Éva Fahidi, Outspoken Holocaust Survivor, Dies at 97

Éva Fahidi, a Holocaust survivor who late in life began speaking out and writing about her experiences, as well as expressing them in dance, becoming a familiar presence at memorial observances and in classrooms in Germany and other European countries, died on Monday in Budapest. She was 97.

The International Auschwitz Committee, an association of Auschwitz survivors, announced her death.

Ms. Fahidi, part of a Hungarian Jewish family that had converted to Catholicism, was rounded up in 1944 along with the rest of her family and taken to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination complex in occupied Poland. She was 18.

She was apparently saved from the gas chamber by being of an age and fitness level to qualify for a forced-labor camp. Her other family members were sent to their deaths. Josef Mengele, the Nazi death camp doctor, presided over the selection process.

“My youth came to an abrupt end on the 1st of July, 1944, on the ramp of Birkenau,” she wrote in “The Soul of Things: Memoir of a Youth Interrupted” (2005) after detailing a carefree youth. “The life I have described above was gone in the split second it takes to wave a hand — Mengele’s motion that ordered me into one line and the rest of my family into the other.”

She spent the final year of World War II working forced labor in a munitions factory in Allendorf, Germany.

After the war ended in 1945, Ms. Fahid (who was also known as Éva Fahidi-Pusztai from an early marriage) kept her experiences largely to herself for more than a half-century. Then, in 2003, on the anniversary of that day on the ramp when she last saw her family members, she visited the Birkenau site and was disappointed to find it more like a tourist attraction than like anything she remembered.

She committed herself to telling her story and to helping younger generations understand what had gone on at the camp and in the Holocaust in general. Over the next 20 years she spoke to countless schoolchildren and worked with young volunteers who collected Holocaust remembrances from survivors. She appeared at anniversary observances marking the liberation of Auschwitz and other occasions and spoke to legislative bodies. And she bore witness, including attending the 2015 war crimes trial in Germany of Oskar Gröning, who at 93 was accused of having been one of the guards working that ramp at Auschwitz and was one of the last complicit Germans to face trial.

“I look forward to seeing him in court at last,” she said at the time, adding, “Will he tell me why he did nothing as he stood on the ramp and allowed my family to be murdered?”

(Mr. Gröning was found guilty of being an accessory to the murder of 300,000 Jews and sentenced to four years in prison but died in 2018 while still appealing his sentence.)

In spreading Holocaust awareness, Ms. Fahidi found an unusual vehicle for doing so: dance. She had enjoyed dancing as a teenager, and while interned in the labor camp, she and other young women used dance to get through their days. In 2015, for her 90th birthday, she created a dance piece she called “Sea Lavender or the Euphoria of Being,” in which she and a dancer 60 years her junior, Emese Cuhorka, engaged in a 100-minute performance that mixed dance and dialogue as it brought out Ms. Fahidi’s Holocaust memories.

In 2015, for her 90th birthday, Ms. Fahidi created a dance piece, “Sea Lavender or the Euphoria of Being,” in which she and a dancer 60 years her junior, Emese Cuhorka, mixed dance and dialogue in eliciting Ms. Fahidi’s Holocaust memories.Credit…Peter Kohalmi/Afp Via Getty Images/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The show had its premiere in October 2015 at the Vigszinhaz Theater in Budapest and was supposed to be a one-night-only event, but by January it had sold out eight performances there, and Ms. Fahidi was preparing for its premiere in Berlin.

“First I felt only my limits, what I can’t do,” she told Agence France-Presse. “Then slowly, as I learned to warm up, it was wonderful how my old body wanted to do something again.”

By 2017 she and Ms. Cuhorka had staged the show more than 50 times all over Europe.

One factor driving Ms. Fahidi’s activities was her concern about the rise of authoritarian politicians, including in her native Hungary, and of antisemitism and hate speech more broadly.

“I know what happens when Jews are insulted on the street,” she recently told the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag. “It ends in the gas chamber.”

Christoph Heubner, executive vice president of the International Auschwitz Committee, said by email that Ms. Fahidi had been “saddened and worried about increasing antisemitic hate and the stupid and hateful agitation of extreme right wing and racist politicians around the world during the last month of her life.”

But, he added, she retained a remarkable positivity despite all she had been through.

“All her engagement for love, truth and tenderness between people came out of what had been done to her and all her family and friends,” Mr. Heubner said, “but it was a fight with a smiling face and full of hope that things can be changed.”

Éva Fahidi was born on Oct. 22, 1925, in Debrecen, Hungary. Her father, Dezso, founded a lumber yard with his brother. In her memoir, Ms. Fahidi described her mother, Irma (Weisz) Fahidi, as a well-organized woman with an affinity for animals.

“Despite what life held in store for me,” Ms. Fahidi wrote, “I feel like Fortune’s darling, because for 18 years and six months I had a home, a father, a mother, a little sister, grandparents, nearly 20 cousins and countless other relatives. I led an active and exciting life full of adventure and discoveries in music, literature and sports.”

When she was 11, her father decided that the family would convert to Roman Catholicism.

“From the age of 11, I was brought up as a pious Catholic, which confused me, to say the least,” she wrote. “We had never been observant Jews, and suddenly, when we turned Catholic, I found myself face to face with dogmas.”

The conversion did not save her family, though, when hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were rounded up and deported in 1944.

Ms. Fahidi is survived by her partner, Andor Andrasi; a daughter, Judith; and a granddaughter. In her memoir, writing about her 2003 visit to the Birkenau site, she reflected on the loss of her family, and on her survivor’s guilt.

“The ashes of my immediate family were dumped in the nearby swamps, and so were the ashes of my extended family,” she wrote, “and if I say they are 50 in number, I am not far off the mark. I can’t help thinking that I have deserted them, and that my place should be with them, one more handful of dust in the swamps of Birkenau.”

She carried her grief with her throughout her long life.

“The cliché that time heals all wounds is a lie,” she wrote. “It depends on the wound. There are wounds that never heal.”

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