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Holocaust survivors tell story of survival, tolerance

TIMES PHOTO: GEOFF PURSINGER - Eva Aigner hugs a library patron after her talk at the Tigard Public Library on Monday. The Holocaust survivor and her husband have been speaking out about the atrocities since the 1980sLes Aigner doesn’t want to talk about what happened to him.

“I can’t say that it’s my pleasure to talk about this,” he told a packed house at the Tigard Public Library on Monday. “But it’s my duty.”

Aigner and his wife, Eva, survived the Holocaust, the deadly genocide that killed 11 million people — including some 6 million Jews — during World War II. The pair spoke at the Tigard Library this week in remembrance of “Kristallnacht,” two days of attacks against Jews in Germany and Austria in November 1938.

The Aigners didn’t talk about what happened to them for decades, they said.

“We wanted to put it behind us and raise our family,” Les said.

But after Holocaust deniers started gaining traction in the 1980s, he said they knew they had to step forward.

“It’s not easy to talk about,” he said. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for us. I feel like one of the luckiest men. I survived. But 11 million did not.”

Living in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, anti-Semitism was everywhere, Les said.

At 10 years old, Les was regularly chased and beaten by children because of his religion. Eva remembered her father’s business license being pulled because he was Jewish.

The two families lived about 60 miles from one another, and each moved to Budapest in neighboring Hungary to escape the regime.

But war followed them, Eva said. She was 7 years old when she and her family were sent to the Budapest ghetto, a walled section of town guarded by Nazi soldiers. Prisoners in the ghetto were often sent to concentration camps and Eva and her sister were taken to the river and lined up to be shot because they couldn’t work. But her mother bribed a guard and saved their lives.

Les was 15 years old in 1944. He, his mother and his 8-year-old sister were taken to Auschwitz. His mother and sister were sent directly to the gas chamber, while Les was sent to the labor camp.

“At Auschwitz, I naively saw the chimneys spewing smoke,” Les said. “I said ‘That must be the bakery. A man said, ‘No, kid. That’s the crematorium. You stay here, you’ll go up in smoke.’ I didn’t want to believe that could happen.”

‘That doctor saved my life’

Les was in Auschwitz for nearly four months. After he upset a German guard, he was stabbed in the foot with a pitchfork.

“I was crippled,” he said. “I was sent to a so-called hospital. It wasn’t much of a hospital, but at least I was able to be off of my foot.”

He was there for eight days when a Jewish doctor told him to report back to his barracks. Les protested, but eventually went.

“That night, the people left in the hospital were taken to the gas chamber,” he said. “The Nazis didn’t want to feed people who couldn’t work. That doctor saved my life.”

Les was relocated to four other concentration campus during the course of the war, each brutal and unforgiving.

“We were forced to do hard labor,” he said. “For five and a half months, I worked like that. We were making steel reinforcements and one worker stumbled and fell inside. The guards never let us stop pouring cement. After 70 years, that man’s screaming is still in my head.”

In Kauffering, he was stricken with typhus and nearly died. He was later put on a “death train” to Dachau concentration camp — named because more prisoners arrived at Dachau dead than alive.

“When we arrived in Dachau, we were hanging onto each other. I was about 75 pounds. A walking skeleton,” he said.

Dachau was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945.

“That was the most glorious day of the my life. We cried and laughed at the same time,” Les said. “I was given a can of corned beef. I remember eating sparingly because I wasn’t sure if I’d get another one.”

The ghetto where Eva was imprisoned was liberated by Russian forces in 1945, Eva said, but no one was sure whether or not they were safe.

“They opened the gates of the ghetto and told us that we were free to go, but nobody wanted to believe that it was really true,” she said. “We thought it was a trick that was being played on us. We were scared to go to the gate.”

‘Accept one another’

Eventually, Eva and her family returned to their home in Budapest, where they found their home had been ransacked and all their belongings stolen.

“My mother, she told us, ‘Children, we lost so much. We lost our family, our belongings. But the three of us have each other. Promise me that you will make the best of what you have for the rest of your life. Life is for the living.’ And we’ve tried to do that,” she said.

The couple met in 1956 and were married 59 days later. They immigrated to the United States to escape Communism later that year.

Since moving to Portland, the couple raised two children and have become involved in the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education. The couple were key players in getting the Oregon Holocaust Memorial erected in 2004, and even traveled back to the concentration camps to collect ashes, which were later buried with the memorial.

“That makes it more sacred,” Les said.

Eva said that speaking about what happened will help stop abuse from happening again.

“We do it for the memory of the people who were murdered,” she said. “We are talking for everyone who lost their life and went through this atrocity because of their differences. We are talking because we want to spread the lesson that we should accept one another. We are all human beings. We might pray differently, we might have different color in our skin, but we are all God’s children.”

Eva and Les’ talk was filmed by public access network Tualatin Valley Community Television. It’s scheduled to be broadcast later this month.


By Geoff Pursinger
Reporter
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