Agi Geva: Surviving Auschwitz, Teaching Tomorrow
Holocaust survivor, Agi Geva, shares her candid story of the horrors of Auschwitz and her hope that through her story and others like her, a similar tragedy can be avoided.
By: Christopher Casey
All images featured have been done through a special collaboration with Dave Dettloff & Holly Garner. Another special thanks to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum for allowing us to use their facilities and resources.
Portrait of Agi Geva by Dave Dettloff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
Agi Geva, 87, is a Hungarian-American survivor of the Holocaust. At age 14, she was taken from her home when German Nazis invaded Hungary and put in the Auschwitz concentration camp. The day she was taken, her father died of an illness he had been fighting. All she had ever known was abruptly taken from her and she had to worry for her life each day. Through it all, she had her mother and sister by her side, which she cites as the reason she was able to survive. The three of them were forced into hard labor and faced indescribable, horrific treatment. They were able to escape Auschwitz in 1945. Geva and her sister then immigrated to Israel where they both married and had children, and their mother lived until age 98.
Today, Geva is committed to teaching young people about the atrocities she faced by volunteering at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. The museum is a distinguished, exceptional resource for survivors, allowing them to connect with one another and share their stories and messages with visitors. From her story, Geva wants people to learn never to overlook any injustice they may come across. She is dedicated to preserving the legacy of survivors like herself as future generations will not have the opportunity to hear their experiences firsthand.
Agi Geva being interviewed by Christopher Casey in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Can you speak about your daily life in Hungary when you were little? What was a typical day for you?
At the age of six, I was living somewhere completely different, so maybe I’ll tell you about after six. In 1944 on the 19th of March, Germans occupied Hungary. This was almost the end of the war, but they still got to us. That was a very bad thing. So a normal day, I would go to the gymnasium, a protestant gymnasium, there were no Jewish schools in Miskolc, the town I grew up in, so a normal day for me was going to school, I was always late, and one day I experienced a very unpleasant episode of a boy looking at me from afar, calling me names and anti-Semitic expressions, and began to throw stones. I ran home to my parents, but they threw stones at my back, it was very very heartbreaking. I had lots of friends, not in school, because in school there were only two Jews. Girls in the classroom, and other girls and boys never invited us to their home or to parties. Otherwise, they were not showing any hostility. I missed my other friends we used to go to movies and meals and swimming and trips together, and I had a very pleasant childhood up until that day.
Describe when the war first began.
It was really the same day when the Germans occupied the country. The next day we get their leaflets, they said we were not allowed to go out to the street and every day there were more restrictions.
Agi Geva and her family on a winter day. Complements of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives.
The day that you were taken away from your home, what was that like? How did it affect your family?
We were taken to the ghetto actually, before the concentration camps. I think everyone who knows what the word ghetto means knows what was going on there. It was an indescribable situation. We were taken one day out to the ghetto, the police office was the worst place, people were happy to be taken out to the outskirts of the city where the trains were supposed to take us to the concentration camps. All these words were completely new to us, yellow star, concentration camp, deportation, ghetto, these are words we had never heard in our lives. We had no time to grieve, my father died on the same day. 19th of March, 1944. He wasn't with us anymore, we didn't worry about him going through all this that we did. My sister was 13, I was 14.
Did you know that he was going to pass away?
He was sick for a very long time. I didn't know it would be on that day, but we knew it was coming. For it to be on the same day was unbelievable.
Were you with your other family members during this ordeal?
Only my mother and sister, and the nurse who had been looking after my father for the last couple of months.
Describe the experience of being taken to the ghetto the first time.
It was a small apartment, two rooms, one little chair, one bed, one bathroom. There were five or six families. I can't describe it. Nowhere to sleep, nowhere to eat, no privacy at all. We couldn't have a small conversation with any of us. We were scared, desperate, very uncomfortable, very hungry, very thirsty, very hopeless. Every single thing you can imagine. We didn't know how long it would last.
After that, how long were you there exactly?
I can't remember exactly, for weeks. In June, we were ordered to Auschwitz.
Agi Geva (left) and her sister (right) building a snowman. Complements of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Photo Archives.
When you were taken to Auschwitz, were you with your family?
I was always with my mother and sister. My mother had a notion that if she were to be separated from us or one of us will be separated, we would not be able to survive. She had this feeling that she had to keep an eye on us. All the time she kept us near her.
Before you were taken away, had your parents prepared you for this?
Not at all, on the contrary. After we saw what happened in Austria, Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Slovakia, they kept on telling us not to worry, they wouldn't come to Hungary. But, my dad had a notion something was going to happen. So he told us, my sister and me, to have something that couldn't be taken away. He meant languages and knowledge. The languages were easy in a way because he brought us German nannies from Germany and they didn't speak Hungarian so we spoke fluent German in a year. Then when we were older, tutors from England. So that's how we learned English, and in school we learned French, Latin, he was sure of himself that we have to do this.
In order to prepare you.
Yes, that's the only preparation, and it saved my life, in a way.
Agi Geva teaching Christopher Casey about her upbringing in Hungary in the Hall of Remembrance of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Can you describe arriving there and how you were feeling at the time?
We arrived at a station for trains, and we used to travel in trains with windows, with seats, and sandwiches and conversation. Suddenly, black ones arrived, boxcars, to the station, and we thought they were just passing through, and now will come the usual trains. Those boxcars, we were supposed to get on them. There were no windows, only a small opening at the top.
How many people were in the cars?
A lot. I don't even know. There were standing places only, and there were more and more people pushed in. There were all sorts of people, there were not only old, there were young, old, babies, sick, healthy. It was horrid. As the trains started to move and they closed the doors on us, we somehow fell down in the sitting position, because how can you stand when it's moving? Even for cattle there is straw on the floor. For us, nothing. This was for three and a half days. It was indescribable, some kids started to cry and couldn't stop crying. Some were hysterical. They were screaming, they were fainting. When we arrived, after three and some days- we didn't even know because we didn't have daylight. I can't describe it. They split the group into men and women, in a ridiculously quick way. Everyone was crying, trying to say goodbye to husbands or brothers or sons, and they just took them away into a different direction, and we never saw them again. Only some of them, in a way we were glad my dad was not among them. Not to have to go through all of this.
Did you know any of the men?
Yes, but there were no family members.
After this were you taken to live in the camp?
So this group of women were supposed to walk to a certain point, and my mother was so desperate after all that we've been through to get here, that she could have escaped somewhere in Hungary. That she thought she was not going to take anymore chances, that she would walk through the lines at the beginning to find out what was going on. We were scared to go without her, and we were scared for her. She didn't care, she said she had to find out, so she went to the front and saw German officers 3, 4, I don't remember what she said. Selecting people, it was the biggest scare, not only to be seperated but what happens to those who go to the left side, the nazis were sending people left or right, and we didn't know what that meant. On the left side were women who were sick or pregnant or physically disabled, or old. Then they used the words kids under sixteen should be sent to left side. She translated it into workers, and she knew Germans needed workers, so she came back and told us to be eighteen. To say if we were asked that my sister was 18 and I was 19. She showed us how to wrap a scarf around our heads, we might have looked older, and she might have looked younger. The three of us were sent to the right side. It was such a joy, such happiness.
Going through that with your mother and your sister, do you think you would have been able to survive without them?
Never. Definitely not.
Agi Geva showing her identification tattoo (inmate #18667) that was an assigned serial number to all inmates of the Nazi concentration camps.
When you were in Auschwitz, were you ever feeling that it was possible for you to escape?
No. The fences were electric, you couldn't touch them. We knew it, we were warned. We wore striped clothes, and we were shaved and bald. You could go over the gates, you could escape into Poland, but you didn't know the language, you didn't look like anyone else. You were a prisoner, there was no possibility to escape.
After you finally did leave Auschwitz, were you later taken back?
I was taken away, and taken back, not on my own. The whole group was selected three or four times a day. We were selected, all of us together, to go out of Auschwitz. We didn't know where, or when, but my mother was very careful, and she took my glasses and put them into her shoe to keep them safe. We were chosen all the three of us together to be sent to the railway station, back to the wagons, and took a trip to Dachau. It was one of the worst camps after Auschwitz. The only good thing is that there were no selections and that was very important. The Russians were nearly there, we heard cannon shots, and we were sent back to the wagons and sent back to Auschwitz. My sister could not stop crying, she was worrying about where we were going to end up and where we were going to be taken. My mother told us we were in the two worst camps, and the only thing that we would be is going to a better one. Nothing is worse than Auschwitz and Dachau. After we got back, they opened the doors, and we were back at Auschwitz. We got so scared like never before, because we knew what was going to happen. The left side. My mother knew, my sister and I did not know. She asked everyone around us not to let us know. But here is where my language knowledge saved us. The one who was selecting, Mengele, worked very quickly and my mother knew what left meant so she took a big chance and told us to follow her wherever she will be sent. She took this big chance to be sent to the left side because she knew we would not survive. She was sent to the right side, so was my sister. When I came in front of Mengele, he sent me to the left. My mother told me to follow her no matter what. She said never to say mother or sister, because they tore families apart. So I didn't say I wanted to be with my family, I said I wanted to be on the right side because I wanted to be in the working camp, and he realized I knew German. He asked how I knew German if I was Hungarian, and I don't know what the answer was, but he said I could go to the right side. My mother fainted, she didn't even see that I was going to the right side, she thought she would never see me again.
So your father was right about learning other languages being useful.
Yes. My mother was three times more worried when there were selections, because we now knew what the left side meant. Now she knew that the left side was. They were the gas chambers. One day we were selected all together again, I don't know how she did it. We were sent to the station again, knowing what we were in for, but it was ten times worse because it was winter, and we had no suitable clothes. It took 3 and a half hours. We worked in Germany on aero factory parts.
When you did leave, was that with your family?
Portrait of Agi Geva by Dave Dettloff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
How long after the whole experience did it take to process what had happened?
I'm still processing. Believe me, I'm still processing. Many people chose not to talk about it. My mother and sister never ever wanted to talk about it. I wanted to know so many facts I didn't have. I wanted to know how my mother felt when she went through that, but when I asked the answer was almost always the same. "You were saved, you survived, move on." When she finally agreed to speak of it, it was too late. She died.
Has it become easier over time talking about your experiences?
No. There was the death march before we were liberated. We were just sent out of the factory in winter, we had no suitable clothes, I had foot wraps, and there were those who did not. It just got worse and worse. The ghetto was the worst, then Auschwitz became the worst, then Dachau, then Auschwitz again, and finally we got to the real worst, the death march. The whole night, day and night, it was cold and windy and raining. We were supposed to sleep in barns, and we were so desperate and scared. It wasn't like the factory, we had three meals somehow, but we never knew where the next meal would come from, or if it would come at all. Then we got liberated by the Americans.
Have you gained connections with others by being at the Holocaust Center?
The Holocaust Center is the best thing to happen for survivors. Many other people of course are served by the information, the way the survivors are honored, respected, and treated I can't even describe it, the way they are looked after.
In teaching the younger generation about your story, what has it been like talking to them and hearing their reactions?
Some of them are very surprised, because usually whoever comes to listen to survivors in this building they come with questions. In other schools, they are asking for a survivor to come and talk to the pupils, and I sent out very often to do that. I always make a point to ask them to write down questions, and they are always interesting questions. I try to answer them all, but there are questions I keep in a special place, and some I cannot answer on the spot, and then I'll ask for email so I can respond. I always think that the generation in the audience will be the last to see a live survivor. That's why I am so happy to answer questions. That's my goal, to keep the information going.
Agi Geva (Center) walking down a corridor with Museum communications officer Raymund Flandez (left).