eva said tearfully, momentarily grieving the loss of this tradition.
After arriving in the U.S., she said her and her mother, Julia Weinberger Rosenberg Judd, had never spoke about the Holocaust, but, in 1988, over the period of two days in March, she told Eva everything she remembered. By July, her mother succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 78 but Eva retells her story.
In 1940, Julia was deported to Sered, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia patrolled by Slovakian guards. Her brothers bribed the guards to “look the other way” and she walked out of the camp to her home. At the time, both single men and single women were being targeted for deportation to camps. When she returned she needed to get married and Alex Rosenberg, although not her first choice, was the one her dowry could afford. She was one of six children who survived. Only one of Alex’s seven siblings, Samuel, survived by hiding his family in a cave.
“No Aunts, No Uncles. No grandparents. Nobody survived,” said Eva, tearfully. She knows the birthdates and names of family members only because of the International Tracing Service (ITS) archive in Bad Arolsen, Germany. The ITS, the largest collection of archives and historical records with 30 million documents, only recently became accessible for public research through the efforts of U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the International Red Cross. This has become a valuable resource for survivors searching for any information on their lost family members.
After Eva was born, Julia, got false papers from the local priest that said she converted to Christianity, back dated to 1937, the last year Germany considered valid and all conversions in subsequent years were considered null and void. Eva was baptized at birth in 1942 and her mother raised her alone with only the protection of her false papers and the priest, to whom she paid a monthly sum.
In 1944, there were further deportations as the Germans invaded and occupied Czechoslovakia and the priest denounced them. In September, they were deported. Her grandparents were transported on the last train to Auschwitz where they were murdered. Eva and her mother went to a holding camp in Nitra and then to Theresienstadt, in Terezín, Czechoslovakia.
“On the train, my mother held me between her legs so that I wouldn’t get crushed,” said Eva.
She explained that those who had forewarning of imminent deportation would make a dry paste from flour, butter, eggs, salt, whatever they had in the house and hide it in the children’s clothes to have something to eat on the train.
When they arrived at Theresienstadt, they traded their koruna, or Czech crowns, for the “monopoly money the S.S. forced incoming deportees substituted for currency within the camp. Instead of going to the camp, though, Eva and her mother were pulled from the line by an S.S. officer.
“I was really cute, I was 4 and the officer had, and I don’t think it was out of the goodness of his heart, took my mother and myself to be a maid and a playmate because his daughter and I were the same age,” said Eva.
They lived in the officer’s barracks separated from the rest of the camp by a vast green field. In 1945, the Russians liberated the camp which Eva characterized as a “nightmare.”
“The Germans just ran. They even tried to change clothing with the prisoners. The officer and his family just ran,” said Derby, “I am sure horrible things happened to my mother because it was the Russians that liberated us. The Russians would rape the women and give children candy bars.”
They walked home and from 1946 – 1947, her mother worked as a maid for two brothers, living in the home next door with another daughter and mother. Eva characterized this as the happiest of times because she had three playmates. Each day her mother went to the train station to see if her father would get off of the train. Only Samuel returned from his self-inflicted cave exile with his wife, Irene, and son, Ivan, who later renamed himself David.
Eva and her mother went to live with Samuel but, it was a difficult time for single women with children, they were considered a burden and a liability. By Jewish law, these agunot could not remarry and remained “chained” to their husbands who had not returned, and their children were considered orphans, “aguna vitsikayt der kleyn kint,” in Yiddish. Eva was not able to go into David’s room or even play with his toys because of this. In 1946, the Rabbinic Courts convened so that widows could state their case and Julia was eventually free to remarry.
Julia was remarried to Samuel Judd, who had been widowed by the death of Eva’s great aunt, Fannie. Although there were two generations that separated them in age, they married and Julia moved to the U.S. in 1948, leaving Eva behind with her great aunt, Saddie, until she was summoned three months later to fly to America.
“Sam Judd was such a good man that Fannie committed suicide,” said Eva, “I don’t remember anything about Sam Judd other than he came to Europe, married my mother and took her to America but, for some reason, either he didn’t want to or couldn’t, he didn’t take me.”
They lived in a Manhattan tenement and her mother was more of a servant than a wife. Eva explained that it was not a particularly happy household and there were many rules, which included keeping children quiet. The marriage to Judd was more of one of convenience and when he died in 1954 of a heart attack, Julia chose not to marry again.
“Aunt Saddie asked, ‘what will become of you now,’ and mom said, ‘don’t worry, I will take care of me and my daughter’ and she went to business school and learned basic accounting,” said Eva, “The rest is the American success story.”
“The people in the town saw exactly what was happening. They saw the prisoners walking around in their striped pajama outfits and so everyone knew what was going on.”
Eva Rosenberg Derby refers to Eva Levitt as the “first” Eva to which she is the “other” because she moved to Allentown this summer and the two finally met in July. They were two of the five remaining Jewish children that survived the Holocaust from the town of Humenné. Eva Levitt, now 73, has lived in Allentown since 1972, and her husband, Dr. Larry Levitt, 75, was a leading Neurosurgeon at Lehigh Valley Hospital until he retired. Unlike the “other” Eva, this Eva talked about her experiences with her parents, Olga (Roth) and Leopold Ritter.
“They were the kind of Holocaust survivors that spoke about their experience. Some people can speak about it and some people have a need to speak about it,” said Eva.
When the German’s first occupied Czechoslovakia, her father was able to defer deportation and maintain his business, through which he provided lumber, specifically, railroad ties. When Leopold realized what was happening, he went to a school friend of Olga’s who was Catholic—Geza Hajtáš, a railroad official in Bratislava who provided the family with false papers, identifying them as gentiles. The papers were all but useless when Leopold was caught by the Gestapo in September of 1944.
“Now the Germans knew that a man was Jewish because they checked to see if he was circumcised so that’s why my father didn’t bother showing his papers, because they would know he was Jewish,” said Eva, suggesting that men were forced to expose themselves, another form of public humiliation often employed by the Gestapo.
Leopold was deported but, Geza’s brother who worked at the police station informed him of the incident. Geza came to Olga and told her to pack their bags. They lived with Geza and his wife, Klara, for a short time before they were shuffled from place to place under the assumption that they were relatives of Geza. Olga’s sister, Manci, was hidden in plain sight in Geza’s home, posing as his maid.
Olga’s story has been digitally archived through the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and is available online with many more stories that are part of the Oral History Interview Collection. In her interview, Olga described how her father worked in a vinegar factory and her mother was a housewife. She married Leopold in 1939, feeling the pressure.
“A week later, my husband had to go and hide because elsewhere, someone had killed a policeman and they claimed it was the Jews,” said Olga.
In the 1940, they started taking the single women. In 1941, they took the single men and in 1942, they came for the families. She explained how the Jews were “gradually” stripped of their rights and possession, bank accounts and positions.
“We were not allowed to live in the rooms facing the street. Only the back,” said Olga, “In 1944, Leopold’s exemption became not valid because all the businesses when to gentiles. A friend belonged to the German party so he hired Leopold. Germans were not allowed to employ a Jew, they just came and they wanted to take the Jew away.
According to Olga’s account, the German’s were indifferent to social or economic standing. News about what was going on in the camps had leaked when two young men escaped from Auschwitz through a hole. They hid underground, placing black pepper around the hole to disguise their scent from the Nazi dogs searching the perimeter. After 3 days, they ran home and told their story to everyone and were smuggled to the Swiss Counsel, hidden under the coal in a cattle car so that the world could hear their story.
“President Roosevelt heard it and knew about it and didn’t do anything about it,” said Olga and Leopold added, “I saw the chimney, that was the fire and I know what’s going on.”
Olga and Eva went into hiding, first absconding illegally to the still peaceful Hungary. At the time, Jews were not allowed to ride the trains, but Olga got permission to board a train because she needed surgery to remove a fibroid tumor.
The German doctor told Olga that she not only needed have an operation to remove the tumor but also to terminate a potentially life-threatening pregnancy. Three years later in the U.S., Olga learned the doctor took the liberty of sterilizing her as well, cutting her fallopian tubes. When the Germans occupied Hungary, they had to cross back over the border to Czechoslovakia.
“The peasants were leading us through hidden paths to the border and we got caught,” said Olga, “I was relieved when I heard Slovakian, you could pay-off the Czechoslovakians but the Hungarians wanted Jewish blood. They were as vicious as Germans themselves.”
“There were different casts of people in the town, it was unheard of that doctor so and so would go on the same day, stripped of his identity,” said Olga, “Everyone was equal. People were stripped of their identity and they became a number.
While Olga was in hiding with Eva, she tried to help other Jews because neither she nor her blue eyed, blonde hair daughter “looked” Jewish. Even so, she remembered her mother fearing that Eva would say something that would reveal their identity.
In her interview, Olga said, “I never taught her that her name was Ritter because in my world, the name Ritter was Jewish. It was a German name so when someone asks, what’s your name—Pretty Eva.”
Eva remembered that she overheard women talking about “the Jews” at the train station. The one asked the other, “Why do they have to take the children?” The other replied, “Well they are going to grow up to be Jews.” Eva also remembered picking up sticks outside in the snow and burning them in a potbelly stove for entertainment but, hearing her mother’s account, this had a very meaningful purpose.
“Every day when I took my daughter for a walk, we took a basket and we broke off a piece of fence and every match we picked up, everything that was able to burn and then I came home and made a fire, invited all the Jews to my room to warm up and I warmed up the water and first, I gave my daughter a bath, and then I took a bath and next the rest,” said Olga.
Finally, Eva remembered staying in a hotel because Geza had not yet found another hiding spot. Eva had whooping cough and somebody, annoyed by the coughing, called the police. The Gestapo came to the door, asking for papers, but at that very moment, Eva went into a coughing fit and the office told Olga to go back to her child.
Olga said. “I thought once, in hotel, and I was tempted, if I left her there and maybe she would be better because I was going into the unknown. And this way maybe someone would take her and maybe give her a better life.”
Of course, Olga did not leave Eva in the hotel but living in hiding, moving from place to place and always fearing that the next encounter with the Gestapo would lead to deportation was a very real and imminent threat. The constant state of fear and heightened anxiety were mechanisms that kept them aware and helped them survive.
“I tell students, they don’t always agree, that it was harder for my mother who was waiting to be caught than for my father who was caught,” said Eva, “He had to try to stay alive but my mother was living with this tension of when, when would they catch up with her?”
When the war ended, Olga and Eva returned to their home. The Germans had taken all the paintings, furniture, pots and pans as well as the clothes in the closets. Olga buried a few things in the garden and Eva still has candelabra but, everything else was lost. Like others, they visited the train station daily.
“He always believed that he was going to see me and my mother again. He never gave that up and that’s what kept him alive,” said Eva.
Auschwitz-Birkenau claimed the lives of 1 million Jews. When the Soviet liberators arrived in 1945, the Germans has sent most of the 58,000 remaining prisoners on a death march to Germany and only 7,650 remained around the perimeter. Both of her maternal grandmother and father, Leopold, returned from Auschwitz while her grandfather suffocated in the cattle cars and her father’s parents were sent to the gas chamber upon arrival.
“So, my father, when he was liberated by the Russians, weighed 78 pounds. A man in his 30’s and he had Typhus and he had 3 of his fingers on right hand had been frostbitten and infected,” said Eva.
Leopold hid his infected fingers during the inspections because anyone with a sign of weakness or disease would immediately be sent to the gas chambers. The only value of Jews to the German’s was free labor and just as he did in Humenné, Leopold cut down trees. Once, an officer selected 100 men to rest, and Leopold, by wary of any seeming compassion, told his friend to volunteer for work. His friend welcomed the day and later, Leopold found that those hundred men were sent to the gas chambers to meet a daily quota.
“So my father had these frostbitten fingers that became infected and looked very awful and he though if the doctor sees his hand, he’ll send him to the wrong side,” said Eva, “So he held his fingers tucked under hoping his fingers would go unnoticed.”
Leopold’s lumber business was taken over by the Communists and, with nothing left, there was little reason to stay in Czechoslovakia given the political unrest and lingering Anti-Semitism. For their own safety, the family immigrated to the U.S., a process which took 3 years to arrange. Leopold was sponsored by his siblings, given housing and a job as a butcher in Brooklyn. A year later, in 1950, her grandmother arrived.
Olga said, “I remember that on the boat [Eva] said ‘I’m going over the ocean so the Germans won’t be able to come after us now’.”
Olga and Leopold both worked and went to night school while Eva’s grandmother watched her and cared for the house. Eva said she learned English through osmosis but, through her grandmother, was exposed to six other languages—German, Slovak, Czech, Hungarian, Polish and Yiddish.
“That we are here, it is completely [the Hajtáš’] doing, not only I and my daughter but they took in my husband’s sister as a maid,” said Olga.
In all, Geza and Klara Hajtáš saved 16 Jews, obtaining food, shelter, money, transportation and papers while avoiding Nazi exposure. The entire family, including Olga, Leopold, Eva and her husband Larry as well as their children, visited Geza and Klara in Slovakia in 1982. Leopold insisted that they see Auschwitz-Birkenau and Eva, who had no intention of revisiting the place where her father was beaten, tortured and starved almost to death, agreed. Because their one driver did not have the proper papers to show the border patrol, everyone had to cram into a small car to get to Auschwitz. Eva said she sat on the floor in the front passenger seat.
In Olga’s interview, she commented on why it was so important for Leopold to take his family back to Auschwitz, “He had a certain mindset that he survived, he outlived it.”
Auschwitz remains well preserved and Eva commented on the creepy feeling and lingering smell of human flesh in the air, as if the place itself carries the perpetual memory. Eva even witness what she thought might be ashes next to the crematorium, “Could it be?” she asked. Across the street in Birkenau, Leopold showed them the bunk he shared with five other men, cramped into a 3 by 5 space one bunk over another with only straw for cushion.
“The most striking thing for me about Auschwitz, besides the crematorium, was that Auschwitz was across the street from Oswiecim,” said Eva, “The people in the town saw exactly what was happening. They saw the prisoners walking around in their striped pajama outfits and so everyone knew what was going on.”
In gratitude to Geze and Klara, Eva arranged for them to be recognized as “Righteous Gentiles” by the Holocaust Museum in Yad Vashem, Israel in 1985. Later, in 1987, Eva and Larry used their connections at the hospital to arrange for Geza to receive life-saving transurethral prostatectomy in the United States, which was a success.
Larry documented their journey to Auschwitz and Slovakia in a two-part article in Catholic Digest in 2009, where he asked Geza why he helped the Jews despite the dire consequences to his family if her were caught,
”Young man, a good life comes from working hard and helping other people,” Geza replied, “It is what anyone would do.” Geza died of heart failure in 1995 and the family is reminded that there are good souls whose intention is to rise above the surrounding evil.
There is nothing exaggerated about the atrocities of the Holocaust, one of the best documented events in human history, yet, there are those that would obfuscate the facts and negate the claims of survivors. Such claims deny that the Nazi’s had any official policy targeting Jews, that Auschwitz never existed and that the number of Jews killed, 6 million, is grossly exaggerated. Taunted by conspiracy groups that wrap conspiracy theory around white supremacy and disseminate their vitriol on the Internet through groups calling themselves Liberty Lobby, American Freedom Party, Veterans Today or American Renaissance, these claims are motivated by hate and ignorance and, often accompanied by violence towards Jews.
“There is tremendous Anti-Semitism all over the world. It’s like the 1930’s,” said Eva Levitt, “History repeats itself because people don’t learn from history and there is all this Anti-Semitism like there was in the 30’s we are watching it.”
Eva’s concerns are in no way hyperbole. Anti-Semitism is, indeed, on the rise. According to a March 2015 report entitled Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents published by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Anti-Semitic incidents rose by 21% in the U.S. and included 912 acts of threats, violence, vandalism or assault against Jews.
It is through the work of these survivors, bringing their stories to public awareness, that those who listen will never forget the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau. At the same time, these stories show the depth of the human condition and the will to triumph beyond evil and to realize the human capacity for greatest of good. Never again cannot be just a slogan, it must be the mission of the collective humanity.
Never again, never forget.