Story by Bernard Little on 09/19/2019By Bernard S. Little
WRNMMC Command Communications
Agi Geva proudly showed off the tattoo on her left forearm to members of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center community recently in the Clark Memorial Auditorium.
It wasn't that the octogenarian is proud to be among the younger generation of those who get tattoos for fashion or as a means of self-expression; Geva's tattoo was not by choice. The Hungarian native received her tattoo nearly 75 years ago when she was 14 and became a prisoner at the Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust. She explained her tattoo is not a symbol of shame, but one of perseverance and survival.
Although Geva's tattoo has somewhat faded with time, her memories of when the Nazis branded her and committed other atrocities to Jewish people, are as fresh as if they happened yesterday.
Geva shared her experience as the guest speaker during the Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust (DRVH) observance at WRNMMC. DRVH is an annual eight-day period designated by the U.S. Congress for remembrance and to draw lessons from the Holocaust. The period normally begins on the Sunday before the observance of Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, and continues through the following Sunday, usually in April or May.
The genocide now known as the Holocaust occurred between 1933 and 1945 when the National Socialist German Workers' Party, commonly known as the Nazis, and their collaborators carried out the systematic persecution and murder of more than six million European Jews. The Nazi regime also persecuted and killed millions of others whom they considered politically hostile, racially inferior, or socially unfit, according to officials at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
At Walter Reed Bethesda, Sailors in the Sailor 360 program, along with members of the Multicultural Committee, hosted the DRVH observance.
In prayer opening the observance, Army Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Jeffrey Burbank quoted Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke, who stated, "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."
"May we be a people who not stand idly by when evil again comes against humanity. Help us to learn from the pain of yesterday to resolve ourselves to build a better tomorrow," added Burbank, assistant department chief of the Department of Pastoral Care at WRNMMC.
Born on June 2, 1930 in Budapest, Hungary, Geva described the first six years of her life as "a quite nice childhood and normal" while growing up on a farm with her younger sister Zsuzsanna. Their father, Zoltan, was the farm's director until her suffered a heart attack and lost his position around 1936. The family then moved to Miskolc, Hungary, where Geva's mother, Rozsa, ran a motel to support the family.
"All hell broke loose in 1944," Geva said. On March 19, 1944, the day the Germans occupied Hungary, her father died. "That day was really traumatic," she recalled.
Geva added that because of the Nazi occupation of Miskolc, no Jewish people were able to leave the city. "When we came back [home] from my father's funeral, there was already a German soldier with a gun. It was really scary, and they didn't lose time in changing our lives completely within the next few days. We had to wear a yellow star on our jackets or blouses."
The Nazis sent Geva and her family to work in the fields and then to the Miskolc ghetto, where they had to share a small apartment with five or six other families. "It was crowded, it was uncomfortable, and there was not enough food or water," she remembered.
In the summer of 1944, Geva, along with her sister and mother, were sent to Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp in German-occupied Poland. There, the men were separated from the women and children, and families torn apart, she explained. Despite the selections (those chosen for labor and the others for the gas chamber), Geva's mother managed to stay with her daughters through her wits and ingenuity, she continued.
Upon arriving at Auschwitz, all of the clothing and other items of the prisoners were taken by the Nazis. The prisoners were stripped naked. "Our heads were shaved bald and we were disinfected. It was so humiliating that you could not believe it," Geva said. She added that women were issued only one dress and a pair of shoes, but no underwear. She said the food at the camp was terrible, but her mother told them that they had to eat to keep up their strength to be able to work or they would be sent to the gas chamber.
After several weeks at Auschwitz, Geva, her mother and sister were selected for slave labor and transferred to the Plaszow concentration camp. "We had a very, very hard time there," Geva said. "Our daily work was to pick up rocks and take them up a hill, and the next day, to bring them back down. It was humiliating, degrading and very hard work."
With Plaszow closing from late 1944 to early 1945, Geva and her family were sent back to Auschwitz. Despite harsher selections, the family was again able to remain together.
The family was then transported to a small labor camp in Rochlitz, Germany, where they worked in a factory making airplane parts, before being sent to a factory in Calw, near Stuttgart, Germany.
In February of 1945 nearing the collapse of the Third Reich, Geva and the others were sent out of the factory on a forced "death" march. "It was impossible to imagine during the winter in Germany. We only had the one piece of clothing and one pair of shoes, which weren't really shoes anymore," she explained. "I can't tell you how hungry and weak we were," she continued. "We were desperate."
"We had to walk 400 kilometers," Geva recalled. "We walked mainly at night so the villagers would not see us." Their destination, she was told, was to a railroad station for a train to be taken to be executed. When they got to the station and the train was gone, Geva said their German guards told them to just go back into the forest. Sometime after that, the nearly 200 concentration camp survivors and marchers noticed that there were no longer German soldiers around them. "We couldn't believe it."
Geva added that "the best of the best day" of her life was April 28, 1945 when U.S. troops liberated them from their march. Her family eventually went to Innsbruck, Austria where they stayed for eight months before they all returned to Hungary.
In 1949, Geva and her sister immigrated to Israel where they both married. Geva had two children and her sister had three. Their mother remarried in Miskolc and immigrated to Israel with her second husband in 1956. Rozsa died at the age of 98.
After living in Israel for 53 years, Geva came to the United States to live with her daughter. She has volunteered at the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum since 2002.
"I can't forget," said Geva in responding to a Sailor's question at the observance concerning how she now feels about those responsible for the Holocaust. "I have mixed feelings now, but who am I supposed to hate?" She said those responsible are now gone. "It's been nearly four generations ago." But she added that it is important to remember so those atrocities are not repeated.
"My mother said, Stories, anybody can tell, but the proof is our tattoos," said Geva. "She begged us never to remove them," she concluded.