Englewood survivor knew Hannah Senesh, hero and martyr

Englewood survivor knew Hannah Senesh, hero and martyr

Recollections included in Museum of Jewish Heritage exhibit

Above, Susan Beer displays her parents’ etrog box. Friends saved it and other treasured objects for the family during the Holocaust. staff photo Right, Hannah Senesh, Nahalal, Palestine, 1940. Senesh sent a black-and-white version of this photograph to her mother in Budapest in September, 1940. The inscription on the reverse reads: “I and the cow send many kisses, Mom. I don’t think you are interested in the latter.” Collection of the Senesh Family

Special to The Jewish Standard

Susan Beer was 19 when she met the Jewish Hungarian resistance fighter and poet Hannah Senesh in a Budapest prison in 1944. Beer, now 86 and living in Englewood, had been imprisoned there after being caught with her parents, Max and Rose Eisdorfer, trying to flee from the Nazis in Hungary.

Susan Beer was 19 when she met the Jewish Hungarian resistance fighter and poet Hannah Senesh in a Budapest prison in 1944. Beer, now 86 and living in Englewood, had been imprisoned there after being caught with her parents, Max and Rose Eisdorfer, trying to flee from the Nazis in Hungary.

Only 22, Senesh had been imprisoned by the Gestapo after being captured after parachuting into Yugoslavia in an attempt to cross the border into Hungary as part of a secret British military mission to help rescue downed British airmen and save European Jews.

“She was a person you could never forget,” Beer said. “Her memory has stayed with me always – how courageous she was,” she said. Beer’s blue eyes occasionally misted with tears as she recounted her fateful encounter with Senesh and her own saga during the Holocaust in an interview with The Jewish Standard.

Beer’s recollections of Senesh are included in documentary filmmaker Roberta Grossman’s 2009 PBS film, “Blessed Is The Match: The Life And Death of Hannah Senesh,” and in a special exhibition about Senesh on view at The Museum of Jewish Heritage ““ A Living Memorial To The Holocaust, “Fire In My Heart: The Story of Hannah Senesh.”

After their capture, Beer and her mother were among a group of women taken to a large cell within the prison. Beer recalled the amazement she felt – dazed, her nose blooded – upon seeing Senesh the next morning. “As they opened the cell door, I saw in the cell across from me a young woman behind bars who was dressed in military fatigues doing vigorous exercises,” she said. “I was beaten the night before, defeated, and to see a woman in the cell alone having the strength to exercise in such a place…. She came to the window and smiled.”

A few days later Beer met Senesh in the prison courtyard, where the female prisoners were allowed half-hour walks. “Walking together she introduced herself and I saw that her front teeth had been knocked out,” Beer recalled, adding that Senesh would not divulge what had happened to her. “I think she didn’t want to scare us,” Beer surmised. Senesh told Beer about the mission, and of how before being taken by the Gestapo for interrogation she would smear coal under her eyes to try to elicit sympathy from the guards.

Believing she would be killed, Senesh was resigned to her fate, Beer recalled, yet she tried to boost the morale of the other prisoners, speaking to them about life in Palestine and giving them Hebrew lessons. “She was as gentle as can be – a tough person, but so gentle,” Beer said. “She never told me how they treated her. A strong person – she knew what she wanted out of life.”

Beer said that while the prisoners were being transferred to Auschwitz by train, the guards told them that if they surrendered their watches and gold jewelry, they would receive better treatment. Thinking of what Senesh would have done, Beer said, she flushed her mother’s gold ring and watch down the toilet.

Above, Senesh and friend, Palestine, 1940-1941. Collection of the Senesh family

Beer, born Zuzana Eisdorfer in Budapest, was raised in Topolcany, Czechoslovakia. She had a comfortable childhood before the war. Her father, a prominent physician, employed German and French governesses for her. But the family’s lives changed after the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939. The Germans did not physically enter Topolcany, Beer says, but the Slovak government adopted its own version of the German Nuremberg Laws, prohibiting Jews from owning property, businesses, or participating in social and political life.

At the gymnasium (high school) one day, Beer was shocked to see her professor standing in front of the classroom dressed in the black uniform of the Slovakian SS and ranting against the Jews. Soon after, laws forbidding Jewish students to attend school were enacted and the Jewish students were expelled. But that did not stop them from learning, Beer recalled. “We used to gather in someone’s home and whoever was good in a certain subject would be the teacher that day.”

Forbidden to practice medicine or write prescriptions, his medical equipment confiscated, Beer’s father continued practicing medicine in secret for his Jewish patients. She became his messenger, memorizing prescriptions before making clandestine trips to the pharmacy for him. One night a Christian woman rang the doorbell, imploring Beer’s father to see her mother, who had a heart condition. Their devoted cook, fearful of the consequences if Beer’s father was caught, turned her away. The woman’s mother died, and her daughter then accused the cook of killing her. “This sent her into a total depression and a couple of months later she died,” Beers said. “She was like a second mother to me.”

Warned that Jewish girls were to be deported, her father accompanied her to Budapest, then returned to Topolcany. Once there, however, he saw an announcement on the town’s synagogue door instructing the Jews to meet at the train station and understood that all the Jews were to be deported. He and his wife fled, meeting up with Beer two days later in Budapest.

After the Nazis invaded Hungary in April 1944, Beer got a job as a maid for a German officer, donning a peasant’s babushka and thick stockings as a disguise. One day while ironing, she heard familiar classical music on the radio. “I started humming the melody ahead of the radio,” she recalled. “How could a maid know this music, [the employer] wondered? He suspected I was a spy for the Hungarian military.”

Within a month of meeting Senesh, Beer and her parents were transported from the prison in Budapest to Auschwitz. “Men marched one way, women a different way. We arrived at the main gate with the slogan ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,'” she recalled. “I saw a spectacle there, and thought I must have died and woke up in hell.” She recounts a surreal scene: chimneys belching red smoke – the crematoria, electrified wires, vicious guard dogs, young women with shaved heads, haggard and looking half-dead. When she asked about someone, other inmates pointed to the chimneys: “Everyone ends up there,” they told her.

In Auschwitz, the prisoners were made to stand at attention to be counted twice a day – often for hours at a time. If anybody was deemed to be weak or ill, he or she was sent to the crematoria, Beer recalled. On one occasion, Beer said, her mother was near collapse. A guard came by and saw her, but then went to check on another prisoner. Recalling how Senesh had smeared coal under her eye to elicit sympathy from the Gestapo guards, Beer saw either red lipstick or paint – she doesn’t remember which – and quickly smeared it on her mother’s cheeks to make her look well. She believes this probably saved her mother’s life.

She and her mother survived Auschwitz and the Jan. 18, 1945, death march from Auschwitz to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. They were liberated at the Neustadt-Glewe concentration camp on May 2, 1945. After the war, they reunited with Beer’s father – who had been a doctor for the Jewish prisoners in Auschwitz – in Budapest.

Beer met her husband Adam Beer – who was also a survivor – while in medical school in Bratislava. Neither she nor her husband finished medical school, although Adam Beer became a podiatrist. They married and immigrated to the United States in 1948, settling in Cleveland, Ohio, where they raised two children, David and Ruthann. Widowed in 1998, Beer moved to Englewood, where her daughter lives, 12 years ago. Beer has three grandchildren.

In 1966, Beer visited Senesh’s mother Catherine in Israel, who lived there with her son Gyuri. “She loved to talk about Hannah – she didn’t call her that, she called her Anyko,” Beer recalled. Catherine Senesh died in the 1980s, but the families kept in touch and her nephew and his wife visited the Beers in Cleveland.

Beer’s memory of Senesh is still vivid after more than 60 years. “We Jews were never portrayed as courageous, and to see someone like her is inspiring,” she said. “She tried to give hope to everyone – even though she didn’t have any for herself.”

Since the 1960s, Beer has spoken about her experiences during the Holocaust at synagogues, churches, public schools, universities, museums, and community centers. She says, “People should know – especially young people. I do it in memory of the people who died – it is my responsibility.”

For Beer, the memory of what she endured remains deeply ingrained. “I always keep a loaf of bread in the freezer,” she noted, remembering how “when you’re starving all you want is a piece of bread.”

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