Tualatin couple shares stories of the Holocaust
Les and Eva Aigner know a few things about living through times of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination.
On Thursday, July 23, the Tualatin couple, survivors of the Holocaust, were part of a Tualatin Parks & Recreation-sponsored webinar, sharing their story with viewers 75 years after the extermination of six million Jews during World War II.
Eva Aigner said she and her husband accepted the invitation to speak during these troubled times to make sure that the message goes out that no matter how dire the situation is, there is hope.
She also emphasized that discrimination is never acceptable.
"People have to understand that we really all God's children and we have to accept one another and if somebody's given a chance, I don't care where they came from, they can prove (themselves)," said Aigner, 83. She and husband Les, 91, have lived in Tualatin for more than three years.
During their presentation, the couple, who met and married in Hungary in 1956, played a 2016 video that recounted their harrowing experiences at the hands of the Nazis to a group of students gathered at the Oregon Jewish Museum Center for Holocaust Education.
In it, Eva Aigner recounted a morning when she was in the first grade in her Hungarian elementary school and knew the world had changed forever, after she and her other Jewish classmates were forced to go into the hallway while the rest of the students recited the Hungarian national prayer.
Her father died in the Holocaust. Her mother was later taken to a concentration camp but jumped off the train along the way, Aigner said. A German soldier spotted her as she attempted to escape.
"Please, let me go," her mother begged the soldier, Aigner recalled. "My husband is already killed, and I left two children behind. If I don't get back to them, they (will) never survive."
Aigner said the soldier took pity on her mother, telling her that he, too, had a family but also pointing out he could be killed for openly helping her.
"'I'm going to check on the train, and if you have a chance, run,'" the soldier told her mother. "And that's just what he did, he took his gun, looked at the train, my mom jumped on her feet and ran into the nearby woods. She was hiding during the day and walking at night."
Eva Aigner's mother eventually made it back to Budapest and reunited with her children. True to what she told the soldier who allowed her to escape, she later saved her two daughters from being shot and dumped into the Danube River, using her wedding ring to bribe a guard, Aigner said.
Les Aigner told students he began recounting the horrors of the Holocaust in 1989, in response to Holocaust deniers.
Les Aigner said he was chased and beaten as a youth in Czechoslovakia because he was Jewish.
At 15, he was taken to Auschwitz, the infamous Nazi concentration camp. Shortly after his arrival, he said he noticed four chimneys that spewed out black smoke both day and night: "And naively, being a 15-year-old, told an older fellow, 'This must be the bakery.' He says, 'No, kid, that's not the bakery, that's the crematorium.' And (those) who did not come in the camp went up in smoke."
Les Aigner did not suffer that fate, but he was physically abused and maltreated. He said a Nazi guard impaled him in the foot with a pitchfork for talking while working in the camp's kitchen. Later, he was ordered to work on a large construction project for the Nazis and ended up contracting typhus.
Near the end of the war, Les Aigner said, he was sent to Dachau, an extermination camp. By the time the U.S. Seventh Army arrived to liberate the camp, he weighed just 75 pounds.
After their video presentation was over, the Aigners took questions. One asked them to recount how the couple escaped the Communist regime in Hungary in 1956 after the war, as Hungary fell behind the so-called Iron Curtain.
"We decided we wanted to build a family and we wanted to build it in a free country," Eva Aigner recalled.
One cold and snowy night, the Aigners and other family members made their escape, aided by a farmer, she said. They eventually crossed what they believed to be the Austrian border, but the group wanted to make sure, so Eva's father-in-law knocked on a door that had a light on.
"And they answered in German, so we knew we were in Austria," said Eva Aigner, recalling they were warmly greeted, with the entire town coming out with food and other goodies.
"They put straw (down) in the classrooms. I don't think we ever slept any harder than that night," she added.
Having escaped Communism, the Aigners were able to board the last carrier ordered by President Dwight Eisenhower to bring Hungarian refugees to America.
"Don't ever give up, because our life was nothing but miracles," Eva Aigner told viewers. "We escaped so many close calls."
Both Les and Eva Aigner worked hard to make sure the Oregon Holocaust Memorial was built in Washington Park.
In 2019, the couple testified in Salem in support of the Holocaust and Genocide Education Act and attended a ceremony celebrating the law's signing, along with Gov. Kate Brown, at the downtown Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
Eva Aigner said when the couple began speaking about the Holocaust in the 1980s, there were about 42 survivors that were part of a speakers' bureau that she knew. Now she guesses there are six still living.
Asked during the webinar how individuals should fight indifference, hatred and discrimination, she responded: "We all have blood running in our veins and we are all God's children, and we have to accept one another and all our differences because it doesn't matter what color skin we have. ... You give a person a chance (regardless) of what nationality you are, what religion you are."
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.