Arrow Cross soldiers banged on the front door. Eva Brettler, then Eva Katz, hid behind her grandmother as the soldiers, members of Hungary’s fascist party, ordered Eva’s grandmother and aunt to quickly pack and prepare to leave. “Chavelah, you have to listen and you have to hide,” Eva’s grandmother told her, adding that she was to make her way at nightfall to the rabbi’s house, where his caretaker still lived. “I don’t want to stay alone,” Eva protested, crying. But she dutifully found a hiding spot amid the tall corn stalks where she watched the soldiers lead away her grandmother and aunt, along with other Jews of Tasnad, Hungary. Eva was 7; it was 1944.
Eva was born Nov. 29, 1936, in Cluj, Romania, the only child of Alexander and Margit Katz. Her father worked for a printing company and her mother was a hat maker. They were very religious and lived comfortably.
In 1940, however, Hungary reannexed Northern Transylvania, and Cluj, Romania, became Kolozsvár, Hungary. Persecution of Jews increased, and in 1941 Eva’s father lost his job. The family moved to Budapest, where they lived in one room of a three-room apartment managed by a Mrs. Grosz.
Eva was later sent to stay with her grandmother and aunt in Tasnad, Hungary (now Romania), in a beautiful country home with vegetable gardens and fruit trees.
A few days after the roundup of Tasnad’s Jews, in April 1944, Eva’s father, who had been granted a furlough from his work camp, fetched her from the rabbi’s house. As they walked separately to the railroad station, two Hungarian policemen arrested him. She returned to the rabbi’s house, where her father, who had been beaten, came for her the next day. This time they safely reached the station.
When they arrived in Budapest, Eva ran all the way to the apartment. “I wanted the comfort of my mother,” she said. Her father returned to the labor camp.
As Budapest’s Jews were being relocated to designated apartment buildings, Eva’s mother obtained false papers for them. When the Swedish safe house they lived in was being evacuated, Eva’s mother hid her in a straw basket atop an armoire. A few hours later, her mother, who had ducked into an elevator shaft, retrieved her. As they quietly left the building, a Hungarian policeman standing nearby said, “Move very quickly. I don’t see you.”
They went to the apartment of an acquaintance’s brother. The next day, Eva’s mother enrolled her in school under her false name, Eva Nagy. But as they returned to the apartment, two men stepped from behind a kiosk and arrested them.
They were eventually taken to a brick factory on the outskirts of Budapest. They had only lightweight summer clothes, and Eva’s mother was wearing heels. They had little food.
A short time later Eva and her mother were lined up and sent on a march with other prisoners. Most days Eva rode in a wagon with other children, meeting her mother at each night’s stopping place. One morning, Eva’s mother, whose feet ached from walking in heels, begged to ride in the wagon. Instead, she was taken away. A short time later Eva heard gunshots.
That evening, Eva waited and waited for her mother. Another woman comforted her, holding onto her all night long as Eva saw lights from falling bombs flash in the sky. “I tried not to cry too much. I was afraid the woman would get rid of me,” Eva recalled.
Soon Eva and the woman, along with other marchers, were loaded into cattle cars and taken to Ravensbruck, a women’s camp in northern Germany. Eva was separated from the woman.
The prisoners were ordered into a room and told to undress. Eva, who was raised Orthodox, covered herself with her hands. An SS woman then struck her with a whip, forcing her to drop her hands. Her hair was shaved and she was given a uniform.
As Eva exited the room looking bewildered, another woman befriended her. The woman, whom Eva believes she called Tante, “aunt,” shared a top bunk with her. She also prayed with her, told her stories and kept her arms wrapped around her. During the day, Eva stood in line for roll call for hours at time, frozen and petrified.
One night, Eva heard a baby cry and learned a woman had miraculously given birth in the barracks. A few nights later, Tante died.
In March 1945, with the Soviet army approaching, Eva and other prisoners were shipped to Bergen-Belsen. “All you could see was a tremendous amount of corpses,” Eva said. She was assigned a barracks, but, with no available beds, she slept on a concrete floor. During the day, prisoners were marched around aimlessly in the extreme cold.
Behind the kitchen was a fenced-off area where potato peels were stored for the pigs. Some women enlisted Eva to crawl under the fence to steal food for them. As Eva exited with her hands full of peels, the women immediately grabbed them from her. On subsequent forays, she ate her peels before crawling back out.
One day, with the bright sunlight obscuring her vision, Eva heard a motor stop nearby, frightening her. Then a British soldier suddenly picked her up and gave her a chocolate bar. It was April 15, 1945, and the camp had been liberated.
Eva was sick with typhus. On her way to the hospital she saw her former landlady, Mrs. Grosz, who offered to take her to Budapest. Eva said she was certain her parents were dead and was going to Sweden. She arrived there in July 1945 and lived in an orphanage.
More than two years later, Eva’s father, who returned to Budapest, discovered through Mrs. Grosz that Eva had survived. In January 1947, Eva was reunited with her father, who had remarried and had a baby son.
Eva attended an Orthodox school and then public school. After eighth grade, she began working in a factory and later studied chemistry at night school.
In October 1956, sensing growing anti-Semitism with the Hungarian Revolution, Eva decided to leave. She escaped across the border at Bosarkany and made her way to Vienna, where she sent for her father and stepmother and her brother.
Eva quickly received a visa and arrived in the United States in January 1957, settling in California. Her parents and brother followed three months later.
During Shavuot, Eva was introduced to another survivor, Marten Brettler, and they married on Aug. 11, 1957. They have four children — Rodney, born in 1958; Jeffrey, 1961; Linda, 1963; and Sandra, 1966 — and nine grandchildren.
Eva returned to school, obtaining a degree in psychology from UCLA. She was a social worker for Jewish Family Service from 1983 to 1996.
Marten died on Dec. 24, 1987. “He was so proud of me. He helped me grow up in ways I didn’t have when I was younger,” Eva said.
Eva speaks regularly at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, at the Museum of Tolerance and in various schools.
“I couldn’t have survived without the kindness of total strangers. I try to practice that in my life,” Eva said.