Without Frank Shatz, there would be no Reves Center for International Studies at William & Mary. A close friend of the late Emery Reves, Shatz was instrumental in persuading Reves’ widow, Wendy, to choose W&M for an endowment in her husband’s honor. Shatz has been a member of the Reves Center Advisory Board since its inception in 1995. In 1998 he received the Prentis Award, which recognizes individuals in the Williamsburg community for their strong civic involvement and support of William & Mary. During World War II, Shatz was forced into a Nazi slave labor camp. He escaped and joined the anti-Nazi underground in Hungary. After the war, Shatz embarked on a journalism career, spending time as a Prague-based foreign correspondent. He met his wife there and in 1954, they fled Communist Czechoslovakia. They traveled around Europe and the Middle East before arriving in the United States in 1958. Shatz continues to be active as a journalist, writing columns twice a week for the Virginia Gazette and the Lake Placid News. Shatz was made an Honorary Alumnus of William & Mary in 2015 and continues to be a source of inspiration for the staff and mission of the Reves Center.
by Tamara Dietrich
Erika Fabian spent much of her childhood in hiding, in prison or on the run.
Born into a world war, she was 4 years old when her father was deported to a slave labor camp. Fabian — a Jew in Nazi-allied Hungary — would never see him again.
At 12, the war over, she was living under the iron fist of Soviet communism. Until one winter’s day in 1953 when her mother told her and her 15-year-old sister, Judith, that it was time to escape.
“The idea was to cross between Bratislava (in Czechoslovakia) and Austria,” Fabian recalled in a recent interview. “There was a border that wasn’t mined. And, theoretically, it was easier. But it turned out that it had wires across the border, so when you cut the wires, it rang a bell in the border house.
“So, within 10 minutes of us crossing into no man’s field — and this was in the middle of December, with snow up to our knees — the (Czech) border guards showed up with German shepherds and flares and guns.
“There were, like, 20 of us. They shot some of the people. We were lucky — we were lying down on the ground because my mother said, ‘Don’t move, you will get shot.’ So we were just simply picked up and taken to prison.”
Her mother and sister were taken to the Central Prison in Bratislava. Fabian was taken to a children’s prison, where she met other girls and boys who had been captured in earlier escape attempts with their families. Soon, a 2-year-old boy joined them — he was among the 20 or so who had tried to cross the border with Fabian’s family .He’d taken a bullet to the shoulder and was recovering from surgery to remove it. His parents had been shot to death.
After many months, Fabian’s mother, desperate, made a last-ditch plea in a postcard to a relative. With no street address for him, she simply sent it to “Ferenc Shatz, Journalist, Prague.” “We need your help,” it read. “Will you help us?”
The postcard made its way to the office of the National Organization of Journalists. There, someone called Shatz, who recognized his cousin’s name.
“So I took the night train right away and appeared in the morning at the gates of the prison,” said Shatz, today a longtime columnist with the Virginia Gazette, now known by “Frank.” “I asked to talk to Erika’s mother. It was permitted.”
Through contacts with the Czech Ministry of the Interior, he was able to get custody of Fabian and her sister and arrange for them to stay with an older woman in Prague, where they attended school. The best he could do for their mother was to arrange more food rations while she languished in prison. Shatz also secured a report explaining that the girls and their mother were Holocaust survivors whose goal wasn’t to try to escape to the evil West, but to reunite with a relative then living in Israel.
So, after a few months, the Hungarian government extradited the family back to Budapest. During that process, the sisters were both briefly sent back to Bratislava prison to stay with their mother. But by then, as luck would have it, said Fabian, the ruthless Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had died, and the communist government was easing up on punishments. And so, rather than spend the next 10 years in prison, her mother was released after having spent a year behind bars. “My sister was (already) in prison for eight months, so she served her sentence,” Fabian said. “And I was too young, so I was released.”
It wasn’t until the Hungarian uprising of 1956 that the family was finally able to leave — not to Israel, which was then at war, but to the United States. And over the years —65 of them since Shatz stood at the gates of Bratislava prison — Fabian, her sister and mother lost touch with him. Then, a couple of months ago, Shatz received a curious email out of the blue. “If you are the Frank Shatz who had a niece —me — and helped me in Prague when I was 13,” it read, “then please answer me.” So last week, Fabian, now 78, flew into Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport from her home in California. Shatz, now 92, was waiting for her with open arms. “I said to Erika I still see her as a13-year-old girl,” said Shatz.
ADJUSTING TO FREEDOM
The intervening decades have been good to them both.
Each pursued a writing career, with Fabian producing 23 books, numerous magazine and newspaper articles and travel guides. She’s about to start two plays.
She’s an accomplished photographer— her late husband was a photographer with National Geographic. A world traveler, she has lived in far-flung places such as Peru, Indonesia and Mexico and speaks nine or 10 languages.
She has two sons: one a world-renowned eye surgeon living in London and the other a prominent, award-winning filmmaker.
But war and oppression still exacted a heavy price on Fabian’s family.
Both her sister and mother never completely escaped the ghosts of the past. When her sister was 25, she killed herself.
“(She) was far more affected by all the events in our lives,” said Fabian. “Plus, she was my father’s favorite. And when my father didn’t come back from the war, she was devastated. She never got over that.”
Three years after her sister’s suicide, her mother also took her own life. “I don’t think she ever got over the guilt feeling that she couldn’t help my sister adjust,” said Fabian. The reality is, not every immigrant experience is a happy one. Culture shock and disconnect can be high hurdles.
“Being a refugee in America, or an immigrant, a new immigrant, was one of the hardest things I ever experienced,” Fabian said. “When I came to America, I saw a wealth, an immense wealth of the country. And an ease of life.” Americans, she said, “never had to flee from a building that was collapsing over their heads. And so they never had this kind of a danger to cope with. And they were never oppressed to the point where, if you knew that if you said the wrong thing, you or your parents could go to jail.
“I felt that I had lived under a dome, and all of the sudden the dome was taken off over my head and there was all this freedom and sky and I almost didn’t know what to do with it. So it took me a while to adjust to freedom.”
She and Shatz have something else in common: For decades, they pushed away their pasts, refusing to be crippled by it.
In recent years, though, both have taken to giving public talks on surviving the war and political and religious oppression. Fabian is a speaker for the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
She’s also penning a fictionalized account of her life that she calls “Liars’ Paradise,” a take on Soviet communism’s false promise of a “socialists’ paradise.”
It was her daughter-in-law, a German Christian, who first set her on the path to revisit her past.
“She wanted her own children to learn— I have three grandchildren,” said Fabian. “And we started talking about what happened to me when I was 4 years old. And then what happened when I was 12 years old.
“I never look back. … I’m dealing with today and planning tomorrow. Now I’m looking back and it’s getting easier. And the easier it gets, the more aghast I am at what I went through and came out on the other side fairly normal. Sane.”
Both Fabian and Shatz see parallels between their own refugee journeys and what’s happening today at the southern U.S. border as immigrant children and families from Mexico and Central America are being locked up or refused entry or asylum.
In 1956, if she and her family hadn’t been sponsored by an uncle then living in Delaware, she said, she’s not sure where they would have ended up.
“America has not been known for allowing people to come in,” said Fabian. “They didn’t allow Jews in World War II. During the Hungarian revolution, America had a quota on Hungarian immigrants.
“I’d like (Americans) to understand that, when somebody is fleeing from their country, it’s not because they want to get rich in America. It’s because they don’t feel safe in their own country.”
Shatz remains an optimist.
“I’m a believer in the pendulum theory,” he said. “That the pendulum will swing back to the middle. Individually, we can be stupid. But there is a collective wisdom.”
Originally published July 29, 2018 in the Daily Press. Reprinted with permission.