On Sunday, April 9, AJC’s Personal Journey’s column featured 95-year old Hungarian Holocaust survivor Eva Friedlander, who had overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles during her extraordinary life. Ironically, her final journey began the next day when she became ill just before the Passover dinner. This time, even her eternal optimism, indomitable spirit and ability to reinvent herself couldn’t change the trajectory. Surrounded by loved ones, Eva passed away peacefully in her sleep on Sunday, at 95.
“Many will remember Eva for her courage in telling her story to thousands of schoolchildren every year and for her dedication to Holocaust education,” said Aaron Berger, executive director of The William Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum.
“But for many of us who knew her on a more personal level, we will remember her warmth, her kindness and her infectious smile that lit up a room. The Breman family will miss her deeply.”
The life of Eva Dekesz, born on May 11, 1921 in Budapest, changed dramatically in 1941 when Hungary began to systematically eradicate Jews. She and her mother, Margit, were forced to assume new identities, flee their home and relocate from Pest to Buda on the other side of the Danube River that divided the city. They narrowly escaped with their lives.
It was the first of many reinventions.
The second came after the war’s end. To survive financially in a city decimated by unrelenting bombings, she opened a secretarial and translation service, becoming one of Hungary’s first female entrepreneurs. Her mother worked at her side translating and locating lost documents. Despite the shop’s sparse appearance, customers flocked through the door.
It was there she met her future husband, chemist George Friedlander, and followed him to Rome where he worked with Ernst Chain, one of the Nobel Prize winners for the discovery of penicillin.
To learn Italian, Eva attended popular films day after day, often sitting through repeated showings to catch nuances.
Her newly acquired command of that language – as well as the English she studied in school – helped her land a job with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. During their three years in Rome she helped thousands of refugees relocate to new homes in South America while simultaneously attending the Academia di Belle Arts di Roma. She had two dreams: to live in the United States and become an antiques dealer.
The first came true when the Friedlanders emigrated to the U.S. in 1950 where they quickly assimilated and had two children, Lewis and Lynne.
“She was incredibly proud of her children and grandchildren,” said Liane Levetan, former CEO of DeKalb County and state senator who serves on the Atlanta Regional Commission. “Lewis became a plastic surgeon, and Lynne a veterinarian. She used to laugh about being the only member of the family who didn’t have a title.”
But Eva didn’t need one. “She was multi-faceted: beautiful, smart, creative, optimistic, full of life, as well as knowledgeable on a variety of subjects,” said longtime friend Levitan. “Her mental energy never waned.”
Eva’s dream to become an antiques dealer came to fruition when she was hired as buyer in the Connoisseur Gallery at Rich’s department store at Lenox. Several years later, she launched her own business by partnering with two women in a showroom at the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (ADAC), where she specialized in fine European art and antique Oriental rugs.
At age 90, Eva once again reinvented herself by writing her memoir, “Nine Lives of a Marriage – A Curious Journey.” She was also a contributor to The Jewish Georgian newspaper.
After the book was published, Eva became a sought-after speaker at The Breman, where schoolchildren of all ages sat in rapt attention as she told her chilling story of survival during the Holocaust.
“I saw the impact of her talks and the way the kids responded to her,” said her son, Dr. Lewis Friedlander. “She received stacks of heart-felt letters thanking her for sharing her incredible experiences. Mom’s mission was to bring the events of the Holocaust to life in the hope that learning about the past would prevent it from happening ever again,” he said.
Her daughter, Lynne, concurs. “Mother was blessed with exceptional beauty inside and out and with charm, intellect and unequalled resilience,” she said. “She was also beset with losses, fear and heartbreak. As the years passed, she could have settled into a comfort zone but instead chose to embrace new friendships and bring joy to all whose life touched hers. As if the first 85 years were not extraordinary enough, Mom became an Atlanta icon in her last decade of life.”
Eva Friedlander is survived by her daughter, Lynne Goldman, her son-in-law, Marc Goldman of Denver; her son, Lewis Friedlander and Judith Frieh of Marietta, and grandchildren Jeremy and Ella Goldman and Eva Marie and Katarina Friedlander.