Sometime in late March, Holocaust survivor Ebi Gabor received a phone call from the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, where she lives. "They said, ‘A student from a Catholic school in Virginia wants to talk to you," Gabor recalled. "They said, ‘They want to know if you’re alive.’"
She told the museum to go ahead and give the school her phone number. A few days later, she said, "a young woman named Connie, who I adore, called me."
That was Connie Boneo, art teacher at St. Bernadette School in Springfield. The two have been in frequent contact since then.
One of Boneo’s students had chosen Gabor from a Holocaust registry to be the basis for an art project, explained Gabor’s nephew, Steven Green, who just happens to live nearby in Burke. When Boneo called the Los Angeles museum, people there knew of Gabor because she speaks frequently at schools and churches in the area and has authored a book, "Blood Tattoo," which is sold on Amazon.com and is now in its third printing, he explained.
Asked why she had decided to travel across the country to speak at St. Bernadette this past Tuesday, Gabor said, "Well, I was invited by Connie." She added that when she speaks to students, "it gives me a tremendous thrill to know that they care and they are interested. I see that they understand, and it gives me strength and courage." She said she distributes her e-mail address to students, in case they have any more questions after she has left. Education, she said, is "the only tool" to fight hatred.
"We do art projects to help them study and visualize what they’re learning about in the curriculum," said Boneo. In March, her students were studying the Holocaust in social studies class, so she assigned a project called "Alter Books," in which each student took an old hardback, dedicated it to a Holocaust survivor, and filled it with watercolor, collage and writing.
IT WAS eighth-grader Madeline Thomas who chose "Ebi Gruenblatt," Gabor’s maiden name, from the registry. "I picked her because I wanted to do a girl my age, so I could feel more like I knew her," said Madeline, noting that Gabor had been about 15 when she was taken prisoner. Unlike most names on the list, there was nothing next to Gabor’s to indicate she had died.
Eventually, said Boneo, both Madeline and the school’s principal were pushing her to find out if Ebi Gruenblatt was still alive, so she began making phone calls. Shortly after she called the museum in Los Angeles, she got a call back. "They said, ‘she’s alive. They’ve contacted her, and she wants to speak to you,’" said Boneo. She recalled that when she called Gabor, "she asked me why I was doing this, and I said, ‘Because I truly believe we can change the world.’" There they found their common mission, said Boneo.
She recounted the day she broke the news to Madeline. The class had a project deadline, and Madeline was running late. "I tried to act very upset," said Boneo. Then the student showed her an emotionally wrought letter she had written "from Ebi" to add to her book. On reading it, "I started to cry," said Boneo. "She said, ‘Are you OK?’ and I said ‘Yes, but I don’t know how Ebi is going to be."
One of the Alter Book assignments was to write a letter to the Holocaust victim, but Madeline wanted to write a birthday card, she said, since Gabor had been taken prisoner only a week before her birthday. Gabor was yet unaware that she would be receiving that card, as well as the rest of the book, after she had finished speaking to the students Tuesday afternoon. As her 80th birthday had just passed, the school was throwing her a surprise birthday party.
"My name is Ebi Gabor, and I’m sure you have heard that I am a Holocaust survivor," said Gabor, beginning her talk with the school’s seventh- and eighth-graders that afternoon. "I am also a witness to one of the darkest chapters of recorded history."
GABOR STARTED out lightly, telling the students that in 1930s Hungary, where she lived before World War II, there were no drugs but Aspirin and no fun games but spin-the-bottle.
However, she omitted few grim details of her journey through Auschwitz and to a German ammunition plant. After her family was arrested and their possessions taken, "I never saw my home again," she said. She described the family’s month-long stay in a Hungarian ghetto, crammed into small rooms with other families and little to eat or drink — "They didn’t pick up those dead bodies for weeks. The odor was indescribable." As they were led away from the ghetto, a crowd of spectators stood by, Gabor told the students. "There were people we knew there, people whose houses we’d played with the kids and eaten at," she said. "They just stared with vacant eyes."
In the boxcar in which she and 80 others were taken to Auschwitz, over the course of five days without food or water, she said, the single bucket provided as a toilet was filled and overturned. When the first death occurred, the corpse became an alternative to the hard floor. "Can you imagine? Everybody was fighting to sit on that dead body." She watched a teenage boy drink his own urine. When the train arrived at the camp, she said, the passengers were elated to escape its narrow confines. It was the last time she saw her father, her aunts and her grandparents. This was only the beginning.
The school-wide assembly that followed was to be a bit less detail-oriented.
GABOR HAS ONLY been speaking of this subject for the last 18 years.
On the inside of her left forearm, a serial number is tattooed. When her children asked her about it, she said, "I told them my parents were afraid I would get lost, so they put our phone number on my arm."
Although she said she thinks they harbored suspicions, it was not until they heard her give a talk at a church, similar to the one she gave at the school on Tuesday, that her children knew her true history, said Gabor.
Green said his father — Gabor’s brother — had told his children about his experience "since we were this high," gesturing not very high. Different families, he said, assimilated this sort of history differently.