Leslie and Eva Aigner understand the power of history. And they believe that sharing stories from the past, no matter how horrible, can help create a better future.
“We tell our story so that people can change their thinking,” Eva says. “If you don’t know what caused the Holocaust, it could repeat itself.” The Aigners, both survivors of the Shoah, have become ambassadors for the importance of understanding history, and of accepting and embracing all people.
“Our involvement,” they say, “gives us purpose.”
As part of the speakers’ bureau of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center, now incorporated into the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the Aigners have told their story to countless numbers of schoolchildren, college students and adults over recent decades – and will continue to do so as long as they are able. This month, on the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a two- day Nazi-sanctioned riot against Jews in Germany and Austria, they again will be speaking in a special program at the Tigard Public Library. “It is important,” says Leslie, “to end hate, prejudice and discrimination.”
Leslie Aigner’s story begins in the town of Nove- Zamky, Czechoslovakia, where he was born 85 years ago as Ladislaw Aigner into a large extended Jewish family. The town soon became part of Hungary, and, after anti- Jewish laws made it difficult for his father, Gyula, to find work, the family moved to the Hungarian capital, Budapest.
Leslie apprenticed in a machine shop, since Jews were barred from higher education. Gyula Aigner was sent to a forced labor camp, and soon Elizabeth, the older of Leslie’s two sisters, was sent to a factory as a slave laborer. She escaped and survived the war working as a maid for a gentile family. In July 1944 Leslie, his mother, Anne, and sister, Marika, then about 9, were deported to Auschwitz, part of the more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews sent to Auschwitz in the largest mass deportation during the Holocaust.’
Leslie remembers riding in a crowded cattle car, windows covered with barbed wire, for three days. When they reached Auschwitz, Aigner was directed to one line, his mother and sister to another. That was the last time he saw them. His memory of that moment is inscribed at the Oregon Holocaust Memorial in an uncredited quote: “As I looked back, my mother turned her face to avoid mine, and my little sister gave me a frail and knowing wave.”
Aigner worked in the Auschwitz kitchen for three months, then was sent to three other camps. By war’s end, he had contracted typhus and was sent in the “Death Train” to Dachau, where American troops liberated the camp April 29, 1945. “It was,” says Aigner, who weighed a skeletal 75 pounds, “the most glorious day of my life.”
Eva Spiegel was born in 1937 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, and later – like her future husband – moved to Budapest as her family sought work. Her father, a hatmaker by trade, couldn’t get a work license because he was Jewish. By 1943, he was sent to a forced labor camp, where he died. Her mother, Gizella, worried about her two daughters in the Budapest ghetto, managed to escape from a cattle car transport to a concentration camp, then hid by day and walked by night to find them.
When she returned to the ghetto, Eva, then 7, and her sister, Ibolya, 15, weren’t there. Eva remembers: “It was a horrible, cold night in 1944, December.” Jews were marched to the banks of the Danube, ordered to take off their shoes, valuable in wartime, then shot in groups of 50 or more and pushed into the river – avoiding the need for burial.
Her mother came to the river, heard Ibolya’s cries, bribed a guard with her wedding and engagement rings and rescued her daughters. They spent the remainder of the war, until Budapest was liberated by the Soviet Army on Jan. 18, 1945, in the ghetto.
Eva, touring the current exhibit commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial at OJMCHE, paused at a photo of the Budapest Memorial – a collection of iron shoes on the banks of the Danube, recalling the 20,000 Jews killed on the spot. “This hit me in the chest,” she said of seeing the Budapest Memorial. “We were one block away from being dead.”
Nov. 9, 2-3:30 pm: Remember Kristallnacht with Shoah survivors Eva and Leslie Aigner. Tigard Public Library, 13500 SW Hall Blvd., Tigard. tigard-or.gov/library/ or 503-684-6537. Presented with OJMCHE.
Nov. 6, 7 pm: How Could this Happen: Explaining the Holocaust featuring historian Dan McMillan. Oregon Historical Society, 1200 SW Park Ave., Portland; 503-305- 5252. Co-hosted by OHS, the OJMCHE and the World Affairs Council of Oregon. $10; $5 for OHS/OJMCHE/WAC members; RSVP (required): worldoregon.org
Through Jan. 11, 2015: A Triumph of Life: Commemorating the 10th Anniversary of the Oregon Holocaust Memorial. An exhibit at OJMCHE, 1953 NW Kearney, Portland. ojmche.org