Holocaust survivor Eva Olsson shares her life story

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Photo: Shirley Nadeau

Eva Olsson spoke to a capacity crowd at CEGEP Champlain-St. Lawrence about her life as a Holocaust survivor and her struggle against intolerance. She spoke to students at several other English-language schools in the Quebec City area during her visit, which was organized by Quebec High School students.

You could have heard a pin drop in the crowded auditorium of CEGEP Champlain-St. Lawrence on Oct. 24, as Eva Olsson, renowned author, Order of Ontario recipient and one of the few living Holocaust survivors, talked about her life as a young woman in war-torn Europe in the mid-1940s.

The spry 94-year-old woman quietly recounted the beginning of the horror of the Nazi invasion of her homeland.
On March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary. “I came from a high Orthodox environment and originally there were six children, then five. My oldest sister died and she left three little children, who were very close to my heart.

“On May 15, 1944, [all the Jewish people were ordered] to pack our bags. We were told we have two hours and that we have to march to the railway station [where approximately 100 people] were shoved into a boxcar, like sardines in a can, with two pails. One had water in it for drinking and the other one was for to use as a toilet. … People were crying and ... praying. My mother [was] squatting down in a corner hugging her grandchildren. I asked her, ‘Why are you crying, mum?’ She said, ‘I’m not crying for me, I’m crying for all of the children. I have lived.’ She was 49.

“Hell was in those boxcars where people died from lack of oxygen, and young mothers were not able to feed their infants. [Four days later] we arrived at our destination. They told us they’re taking us to Germany to work in a brick factory, but the sign said Auschwitz [concentration and extermination camp built and operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland.] … When the [boxcar doors] opened ... some people had a sigh of relief, ‘Now we are going to have fresh air and … water.’ Except for us, there was no water and the air was nauseating. ... It was worse than the boxcars.

There was smoke coming out of the chimney, high towers, machine guns. I turned to my mum and I said, ‘This doesn’t look like a brick factory.’ No, Auschwitz was not a brick factory, it was a killing factory. What we smelled was human flesh burning.”

Elderly and disabled people and those with children were directed to the left (the “showers” of the gas chambers) but Olsson and her younger sister Fradel were healthy young women at the time and they were directed to the right, to the concentration camp where they would be forced to work unloading bricks. She never saw the rest of her family again.

Later they were sent to the Krupp munitions factory in Essen, Germany, where they worked in appalling conditions, with little or no food and water, cold and poorly clothed. In February 1945 they were transferred to another concentration camp in Bergen-Belsen, where some 50,000 prisoners were being held. “The prisoners were walking skeletons,” said Olsson. Nearly 50, 000 people died in Bergen-Belsen over the course of the war.

Due to the filth, vermin and dirty water, Olsson fell ill with typhoid and barely survived to see the end of the war in 1945. The Allies arrived to liberate the prisoners on the morning of April 15. After recovering their health, she and her sister were asked if they wanted to return to Hungary, but they felt they would never be safe there, so they decided to go to Sweden, which had remained neutral during the war.

Eventually, Olsson met and, after a three-year courtship, married Rude Olsson in 1949. They immigrated to Canada in 1951, and lived in Montreal and later Toronto. They had one child, a son, Jan, born in 1954. Her husband died in 1964.

After keeping her story to herself for over 50 years, Olsson decided to share her experience for the first time in 1996. Since then, she has made it her mission to tell her story wherever people want to hear it, but especially to young people.

Olsson uses her Holocaust experiences as a springboard to discuss the power of hate and the need to stop it wherever it occurs, the importance of not being a bystander when people are being mistreated and the importance of having compassion and respect for oneself and others. Although she says it is painful for her to retell her story, she sees it as a mission, the reason for her survival. She now lives in a small town in Ontario, near her son Jan and her four grandchildren. She has written four books.