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The stories survive

Holocaust survivor recounts memories, passed-on tales of those she’s lost

Posted: April 28, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: April 28, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Holocaust survivor Erika Schwartz displays framed photos of relatives on her mother's side that were lost during the Holocaust, left, and her parents, Jolan Petrover and Herman Hornstein, in their engagement photo in 1941 and a photo, far right, of her father, who died in the Holocaust. Signal photo by Dan Watson.

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Overtaken by memories, Erika Schwartz clutches a collection of yellowed, slightly crumpled photographs — all she has left of her entire family.

“People forget that some of us, the extremely lucky ones, survived at a young age but lost everything else,” she said. “I grew up without a father, aunts, uncles, cousins.”

Erika, 69, was an infant during the Holocaust. She and her mother, Jolan, were the only surviving family members of those who lived in Hungary during World War II.

Today the Canyon Country resident commemorates her lost loved ones in recognition of Yom Hashoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day.

After a lifetime of research, Erika clings to a collection of anecdotes, dates and names, which comprise the legacy she’ll pass down to her grandchildren. And she’s working to keep these stories alive.

Erika can’t bare the thought that future generations might forget the human toll of one of the worst genocides in history.

“People think Holocaust survivors are these doddering old people that are dying away,” she said. “We’re not. It happened in my lifetime.”

A narrow escape

“My mother knew they were gone — there was no question about that,” Erika said of their entire family.
But the last momentsof her family members’ lives would be lost if not for Erika’s extended and meticulous research.

“I started doing a lot of genealogical research about 10-12 years ago,” she said. “I realized how many resources were out there.”

At the start of World War II, Erika’s parents lived in a small town outside Budapest, Hungary.

Her father, Herman, was the manager of a department store.

“My mother called it a bridal shop, where brides went to get everything they needed for a wedding and new home,” Erika said.

In the 1940s, Hungarian soldiers were moving Jews intothe town’s ghetto or a neighboring labor camp, depending on their ability to work, she said.

Pregnant with Erika at the time, Jolan and her mother were taken to the ghetto, with months left in the war, while Herman, was taken to Hidegseg Labor Camp.

“When my father learned I was born, he sensed that the Jews in Budapest would survive longer — long enough for the Allies to come in,” she said.

Herman set out to develop false papers identifying them as Christian, but could only manage papers for his wife and daughter.

Regardless, the soldiers had already placed Erika and her mother in a Jewish ghetto from which there was no escape. Even with papers, the soldiers initially refused to let Jolan and Erika free.

“My father literally camped out every night with the papers until they finally gave permission (for Jolan and Erika to leave),” she said.

When the soldiers finally wore down, Jolan had but moments to act. With an infant in her arms, Jolan refused to leave her mother in the ghetto, knowing she would probably never see her again.

“(My grandmother) literally pushed my mother out the door,” Erika said.

Three weeks later, Erika’s family was transported to Auschwitz, where Jolan’s mother died in the gas chambers, according to family testimony and Yad Vashem, a world database of Holocaust survivors and victims.

“That singular act,” she said, “was what caused us to survive.”

Journey to America

Erika’s family members were some of the last to be transported from the ghettos to Auschwitz before the war’s end.

However, Budapest was still an unsafe place for Jewish survivors.

For a time, Erika and her mother hid in Budapest, living in the basements of bombed-out buildings, staying out of sight.

“It wasn’t safe for her to live openly, even with papers,” she said.

Jolan had distant family in the U.S., and there was a possibility of getting the two of them overseas if an American sponsored them, Erika said.

“My mother initially refused to leave because she had no idea what happened to her family,” she said. “Even after the war, there was so much chaos — no one knew who had lived or been killed.”

When it came time to leave for America, Jolan had to go first, leaving Erika behind with a couple until Jolan could send for her, Erika said.

“I was 3 ½ when she left,” she said. “It’s one of my earliest memories.”

Erika remembers being reunited with her mother, walking down the stairs of the airplane and seeing her mother on the observation deck, she said.

Though they had escaped, life in America took years of adjustment as Jolan grappled with the loss of her entire family.

“I just don’t know how my mother survived it — to be 23, lose everyone and have nothing but an infant,” she said.

It was years before the mother and daughter set out to learn the fates of their family members.

A search for their stories

Erika and her mother attended a world gathering for Holocaust survivors in Israel in 1981. Survivors could search through extensive databases, even if they had misspelled or lost names, she said.

Together, they also visited their hometown in Hungary.

“We stayed a day and a half,” Erika said. “It ended up being very difficult for her.She was a strong woman in one respect, but the (Holocaust) destroyed her spirit and her soul.”

Jolan eventually found out that her sister-in-law, Klari, survived Auschwitz. The stories Klari shared were among the most painful Erika and Jolan endured.

Gently pushing forward three photographs, Erika pointed to three cousins ages 2, 7 and 9.

As recounted by Klari, Erika’s aunts stood in the sorting line at Auschwitz, holding their children and awaiting instruction.

Young children in these lines were immediately sent to the gas chambers because they couldn’t work, Erika said. And when forced to hand over their children, mothers were often killed for refusing to give them up willingly.

A nearby Jewish man convinced the mothers to pass their children to the arms of their grandmothers, who would also be sent to the chambers for their inability to work.

“(My aunts) didn’t know at the time they were turning their children over to die,” Erika said. “But by doing that, the young women were able to live for a while.”

The children and their grandparents died that day in the gas chambers, according to Erika and the Yad Vashem database.

Pointing to a photograph of a beautiful young woman, Erika identified her as Aunt Margit, who gave up her two sons and made it past the sorting.

“She was shot on the day of liberation,” Erika said. “As the Allies came in, the Nazis began shooting everyone at random.”

Never again

To Erika, it is immensely important to remember what happened. If survivors share the stories of those who senselessly died in the Holocaust, she says, then people won’t forget what happened, and it will never happen again.

In an effort to memorialize the lives of her family -- to make them more than just names of victims — Erika is participating in a nationwide project to archive the stories of the dead.

The project, Pennies as Promise, is run by children.

Under the guidance of teacher Mary Beth Goff, sixth- and seventh-grade students from Cairo Junior Senior High School in Cairo, Ill., are collecting a penny for each of the 1.5 million children who died in the Holocaust.

“We want to remember the children who died, so they are not just numbers,” Goff said Friday. “We want to begin thinking about these children as lives that had promise.”

Soliciting pennies from Jewish groups around the country, the students memorialize a child’s life for every penny received, pasting a penny, name and story on a card.

If the sender already has a story, as Erika does, they ask for a written account to add to their memorial.
“This is a project that could give my cousins a permanent identity,” Erika said.

Many synagogues or Hebrew schools promote awareness and educate young people about the Holocaust to ensure that it never happens again. But an inspired group of kids without an obvious connection to Judaism is unexpected, Erika said, and their heartfelt enthusiasm is catching.

Pausing, Erika lifted her chin slightly, determined to explain the human cost of the Holocaust.

“Although I grew up deprived, something turned in my 40s,” Erika said. “There was a moment that literally changed my life. I realized what a gift my life was.

“I can walk my dog, holding my husband’s hand, and look around and think, ‘Wow, this is great,’” Erika said. “I have a profound sense of gratitude because I am alive.”

Editor’s note: Erika is now married and enjoying life with her own children and grandchildren. Jolan passed away in 2006, and Herman was murdered in a labor camp in 1945, according to the Holocaust Documentation Center and Memorial Collection Public Foundation in Budapest. Erika is working to memorialize the lives of her family through writings and video interviews. To share your stories with Pennies as Promise, visit the group’s Facebook page at facebook.com/PenniesAsPromise.

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