He suffered the horrors of the Holocaust, yet Les Aigner says he is “one of the luckiest men alive.”
His wife, Eva, was terrorized by the Nazis as a small child and says the fact she survived is “a miracle.”
After World War II, they lived hard times in Hungary under Communist domination.
Yet today the couple campaigns to end discrimination – even against those who made their lives nearly unbearable.
The Aigners came to John F. Kennedy High School library May 4 to tell their story and answer the students’ questions. For many years they had not talked about their experiences. “We wanted to live our lives looking forward,” Les said.
In recent times, Eva said, “We started speaking because we heard there were deniers.” How could anyone refute the Holocaust when there are survivors who were witnesses of what happened and there are the records created by the Nazis themselves, they asked?
Eva was 6 years old when she first felt the sting of discrimination. Her father was sent to a forced labor camp where he died. Jews in their Hungarian villages and cities were set apart from their neighbors by the yellow stars stitched to their coats.
“Slowly every single item of our individuality was taken away,” she said.
Eva’s mother, a 15-year-old sister and she were relocated to a home shared by three other families. “Later, at gunpoint, we were moved to a ghetto. If we thought we were crowded before, it was nothing.” Twenty or more people had to share a room in the Budapest apartment, and with little food, no running water or electricity, sickness spread.
“A few weeks later, the Hungarian militia came through and our mother was taken away – you can imagine how devastated we were. Later we found out what happened to our mother.”
Eva’s mother had been taken in a cattle car headed for a concentration camp. Along the way she jumped from the train and escaped. As she ran, a German soldier with a gun ordered her to halt. She pleaded with him to have mercy because she had two daughters living without a parent. Despite personal threat of death for his actions, he turned his back and allowed her to escape.
She walked nights and slept days, returning to Budapest to find the girls were gone. That very night, the residents of their street had been herded toward the Danube, where they were ordered to take off their shoes and wait in the winter dark. Arrow Cross militia took the Jews in groups of about 80 to the riverbank and shot them, their bodies falling into the water.
Eva’s mother crept toward the crowd waiting their fate and recognized the crying of her elder daughter. She bravely offered a guard the only valuable she had, her wedding ring, as a bribe to let the girls go, he took the ring and ordered them back to the ghetto.
A memorial, called “Shoes on the Danube Promenade,” now stands where thousands were killed at the Danube that winter of 1944-45.
Eva knows she would have died there had it not been the luck of timing and her mother’s bravery.
By 1939, discrimination against Jews in their village had reached a point there was little work for them, so Les’ parents moved to Budapest. Ten-year-old Les stayed behind to finish elementary school. He later joined them, but not allowed to continue to higher education, he began apprenticeship as a machinist.
“In 1943, Father was taken to a labor camp. My mother, sisters and I were ordered to a ghetto. Shortly after, they took my 16-year-old sister to work in a factory.”
Les recalls the barbed wire and barking dogs on a hot July day in 1944 when his mother, little sister and he were among thousands of people ordered to the train yard and into the cattle cars. Their destination was Auschwitz – Birkenau, the largest German concentration camp, one that is also known as an extermination camp.
Upon arrival, “I was pushed with the able-bodied men; Mother and my sister went the other way.” The hardest thing he endured was never seeing them again, Les told the students.
Les was housed in a crowded barracks. The encampment on one side was where Dr. Josef Mengele performed horrific medical experiments. On the other side were the Roma (gypsies). Les told of the time the entire population of 4,000 of these men, women and children were taken away for extermination. “That night I heard nothing but screaming and crying.”
Life in the camp was unfathomable. “Brutal work, a starvation diet and disease took a toll on us.”
And there was the chance of being shot. Guards sometimes used prisoners for target practice. Life was out of control.
Most workers were taken as slave laborers in war-effort factories. Les was sent to the camp kitchen to cut vegetables for the prisoners’ soup. “I witnessed things from the kitchen,” he said. Things beyond human comprehension.
Once, a guard came into his work area, but Les had not heard him approach and continued his conversation.
The angry guard threw a pitchfork into Les’ foot. He was hospitalized, but soon he was ordered back to his barracks. He argued that he hadn’t yet recovered – to no avail.
“That night all the others in the hospital were taken to the gas chamber,” Les said. The Nazis eliminated anyone who was not able-bodied.
Les says it was providence that got him through his years in the camp. “Somebody up there was looking after me.”
There were more narrow escapes.
Late in the war, he was transported to Dachau concentration camp by train. There were two parallel tracks, his heading to the camp and the other conveying retreating German soldiers. Allied airmen strafed the trains, killing the men on either side of him.
When he arrived at Dachau, Les saw “more dead bodies than living ones.” He himself weighed 75 pounds.
But again fate was in his favor. “I was there one week when the Allied forces liberated me. I cried and laughed at the same time.”
Eventually, the Allies transported survivors by truck to their villages. When Les got to his home in Czechoslovakia, “there was nobody there.” He went to the Hungarian factory where his sister had been forced to work and learned that she had escaped. His father too was alive. “It’s almost unheard of that three members of a family survived.”
After he recovered his health, Les continued his mechanics’ apprenticeship and later married Eva.
Les and Eva lived 11 years under Communist rule. Times were hard and there was the threat of being sent to Siberia, never to be heard from again, for a crime as small as griping.
“An opportunity came in 1956, in the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution,” Eva said. Taking only what they could carry in backpacks, they trudged through the snow and escaped to Austria.
In February 1957, they joined Les’ step-brother, who had settled in Portland. The couple focused on creating normal lives. “We made sure our children got the education we were denied.”
Although they didn’t talk about the war for 40 years, Eva said, “I cannot forget the past.” She urged her young audience to “appreciate our freedoms.” She said we have some problems in our country, the recession and such, but it is the citizens’ duty to be informed, stand up for their principles and vote so their wishes are heard.
She emphasized that “Discrimination starts by little bitty sparks – it can be little jokes about race or color.
You can say, ‘this is not funny. We are laughing at someone’s expense.’” Discrimination “grows bigger and bigger,” eventually escalating into violence.
The Holocaust started with “little things,” she said. “If somebody had stopped it early, there wouldn’t have been these mass killings.”
Freedom “depends on each person.”