There were no reasons why some lived and others died. During the Holocaust, simple acts of kindness, random chance and blind luck often made the difference between death and another day of life. Even in the very shadow of the chimneys of Auschwitz, survival was possible. Eva Baron proves it. She is a witness to the ways in which even brief moments of thoughtfulness or concern can save a life.
Eva Baron was born Eva Chajmovitz in the city of Chust, near the Carpathian Mountains in Hungary. Her father, Ignaz, was a businessman and a respected member of the Jewish community. Eva had a normal childhood, but as she grew, the spreading threat of neighboring Nazi Germany began to cast a shadow over her young life. One day when she was five or six, she heard Hitler's voice from loudspeakers in the town square and suddenly understood her country's feelings towards Jews. From that point on, she recalls a "feeling of danger and being threatened." A sort of "emotional persecution" was in the air.
As the situation for Jews grew worse, Eva's father began to take precautions to protect the family; burying valuables, buying American currency and even preparing a hiding place in the mountains. As the pressure grew, his "Aryan" business partner even offered to take the little girl into his own family for protection, but Eva's mother, Piri, refused to part with her daughter.
In 1944, when Eva was twelve years old, her life changed forever. Early that year, her father was arrested and the rest of the family was forced to move into the Chust ghetto, an area of the city set apart as a kind of prison for Jews. There, conditions were bad, but not unbearable. "We were neither hungry, nor in tatters," she remembers. But the relative peace would not last long. After six weeks in prison, her father was released. The next morning, all the Jews of the town were rounded up for deportation to Auschwitz, including Eva's entire family.
As the Jews were forced into the cattle cars, the German soldiers ordered them to surrender all their valuables. One man was discovered with currency in his shoe and was shot on the spot. "For the first time," Eva says, "we felt the fear of God in our souls." Eva's father had smuggled money onto the transport too. That night on the train, he made paper airplanes out of one hundred dollar bills and gave them to her. Eva threw them out the barbed-wire window and watched as both their money and their hopes flew away into the darkness.
On the afternoon of the third day after leaving Chust, they arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi death camp in Poland. As soon as the doors of the cattle cars slid open, their ordeal began. "Raus! Raus! Out! Out!" the guards screamed. "If they ask, say you're seventeen," her father instructed her. After lining up to be sorted, her father and older brother, Max, were sent to the men's work camp. Her mother, grandmother, and younger brother, Litu, were sent towards the gas chambers. Eva tried to follow them, but was turned back twice. With one long, last look, "My mother said with her eyes and her head, 'Go that way.' And that was the last time I saw my mother." After losing her entire immediate family, twelve year-old Eva Chajmovitz found herself alone, with just her Aunt Ida, in the worst place on earth.
Eva spent five months in Auschwitz. Some days, people were selected for work in Germany. Other days, people were selected to be sent to the gas chambers. All the while, even though her Aunt saved bread for her to eat, Eva became weaker and more frail. "Slowly," she recalls, "we got skinnier and covered with lice. Our bodies were breaking down." Finally, during one selection, to her horror, Josef Mengele, known as Doctor Death," stopped Eva by placing his hand on her shoulder. "I looked up into his face, she says, "and he smirked at me." She stood at attention, stiff as a board, and continued to look at him. Her terror amused him and he sent her to the "good side." Eva looked back just in time to see her Aunt Ida being taken to the gas chambers simply because she had a surgical scar. "At that moment, I was totally alone."
When Auschwitz was evacuated in late 1944, Eva was sent on a transport to Germany. She found herself in a munitions factory near Leipzig, where she worked as a slave laborer for several months. As spring approached and the Allies closed in, she was evacuated again and sent on a "death march." While on the march, the women in Eva's group had no food. They were so hungry they were forced to eat grass. This "feast of grass" caused her to become very sick and while marching on the outside of her column, she lost control of her bowels. The Germans were known to shoot prisoners for this, but someone in the middle of the row switched places with her so the SS would not see.
Eventually, the prisoners arrived in Czechoslovakia at the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. By then, Eva was dying of dysentery. When the survivors were finally liberated by the Russian Army, she was almost too weak to move. As she was dying, a kind soldier gave her a napkin full of rice. The healthy food was enough to stop the bleeding long enough for her to regain some strength. When the war ended, Eva was thirteen years-old and weighed less than sixty-five pounds.
In the confusion following the war, Eva made her way to Prague, where she learned that her father and brother had perished. Afterward, she traveled to Budapest to see if she could find any family members still alive. She found her mother's sister, and in January of 1947, she sailed with what was left of her family to the United States.
In America, Eva went to high school in Miami Beach. After a short stint at the University of Miami, she moved to New York and went into nursing. She married her husband, Murray Baron, in 1958. They have two daughters, Andrea and Pamela. Today, Eva lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
When asked what she wishes people would learn from her story, she says, "We are capable of tremendous cruelty. Whatever happens, we must prevent cruelty. If I speak to young people today, I'd like them to see what is possible, and for them to live their lives in a productive way. Help your fellow man. Accept other people's religion. To try to understand other people, not to isolate them, not to think they are different. I thought that Auschwitz was the ultimate lesson, and the world would know about it and there would be brotherhood ever after. Unfortunately, that's not happening. There must be something in people that can be cultured into something better than we have now."
- Eryk Tahvonen
Georgia State University
I went out of the gates, it was a sunny day, with a friend, and went for a walk. And we saw a field, steam or smoke or something like that from far away. Not so far away, but over a hill, and we sort of walked towards that. And as we got on top of the hill and looked down, we realized that it was a field kitchen, a military field kitchen. And this man, this old soldier (really he looked old to me--a heavy curly mustache) was cleaning pots. And there was this stove and that's the steam we saw. He was boiling water. And I knew some Russian. We asked for food. And he shrugged his shoulders and he said he doesn't have any food. And then he, it's like it hit him, and he took a huge damask (I remember the napkin) napkin, and he went to another cauldron there and he filled it with rice, just boiled dry rice. He made a little, you know, he put the four corners together and he handed us this rice. And the two of us grabbed it and we ran back up the hill and out of site. And we sat down on the ground and with our hands scooped up the rice and stuffed ourselves. Apparently that's what I needed.Separation from and Finding Family
Well, in Prague I found out my father died. I knew my mother was dead. I never wanted to know, but I knew, because I saw her go to the gas chamber with my younger brother. And in Prague, quite by accident, there was a man who came into the room. And didn't recognize me, I didn't know him. I didn't even know people in my hometown that well. Everybody was an adult, and I always felt they were my parents' friends. My age group was gone. And he said, "Chajmovitz." And he tried, somebody made motions behind my back not to say anything. I guess they didn't want me to find out right there and then that my father really didn't make it. I was so sure he was going to make it. And I found out that he was dead. I had an aunt in Budapest I knew about, my mother's younger sister. And I, I don't know, I figured I have to go to Budapest. And so again, I attached myself to a group of people. Let's go.
I saw a little girl wearing my dress, a dress. The dress was made in the fall of 1943, so it was not an old dress. And it was made in Budapest in a children's salon, in a children's, it was a place just for children. I think it still exists. I went to that street when I...Anyway, it was just a beautiful dress. And it was, you know, it was handmade and had, it was just beautiful. And, in fact they took, I had a portrait picture taken of it in Budapest when the dress was finished. Something I don't have. And this little girl in bare feet, with filthy face, straggling hair, dirty little girl was wearing it. And it had a, not a bow, a certain, the belt had a certain thing on it, and the same thing appeared here, and that was sort of half torn off. And I don't know, but seeing that dress, I don't know, it seemed to me that everything was finished. It was just finished, totally finished.
Learning English and Assimilation
I didn't liken myself to anybody. I remember looking around the kids who, my age, who had, you know, problems. They wanted to get into a certain club and they couldn't, or were not accepted, and all of that was so besides the point for me. All I wanted to do was learn to speak English as fast as I can, and that came pretty easily. I didn't pay attention, really, to the style of living of teenagers. I didn't compare myself to them, because I said, "They're children." They were my age, but they were children, and I wasn't. And I did everything they did, but I had this double life. I did whatever they did. I was part of the group that was, had sleepovers, and stuff like that, but there was always within me something, a certain sadness I think, and a certain knowledge that they don't know how things really are, and I know and it's another part of my life.
You know, I always, always hear about guilt. I mean, not only hear about it. This is a very discussed subject, guilt. Guilt for having survived. I don't. I don't. I feel not that lucky, I felt not that lucky that I survived because I had to mourn. I knew that somehow I will have to mourn for the loss. And to this day I cannot stand losing, even anything, a person, to lose a person is the worst thing that can happen to me. Never mind family members, I can't even touch that. But, that they did not make it and I did? I was alone. If I want to be logical about it, I did not survive at the expense of another person. I did nothing to survive. It wasn't because I took somebody's bread away, or stepped on, on somebody. Certainly not my own family. I felt very unlucky that I survived, in the beginning, because I felt alone.