Eva on stage

ICEJ-Germany hosts Eva Erben on Holocaust Remembrance Day

By: ICEJ Staff

Last week, Holocaust survivor Eva Erben traveled from Israel to Germany to tell her story of suffering and loss to packed audiences, including over 3,000 German students, as part of a speaking tour arranged by ICEJ-Germany which concluded with a large gathering in Stuttgart on Friday (27 January) to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Packed audience

Eva Erben, a 92 year-old Czech Jew who lives in Ashkelon, spent four days speaking before packed audiences in southern Germany, culminating with a large gathering at the Beethovensaal hall in Stuttgart that drew over 2,100 German students – a record for a Holocaust Remembrance Day event, according to organizers. Besides ICEJ-Germany, the tour was co-sponsored by the SCORA project – Schools Opposing Racism and Antisemitism. At several appearances, Eva was interviewed on stage by Germany’s most popular TV presenter Günter Jauch, who has become her personal friend.

Eva has conducted several previous speaking tours to Germany at the invitation of the German branch of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem. Her appearances are always noted for her warm interactions with young German students eager to hear Eva’s personal story of surviving the Holocaust. This latest tour was no exception.

Born in 1930 in Czechoslovakia, Eva Erben was raised by loving Jewish parents, but lost them both and her grandparents in the Nazi genocide against the Jews. Somehow, she survived the Terezin, Auschwitz and Gross-Rosen concentration camps, as well as a grueling Death March late in the war that claimed her mother’s life. Three separate times, she stood in selection lines and came face-to-face with the monstrous Dr. Josef Mengele. After the war, she made her way to Israel and refused to speak German or have anything to do with Germany.

As Eva began to tell her story in detail to the German students, she recounted her childhood as being fairly carefree, with a doting mother and an optimistic father who refused to believe the Nazis could threaten them in Prague. But they invaded and life became unbearable for Czech Jews. She recalled a painful memory of setting free her pet canary rather than hand it over to the Nazis. At the time, she tearfully said: “At least one of us will live freely.”

In December 1941, Eva and her family were taken to the Terezin camp, which had many professors, doctors and writers, and was presented in Nazi propaganda as a “model camp”, yet the conditions were still very difficult.

In 1944, the family was sent to Auschwitz. Upon arrival at the notorious death camp, she stood for the first time in a selection line headed by Dr. Mengele. Eva recalls forcing herself to only look down and seeing just his black shiny boots. Though 14 years old, she had been told to lie that she was 18, so she was kept alive to work.

“Everything was taken away from us in Auschwitz from the little that we still had, even our hairs,” said Eva. “We were forced to get into the shower. Water poured down, cold, hot, cold. There was no way to escape from it. Someone said that gas might come out, which we couldn’t believe.”

“Arriving at Auschwitz brought one shock after another. We had no idea where we were. We saw smoking chimneys and thought these were factories,” Eva continued. “We slept as sardines together. If one person turned, we all had to turn. Going to the latrines, I remember crawling over bodies and some were cold. Later on, I realized these were dead bodies.”

Soon after, Eva and her mother were forced to walk to the Gross-Rosen camp. While leaving Auschwitz, a Nazi soldier gave her two left shoes to wear. She tried to swap one for a right shoe, but the soldier hit her in the face with his gun butt, dislodging two front teeth. So she started walking to the new camp with two left shoes and two missing teeth.

But Eva remembers that not all Germans were bad. Upon arriving at the Gross-Rosen camp, the commandant sent her to a warm barrack and gave her a proper pair of shoes.

Soon after, they were forced on a “Death March,” walking 25-to-30 kilometers per day.

“If you were too weak, they shot you,” Eva recounts. “Only a small number survived and I am one of those.”

One marcher who did not make it was her mother, who was too frail to go on.

“The next day, I had to walk further and leave her body behind,” Eva told the audience. “I was 14 years old, weighed around 25 kilos, and was without any parents. I was so extremely cold and exhausted.”

One of the following nights, the remaining marchers sheltered in a barn. Eva laid down in some straw that smelled horribly of cow urine. She was startled awake the next morning by a Polish boy. Apparently, the dogs used by the German soldiers to round up the marchers did not smell her in the hay and she had been left her behind.

It was now April 20th of 1945 and the war was almost over. Eva started walking east and finally met three Czech boys who thought she was a ghost and ran. Then she came to a river and heard the click of a gun.

“A German soldier stood in front of me, ready to shoot me,” Eva explained. “Within a split second, another soldier came and said: ‘Leave her! She is in so much pain, it is not worth the bullet. Save it.’”

“Saving that one bullet has brought me three children, nine grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren,” she added.

Eva fainted by the river bank and in the next moment woke up in what seemed like heaven. A Czech Catholic family had taken her to their farm and put her in a clean bed in the cellar. They gave her baby milk as she was too sick to eat proper food. They kept her for several months and nursed her back to health, but it was not an easy time as the farmers simply did not believe her stories. So, Eva eventually decided to leave and search for her family and friends.

Eva made it to an orphanage for Jewish children in Prague and studied to become a nurse. Then one day, while listening to David Ben Gurion announce the state of Israel, she met an old friend from Terezin named Peter.

“We danced that evening together and this dance lasted for 70 years,” Eva exclaimed. “Peter and I married and came to Israel in 1949. We had now our own state and our dream was to build here a quiet life for our children. It has not always been very quiet, but at least it’s a state where we can defend ourselves and where no one can force us to leave again. These were years of building our future and not to cling to the past. It will never come back. We must go on.” Still, for 40 years Eva did not speak about the war and did not want to have anything German in her house. That is, until one day in 1980 when Peter brought two thirsty strangers to the house to spend the night. The next morning, she learned they had come from Munich to learn more about Israel and the Jewish people. Eva found them to be pure and honest and genuinely interested in Israel. After that, she could speak German again, and in recent years she has traveled repeatedly to Germany to tell her story before gatherings large and small. Eva has become especially popular among the younger generation, and enjoys interacting with German students in a language she spoke in her youth.

“I owe it to history to voice the past,” insisted Eva. “Many survivors my age are staying home. Here I am, flying from Israel to Germany to engage with students and encourage them to be correctly informed about Israel. I have no time to be old or to die.”

Eva being interviewed

Noting it was International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Eva added that one day of remembering each year is not so much to ask, given that Holocaust survivors live with their memories every day. She concluded that it is extremely important for the people to remember, to learn from history and to stand up against antisemitism, now posing as anti-Israelism.

Günter Jauch, the well-known German TV presenter, thanked Eva for coming to Germany once again, adding: “This week you have spoken to 3,000 students. If all these students will share it with another ten people, and they share it further, then we can reach many, many people with this message. Together we stand against antisemitism.”

Photo credits: ICEJ-Germany