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Miracles, Memories and a Message

Sankar Raman
Sankar Raman / The Immigrant Story

Life’s hardest lessons can come at a steep cost. Tragedy, trauma and misfortune often breed bitterness, anger and hatred. Les and Eva Aigner, octogenarian Nazi Holocaust survivors, might have every reason to fill their days with any of those emotions.

But they do not.

Instead, the Tualatin, Oregon, couple from Budapest focus on the good life their adopted home country has given them. They marvel at the miracles and random acts of compassion that allowed Les to survive internment, beatings and near-starvation at four Nazi concentration camps, and made it possible for Eva to endure hideous conditions during World War II in the grim and grossly overcrowded Jewish ghetto of Budapest.

One such miracle occurred near the end of the war, when Eva and her sister were forced to march on a frigid winter night to the banks of the Danube River with scores of other Jews from the ghetto. The prisoners formed a line and, as they reached the front, were ordered to remove their shoes. There they were shot, their bodies conveniently slipping into the icy river.

Then, moments before the two sisters would have arrived at the front of the line to be shot, their mother appeared out of nowhere. She had been taken from them days before and was herself headed to a death camp when she leapt from a freight car to stage a daring escape. Standing beside the river, she slipped off her one remaining object of any value, her wedding ring, and used it to bribe a guard into releasing her daughters.

“A miracle,” said Eva. “There is no other word for it.”

Life and memory in America

For most of their lives — “Sixty-two years, married, to the same woman, and happy,” said Les, beaming — the Aigners shied away from discussing their wartime experiences. The past was just that, they reasoned: past. Plus, they had lives to live in a country that celebrated freedom, not the Nazi atrocities or Communist despotism they had left behind. They got jobs, paid taxes, sent two children to college and rejoiced at the births of four grandchildren — and now, a great-grandson as well.

But in recent years they have felt the need to speak out. For Les, it was the Holocaust deniers that tipped the scales of silence.

“How could anyone say this did not happen?” he said. “The Holocaust is one of the most documented events in modern history. Eleven million people killed, six million of them Jews. How can anyone deny that this took place?”

Just 15 years old when he was plucked out of a line of Jewish captives headed to their deaths at Auschwitz and sent instead into slave labor, Aigner spotted the chimneys at the camp and assumed, since they puffed out smoke 24 hours a day, that they must be churning out the camp’s bread supply.

Photo: Sankar Raman
Les Aigner, in his home in Tualatin, Oregon. Photo: Sankar Raman

“No, kid,” an older prisoner told him. “Those are not bakeries. Those are crematoriums.”

It did not take long, Les said, to believe what he had just heard. But there was no time for fear or disgust or any other emotion. As he recollected, “There was a saying at Auschwitz: ‘You cry, you die.’”

For Eva, the urgency of talking about the Holocaust centered around the importance of learning from history. Venom had crept increasingly into the national dialogue, and she cringed at what she saw as a slow but rising tide of intolerance.

“I truly feel that the lessons of the Holocaust are more important today than ever,” she said. “Because hate is still with us, and some people still like to discriminate. And we know what can happen when there is hate or discrimination. Hate is a little spark, and it can become a fire.”

Les interjected: “And unfortunately, history can repeat itself.”

History Repeating

From undergoing the scrutiny of the notorious Josef Mengele — the Nazi doctor who performed monstrous “medical experiments” on concentration camp prisoners — to surviving an assault by pitchfork from an angry Nazi guard, Les Aigner had confronted endless unimaginable cruelties throughout the war, simply because he was Jewish.

“We don’t want this to ever happen to another child or another human being,” Les said, his tone soft with sorrow.

Photo: OJMCHE archives
Les with his mother, wearing the yellow star that the Nazis forced Jews to display, and his two sisters (1942). Les last saw his mother and younger sister  when Josef Mengele sent them to separate lines in Auschwitz. Only Les survived. Photo: OJMCHE archives

“Rwanda, Bosnia, Myanmar,” he went on, rattling off countries where genocide has continued even into the 21st century. “And all because of origin, nationality, race, religion.”

Not long ago, Les said, he and Eva were invited to speak to a middle school class in Ashland, Oregon. Before their visit, the teacher had her class read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and assigned them to write a report about it. One student turned in a “report” that read simply: “I hate Jews.” Appalled, the teacher asked the student if she had ever met anyone who was Jewish. No, she replied, “but I hate them because my parents told me to hate them.”

At another school presentation, Eva said, “This one kid, 15 years old, got up and asked us, ‘Don’t you hate the Germans?’ Leslie said, ‘We don’t hate the German people, but we do not like the Nazi followers.’”

These experiences, said Les, make him all the more convinced that  “The only way to break the cycle is to educate.” He recalled that as they wrapped up their presentation at the Ashland school, a cafeteria worker came out to embrace the Aigners. Her uncle, she told them, had been a liberator at Dachau, the “work camp” near Munich where Les was imprisoned in the final days of the war. Upon his release, Les weighed just 75 pounds.

“I was a walking skeleton,” he said, “after ‘only’ 10 months in the camp.”

Ten months, on a diet of 700 calories a day.

After two months recuperating in an Allied hospital, Les returned home to Budapest to learn that most of his family had perished. Somehow, through another miracle, his father had survived.

Photo: Aigner family archives
Les mother’s postcard written to his father who was taken away to a forced labor camp (1944). Photo: Aigner family archives

Eva’s story

While Les was shipped from concentration camp to concentration camp, the comfortable life in Budapest of a young blue-eyed girl named Eva Spiegel also was upended. First came the yellow stars sewn on the front of the clothes she and every other Jewish child and adult were suddenly forced to wear. There were taunts of “dirty Jew!” as she walked to school. People threw horse manure at adults and children alike wearing the yellow star.

“The hidden anti-Semitism had always been there,” Eva said. “But when the Nazis came, it was open-season hate and open season on hurt.”

The area where she and her family lived was renamed “Marked Housing.” Without warning, three other families were moved into their three-room apartment.

“It was terribly crowded, and we thought it was an invasion of our life,” Eva said. “But it was only a beginning.”

Her father had been spirited from the family, and word soon came that he had been killed in a forced labor camp. Then the Nazis arrived, and ordered them to pack their bags. With Nazi guns pointed at them, they walked across the city to a cluster of dank old apartment buildings. In the area now known as the Jewish ghetto, Eva and her mother and sister found themselves sharing a single room with 18 to 20 other people, all strangers. Eva and her mother and sister had one blanket between them.

“My mom, my sister and I, we were huddling together, facing terrible starvation,” Eva said. One day, she and her sister discovered a piece of bread in a cupboard. It was covered with mold, and it crumbled in their hands, “but we were hungry enough that we ate it anyway.”

Bombings of Budapest were routine, but the basement that served as a bomb shelter for the ghetto was “so rat-infested that we decided to take a chance and stay were we were,” Eva said.

Eventually the Nazis came for Eva’s mother. Well-intentioned workers from the Red Cross circulated in the ghetto, taking in children who had no parents. Eva’s sister told her to lay low and tell no one that their mother was gone. It was a crafty move, Eva said.

Photo: OJMCHE archives
Eva and her sister Ibolya in Budapest in circa 1942. Photo: OJMCHE archives

“I guess a lot of those kids who had been taken by the Red Cross had been caught by the Nazis and killed,” she said.

And then came the night in December, 1944, when Eva and her sister were awakened and ordered  to march alongside the others to the banks of the Danube. Three weeks after their mother’s spectacular and dangerous rescue of her two daughters, Russian troops entered Budapest and told the residents, “You are free people.”

It is not as if Eva Aigner shakes off the horrors of her young life, or in any way diminishes the misery that she and so many others lived through. But she keeps a level perspective.

“Everybody has childhood memories,” she said. “And somehow, our spirit was not broken.”

But Leslie confessed: “I cried many nights.”

Indeed, agreed Eva.

“When we were married, he still would have nightmares,” she said.

Family

Les was not the only family member haunted by the horrors. Eventually, he and Eva were able to bring her aging mother to live with them in the home near Raleigh Hills, a suburb of Portland, that they owned for 38 years. Eva was baffled when the house was suddenly infested with fruit flies. She searched and searched for the source, and finally discovered a cache of fruit stuffed between the mattress and box springs in  her mother’s bedroom.

“Mom,” she said. “We have plenty of food. Why are you hoarding fruit in your bedroom?”

Her mother replied that she needed the fruit “for my starving children.” Long after the war had ended, said Eva sadly, “she was constantly escaping from the Nazis.”

Even among the few family members who made it through the Holocaust alive, said Leslie, “I am the only one left.”

Eva nodded.

“Me too,” she said, “I am the only one.”

Les added, “I am the luckiest man alive. Not because I was better stronger or special. But I survived.”

Photo: Aigner family archives.
Eva, with her mother (front right) and her father (leaning in through the window on the right) along with her extended family in Budapest in 1944. Only four survived. Photo: Aigner family archives.

Escape

The pair married exactly 59 days after they met. Eva was 18, and Les, 26. Any hopes they might have harbored of a happy life in Hungary vanished as the Communists took power, imposing an iron grip of authority that once again made life unbearable. Food shortages forced Budapest residents to stand in line for hours for so much as a simple loaf of bread. One day, Eva heard someone in the bread line say, “Let’s get rid of the Communists and then we’ll take care of the rest of the Jews.” She told Les she could not remain in Budapest, and she could not think of giving birth to a Jewish child there.

Les agreed.

“First it was genocide,” he said. “Then it was communism.” He offered a weak laugh, appreciating his own irony: “We were not good enough Communists. And I didn’t want to be a Communist.”

The Aigners knew they had to get out.

“We had to make a choice,” Les said.  “And we made the right choice.”

They chose Christmas Eve to escape, figuring the guards would be busy with holiday festivities. As guards boarded their train at every stop, they smiled and said how much they were looking forward to Christmas Day in a small village whose name they had been given. At the end of the line, near the Austro-Hungarian border, a farmer offered to help guide them to safety.

“We gave him everything we had,” Eva said.

They made it across the border in knee-deep snow. A snowcat from the village came to pick them up, and church bells rang out to welcome them. Village residents showered them with cookies and food, recognizing the hardship of their journey.

“I got my first pair of nylons that night,” Eva said, “A lady said, ‘I have nothing else to give you.’”

But when they arrived at the American Embassy in Vienna, lines of hopeful refugees snaked around and around the block. Eva summoned all her pluck, plus a little creative deception, to vault Les and the rest of her relatives to the front of the line. The Aigners had the advantage of an affidavit of acceptance supplied by a stepbrother Les had never met. He lived in Portland, Oregon — wherever that was.

The Aigners boarded the last refugee boat out of Bremen, Germany. There were 1,700 people on board a vessel built for half that many. Most were horribly seasick for the entire voyage. After all, Eva noted, none of them had ever seen the sea, much less ridden a ship over its waters.

But finally the ship steamed into New York harbor. So many passengers rushed to the side to gaze at the Statue of Liberty that the captain feared the ship would list and sink.

Immigration, inoculations, quarantine for two weeks at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey — and then the Aigner brood boarded a train for Oregon.

“Four days, three nights, not speaking a word of the language,” said Eva.

They arrived in Portland to find that Les’ stepbrother had rented them a furnished apartment at Northwest 21st Avenue and Irving Street. Eva was not quite 19. Les was 27.

Paradise, thought Eva.

“It was …” she paused, searching for the word, “… elating.”

Photo credit: OJMCHE archives.
Les and Eva Aigner at their wedding, in Budapest, in 1956. Photo credit: OJMCHE archives.

Portland

After Budapest, known often as the “Paris of Central Europe,” Portland was also a backwater. Budapest boasted scores of theaters, opera houses and world-class museums. Portland was a sleepy place, not quite Seattle and definitely not San Francisco.

Drawing on his skills as a machinist in Hungary, Les found work at the East Side Tool and Die Works. Eventually he became a model maker, building prototypes for electronics company Tektronix. Eva cleaned houses and did whatever else she could do to bring in some cash for the family.

But what she longed for was the career her mother had forbidden her to pursue in Hungary.

Estheticians, cosmetologists, beauticians, scoffed Eva’s mother — they were no better than ladies of the night. But Eva thought otherwise. She talked herself into an interview at Portland’s Pacific Beauty School, portraying herself as “this girl from Hungary who wanted to learn the trade.”

Fine, said the school’s proprietor, but what about the tuition?

And so a deal was reached. In exchange for tuition, Eva would become the school’s cleaning lady, scrubbing everything from floors to hairbrushes. She and Les would also agree to paint the school’s interior.

To get a state license to practice her craft, Eva had to produce a high school diploma. Never mind that it was stuffed in some file in Budapest where avaricious bureaucrats would eagerly accept bribes to produce a document they had no intention of producing. Someone at the beauty school suggested she take a GED (General Equivalency Diploma) exam instead.

“What’s a GED?” she asked.

To pass the multiple choice and true/false exam, Eva needed a score of 75 or above. Her command of English was still limited, and her knowledge of subjects such as American history or government was all but nonexistent. Luckily, she had always been a math whiz. She earned a score of 78.

Upon graduation, Eva worked for “Mr. Joseph” at the Multnomah Hotel for 10 years. Later she ran the King Salon of Beauty, just off Northwest Burnside Street.

“They called me the ‘Queen of the King Salon,’” she said.

All the chemicals involved in hair and beauty work eventually forced Eva to retire. Today, she is disarmingly young-looking, a product of her own skilled knowledge of esthetics. She has ginger-colored hair, a trim figure and a paucity of wrinkles that most women half her age would envy.

Remembrance

In 1998, they took their son Rob and daughter Suzanne on a kind of “Holocaust tour” of Europe. It was difficult, said Les, and one odd byproduct was that he found himself ravenously hungry, as if he were reliving  the years of starvation in the camps.

“Going back, the insecurity, the abuse, the brutality came right back,” he said.

But Eva remarked, “In some respects it was healing.”

They traveled with a group that included seven survivors, their children and two rabbis. Each night they said prayers and lit candles.

“I think it brought a little closure,” Eva said.

The trip was an awakening for their children, they said. Now Rob and Suzanne had a greater understanding of the ordeals their parents had endured.

Still, Les quipped, “Afterward my son said, ‘Next time please take us on a real vacation, Dad.’”

Eva Aigner helped establish the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in Portland’s Washington Park. She and Les also helped set up the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.  They have built storyboards that depict their experiences, right down to the cartography of the different camps where Les was imprisoned. They continue to speak out, and they relish their roles as proud American citizens who have never missed an opportunity to vote — because, as both point out from hard experience, if any one citizen does not vote, despotism may follow.

Photo: Sankar Raman
Les and Eva Aigner visit the Holocaust Memorial  in Portland, Oregon, which they helped build. Granite slabs evoke the railway tracks that brought Jews to Auschwitz. Photo: Sankar Raman

Here is the big lesson, said Eva Aigner: “You have to treat everybody the way you would like to be treated. Because if you don’t, they will differentiate you because of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, whatever.”

Her gaze grew more stern, more focused as she spoke.

“And if we allow this to happen, we are going to lose our freedom,” she said.

Eva cast a loving smile in the direction of her husband of 62 years, the spouse who had also endured unimaginable sacrifices to be here, in a tranquil life of comfort — a life that has brought them joy, prosperity, a strong and loving family–and perhaps above all, freedom.

“And that is the lesson as I see it,” she declared. “And we have lived it.”

 

*Special thanks due to the Aigner family and the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education (OJMCHE), Portland, OR  for access to the interviews and family photos that made this story possible.