November 14, 2018

Survivor Eva Trenk: In camps and in hiding throughout Slovakia

It was Chanukah 1941 and 4-year-old Eva Trenk (née Juskovicova) sat at the dining room table with her parents and older brother, Artur, in their home in Backov, Slovakia. “It was a special dinner,” Eva recalled. They had lit the candles, and Eva’s mother, Berta, had led the singing of Chanukah songs in her beautiful voice. Eva’s new doll, with its red-and-white polka dot skirt and blond hair, just like hers, joined them at the table.

Suddenly, loud pounding on the front door interrupted their celebration. Eva’s father, Ernest, went to investigate, reappearing some minutes later looking troubled. After conferring with Berta, the family silently finished dinner. “We noticed the worries in our parents,” Eva said. Soon after, Ernest told Eva and Artur that some bad people were making problems in this world. “You just have to be good children,” he said. They promised.

Eva grew up in Backov, a village in eastern Czechoslovakia that was ceded to Hungary in November 1938. Four months later, it became part of an independent Slovakia that declared allegiance to Nazi Germany.

Financially well-off and traditionally observant, Eva’s family lived in a comfortable two-story house with a large yard. Berta worked in her parents’ textile business, and Ernest sold farm equipment, sometimes bringing home ponies from his farmer clients for Eva to ride.

“We had devoted parents. Our childhood was very happy,” Eva said, adding that her parents had shielded her from Slovakia’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the country’s increasing anti-Semitism.

But the December 1941 Chanukah visitors, who turned out to be two Hlinka guards — Slovak fascists — put an end to Eva’s idyllic childhood. They told Ernest that the family businesses would be confiscated a few days later, though Ernest and Berta would continue as employees.

By late 1942, the Jews of Backov — including Eva, her parents, brother and maternal grandmother, Antonia Wirstafterova — were ordered to pack one suitcase apiece and report to a large hall next to the synagogue. The Jews — “hundreds,” according to Eva — were bused to Kosice, where they were transferred to austere train cars. After riding an entire day, they arrived at Zilina, a transit and labor camp in northwestern Slovakia, 170 miles from Backov.

There, the Hlinka guards immediately separated the men, women and children. “I will come to see you,” Berta told a saddened Eva, who grabbed her suitcase and followed Artur as far as the boys building.

Next door was the girls building, where Eva shared a room with 14 others. “We became pretty friendly,” she said. Everyone was assigned jobs, with Eva mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms. They were fed twice a day, mostly potatoes and soup, and Eva was often hungry. Sometimes — “for no reason,” she said — guards woke them at night, forcing them outside to run for 30 minutes or more.

Eva occasionally saw Berta, who visited whenever she could. She sometimes spotted her father, who waved when he saw her as he worked with concrete, constructing new barracks. Sometimes, he was even able to hug her.

In the summer of 1943, Antonia learned that Ernest had been deported to Auschwitz. Deciding that the remaining family should escape from Zilina, she bribed a Hlinka officer to assist them, using gold jewelry she had smuggled in.

The night of the escape — Berta told Eva the plans only a few hours earlier — Eva put on three or four dresses, slipped out of her bunk and, though frightened, walked the half block to a designated bungalow, where another man, a friend of the Hlinka officer, awaited the family.

The accomplice took them by truck to Zemianska Kerta, a village about 100 miles south, dropping them at the house of a Christian family. The next day, he took them to meet a man who created false identification papers for them, turning Eva Juskovicova into Margaret Sabor.

A few days later, feeling unsafe, they boarded a bus for Nemecka Lupca, about 125 miles northeast of Zemianska Kerta. There, posing as a widow from eastern Slovakia, worried about her two small children, Berta found an older Christian couple, Olga and Yanni Savkova, who took them in. “Don’t talk. Just be nice and say thank you,” Berta warned her children.

Berta did chores around the farm while Antonia helped in the kitchen and Eva and Artur dug potatoes. They all lived together amicably in the farmhouse and even attended mass at the Greek Orthodox church on Sundays. “The couple treated us nice,” Eva said.

Almost a year later, sometime in the summer of 1944, Nazi soldiers appeared, accusing Berta of being a partisan and a traitor and imprisoning her. “One of the neighbors must have reported us,” Eva said. Over the next two weeks, Berta was held in custody and abused — Eva doesn’t know the details — before Berta convinced the Nazis that she was a simple Christian woman, and they released her.

“We have to leave,” Berta said when she returned. The next day, against the wishes of the Savkovas, they boarded a bus, ending up in the mountains in central Slovakia, where they hid, along with partisans and other Jews, sleeping on piles of leaves in makeshift campsites. The partisans, who knew they were Jewish, shared their food.

Then, in September or October, amid an increasing sense of uneasiness, partisans urged Eva’s family to leave, telling them, “It’s very dangerous.” The following morning, the partisans disappeared, leaving Eva and her family, as well as the 60 or 70 others, surrounded by Hlinka soldiers. “March,” they commanded as they led the mostly Jewish group down the mountain and loaded them into trucks. “I was scared to death,” Eva said.

The drive was long and cold, Eva recalled, but they finally arrived at Sered, then a concentration camp in western Slovakia, where Eva’s family shared a barracks with several families.

The children attended two hours of class each morning before going to work, which lasted until dark. For Eva, that entailed caring for the camp’s Angora rabbits. The conditions were less harsh than those at Zilina. Still, many prisoners were killed or deported to other concentration camps.

One day around March, Eva (“I will never forget this,” she said) saw the sky fill with airplanes. “Look at those silver birds,” she said to Artur. Frightened, and unaware that the planes were American, they hid. “We were praying that the war should end,” Eva said.

On April 1, 1945, Eva and her family awoke to fierce shooting and screaming. They remained in their barracks for several days as the fighting continued. Finally, it was safe to leave. They had been liberated by the Russian army. Eva was 8 years old.

The family soon left Sered for Bratislava, where Berta met an Auschwitz survivor who said, “I saw your husband almost toward the end of the war.” But Ernest was never found, and Eva believes he was murdered. They returned to Backov, only to find their house and all but two or three others had been burned to the ground. “I don’t have a picture of my father,” Eva said.

The family settled in Secovce, a town just south of Backov, where, Eva said, “We started from the beginning.” She attended second grade with all Christian classmates; the Jews of her generation were gone.

After elementary and high school, Eva studied economics in Humenne, a town about 25 miles north. She returned to Secovce and in 1956 secured a job at a savings and loan. Eva later met Tibor Trenk, and they married on Dec. 29, 1963. Their son, Peter, was born two years later.

In August 1968, when Russia invaded Czechoslovakia, Eva and Tibor decided to leave, taking only two suitcases and their son. They traveled to Vienna, then Rome, before arriving in Los Angeles on Sept. 28, 1969. Tibor worked as an electrician and Eva attended night school at Fairfax High to learn English.

In 1970, she began work as a bookkeeper, later moving into real estate sales, then accounting. She retired in 2010.

Eva and Tibor divorced in 1982. Berta, who divided her time between Los Angeles and Israel, where Artur had settled, died in November 1989. In January 1998, Eva experienced “a big tragedy” when Peter died at age 33.

This year marks Eva’s fourth time participating in the Bearing Witness program with UCLA students. For the last two years, she has taken part in the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust’s L’Dough V’Dough program, making challah and sharing her story. She also speaks to school groups.

Eva tells her story so that students understand the reality of the Holocaust.

“This tragedy really happened,” she tells them. “I lost 80 percent of my family [15 aunts, uncles and first cousins]. I’m living proof that these things happened.”