Holocaust survivor Vera Eden recalls life in Nazi death camps to Temple Israel

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Holocaust survivor Vera Eden recalls life in Nazi death camps to Temple Israel
Vera Eden, 91, spoke before a crowd of hundreds at Temple Israel last week, recounting life in the concentration camps and emphasizing the importance of 'bearing witness' to the Holocaust. (Video still from tobyen1 on YouTube)

Growing up, Vera Eden, a longtime Hebrew teacher and Temple Israel member, was part of a large close-knit family of nearly 80 people in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia, including her cousin Eva Ebin, with whom she went to Hebrew school.

But while the then-teenagers survived World War II and the Holocaust, enduring two infamous concentration camps, many of their family members did not.

“Unfortunately, very few of them survived the Holocaust,” Eden said.

Eden recounted her story of survival before an audience of hundreds at Temple Israel in Great Neck last Wednesday night, as part of the temple’s annual Yom HaShoah service, which commemorates the six million Jews murdered by the Nazi regime. Congregants were largely silent, save for a few gasps.

“It’s very important because you’re hearing it from a firsthand source and I think it especially means a lot to children who haven’t had as many opportunities to meet survivors, people who lived through these terrible things,” said Lori Oppenheimer, the chair of the Temple Israel Shoah Remembrance Committee.

Eden, who is now 91, said she grew up in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia, a “vibrant Jewish city” dotted with flourishing Jewish schools and an absence of discrimination. But in 1938, when Czechoslovakia was forced to cede part of its territory to Germany under the Munich Agreement, and Hungary took over another region, they saw the beginning of anti-Semitism.

Over the next six years they saw Jewish stores shut down and labor camps established, Eden recalled, but they were still at home.

Then came the Nazi regime.

“The real horror began in March of 1944 when the German Army invaded Hungary,” Eden said. “The Hungarian regime was very cooperative with the Germans in the effort to eliminate the Jews. Within a few weeks we were in a ghetto, all wearing golden stars.”

“This was the beginning of the deception,” she added.

Eden said she and hundreds of others were rounded up onto trains by SS soldiers, traveling for three days until reaching their final destination of Auschwitz. Then, subjected to yelling Germans and barking dogs, people were separated – including Eden from her mother.

“That was the last time I saw her,” Eden, who was with her cousin Ebin, said. “Luckily, two other cousins were still with us. We made an agreement to stay together.”

Eden said she somehow approached one of the Germans, asking when they would see their mothers again. The guard said they would again eventually – “another deception,” Eden commented – before they were herded off into a large enclosed area.

There they were forced to strip down and line up for disinfection, having their heads shaved, body hair removed, before being marched into showers, which she later discovered “could deliver gas instead of water.” They then were given a dress and could keep their shoes, but nothing else.

Over time, Eden said they “settled” in a daily routine, where they would be forced up in the middle of night to be lined up. The Germans would then take “the skinniest and sickliest women” away, with guards lying that they would be getting “better nourishment.”

Each day they got a loaf of bread to divide among five and soup, with its primary ingredient of sand. At times they had to steal potato skins from the kitchen garbage. In that time Josef Mengele, an SS “doctor” infamous for conducting inhumane experiments on people, would also subject prisoners to inspections.

Eden said she would ask her block leader, a Jewish woman who had survived for years in the camp, when they could see their family again.

“The first few days, she didn’t actually answer,” Eden said. “Then she told us, ‘there they go with the smoke, you see it? There they go.’”

Eden and her cousin Ebin survived a wave of scarlet fever and typhoid fever. They had considered going to the hospital in the camp – “every once in awhile, some were discharged to send a message that we don’t kill the patients,” Eden said of the Nazis– but feared doing so.

Ebin only went to the hospital after a friend of the family who was a secretary there promised to make sure she got out.

Eden recalled a day where she and the other prisoners were encouraged to go outside, enjoy the sun, and bask in beautiful music. ‘”Why would they give us this if they want to kill us?’” Eden said she thought at the time.

In turned out they only allowed this because people had visited the camps, she said.

“Another special day” came with a lineup where many SS officers appeared “very, very nervous,” Eden said. There had been a rumor that some people tried to blow up the crematorium building.

It turned out three girls in forced labor had smuggled out gun powder, attacked German guards and set fire to the crematorium, leading to hundreds escaping but later being recaptured. These people were later tortured, but never gave up their co-conspirators, Eden said.

In November 1944, Eden was stripped naked and sat on wooden benches inside a chamber with other benches. One girl cried that “this must be gas,” she said.

“I became extremely frightened, blood rushing to my head, my heart pumping,” Eden said. “But somehow, after a few minutes, I was overwhelmed by a sense of calm, saying to myself at least it will be soon over, this miserable life.”

“There was no gas this time. We were given a different dress and transported.”

Eden and her cousin found themselves marched into the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp, where they could see homes nearby filled with children and parents moving around.

“For us it was unbelievable,” Eden said. “We live on a different planet.”

One day, a German guard came in and told them that their “friend” died,” Eden said. This puzzled many of the prisoners – with her thinking about how few friends were actually still alive.

“This was the day President Roosevelt died,” Eden said, adding it “shattered hope.” “But we had to go on.”

As time went on, Eden said she and many of the prisoners had suspicions that the war would come to an end soon, but they had no details. Eventually though, they once more would be pulled out, this time for an important message from a German official: “The war is coming to an end.”

“Then she said to us, ‘Heil Hitler, remember we were very good to you,’” Eden said.

The Germans left the camp, locking the prisoners in without food. Two French legionnaires   found them, describing them as “walking skeleton women,” before informing the American Army of the camp’s existence.

“We were waiting and waiting and we are thinking, is this another deception?” Eden said.

“This was no deception,” Eden later said. “This is true. We are free.”

Eden went on to join Aliya Bet, a group fostering immigration to what was once Palestine, according to the Temple Israel newsletter. It was there Eden met her husband, Joseph, a fellow survivor from Munkacs who fought in the Czech army and later directed social services for Israel.

Eden went on to teach Hebrew for more than 50 years, while her cousin Ebin became a counselor.

“Eva became a psychiatrist after the war and I keep telling her, I was your first patient,” Eden recalled.

Ultimately, Eden and her husband moved to Great Neck in 1987 and joined Temple Israel, as would her cousin, where they have worshipped since.

“I really thought the content was moving and difficult, all at the same time, and the way she presented it was really beautiful,” Oppenheimer said. “Everybody was moved.”

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