As a teenager Les Aigner survived four Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. By the time he reached Dachau, there was little left of him.
“I was a 75-pound walking skeleton,” he said.
Meanwhile, his future wife, Eva, was a small girl suffering in a Jewish ghetto in Nazi-occupied Hungary.
Both recounted their harrowing tales Thursday to a rapt audience of 200 Joseph Lane Middle School eighth-graders at the Vine Street Baptist Church in Roseburg.
The Aigners are Portland residents and members of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center’s speakers bureau. The center once had 40 speakers, but just 12 remain.
Eva Aigner, 75, told students Thursday that firsthand accounts like theirs will soon be gone. She asked them to remember what they heard and pass it on.
“What you heard today was oral history. Please carry our message,” she said.
“Why are we still talking about the Holocaust in 2013? Because the lessons of the Holocaust should never be forgotten. The Holocaust happened because of hate and discrimination. We would like to change those words into love and acceptance,” Eva Aigner said.
Eva Aigner was kicked out of first grade for being Jewish and forced to wear a yellow star whenever she left the house. She remembers her mother sewing on the stars.
“With every single stitch, she had a tear because she knew from that day on we were going to be different, and we were,” she said.
Her father was taken away to a forced labor camp and killed.
She, her sister and her mother were forced into a Budapest ghetto surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Jews there lived in small apartments crammed with 20 to 30 people.
When she was 7 years old, her mother was taken away at gunpoint. She was loaded on a cattle wagon headed for a concentration camp but escaped by jumping off the train. A German soldier saw her.
“She grabbed the boots of this man and begged him to please let her go. He said to my mother, ‘I can’t openly help you because I have a wife and three children ... but I will turn around like I’m checking the train and if you have a chance, run,’” Eva Aigner said.
Her mother returned to find her daughters had been taken away. They were lined up with other children and elderly people along the Danube River. Jews were being shot in groups of 50 at a time and thrown into the river.
She bribed a guard with her only remaining possession — her wedding ring — to let her children go.
They returned to the ghetto, where they were liberated by Russian troops three weeks later.
“It’s a true miracle. Every survivor ... will tell you their survival wasn’t in their hand, that it was a miracle,” Eva Aigner said.
In 1943, Les Aigner, now 83, left Czechoslovakia and joined his family in Budapest, where he apprenticed in a machine shop because Jews were not allowed to go to college. His father was taken to a forced labor camp and his older sister to a factory. Both survived.
His mother and younger sister did not. In 1944, they and Les were taken by cattle car to Auschwitz. The last time he saw them they were separated into two groups. A Nazi guard motioned women, children and old people to join one line and able-bodied men another. Aigner, then 15, saw his mother turn her head and his little sister give a faint wave. They were headed for the gas chambers.
Les Aigner worked in the kitchen at Auschwitz. After his foot was injured by a guard who threw a pitchfork at him, he narrowly escaped death when the doctor, himself a Jewish prisoner, returned him to the barracks the day before everyone in the infirmary was sent to the gas chamber.
“He saved my life, but he couldn’t save everybody,” Les Aigner said.
Near the end of the war, Aigner was taken to Dachau by train. The train going into that camp was overcrowded and many prisoners were killed by stray bullets from aircraft strafing the train. Conditions were so bad it was known as the Death Train.
“More dead bodies arrived in Dachau on those trains than living ones,” he said.
One week later he was rescued by American soldiers. It was the most glorious day of his life, he said.
“We cried and laughed at the same time,” he said.
He returned to Hungary, where he was reunited with his father and older sister. He met his wife-to-be in 1956. The two were married by a justice of the peace because under communism, they still were not allowed to practice their religion.
On Christmas Eve, Les and Eva Aigner escaped to Austria and emigrated from there to the United States.
After the Aigners spoke, students eagerly raised their hands to ask questions, even after teachers said the time for questions was done. They wanted to know if Les Aigner had a tattoo and if he ever met Anne Frank. They asked if the Aigners knew Yiddish and if they had ever made a friend who was a Nazi.
Les Aigner said he was never given a tattoo, but did discover through the Germans’ meticulous records at Auschwitz that he was prisoner number 119705. He said he did not meet Frank, who was housed in a separate building in Auschwitz.
“I never met Anne Frank. I just know she was there when I was there,” he said.
Eva Aigner said she never learned Yiddish because practicing her religion was forbidden. She said while the actions of a few German soldiers helped save her life, those incidents were rare.
She said she does have German friends who lived there during World War II, but they were not Nazis.
“They knew very little about the atrocities because they were children,” she said.
Eighth-grade teacher Karen Howington said she was “surprised and pleased” with the students’ eagerness to ask questions.
“I’ve always been fascinated by World War II history, and I just think this is really important. This is the last generation that’s really going to have the opportunity to hear it firsthand,” she said.
Devon Martin, 14, said he learned new information from the Aigners about the atrocities committed by the Nazis.
“What they did to people was really bad,” Martin said.
Kris Hanegraaf, 13, said he was impressed by the couple.
“It’s cool to learn about it, and it’s really sad, but it’s cool they’re living their lives happy,” Hanegraaf said.
• You can reach reporter Carisa Cegavske at 541-957-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The holocaust happened because of hate and discrimination. We would like to change those words into love and acceptance.
Eva Aigner, Holocaust survivor