By Ian Harman ’26
Friday, March 3, the Reves Center at William & Mary hosted Erika Fabian, an 83 year-old Hungarian-born author, actress and singer, to discuss her experience surviving the Holocaust and the communist regime under Joseph Stalin in a talk titled “Surviving Hitler and Stalin: One Woman’s Account.” This event took place as part of the Ampersand International Arts Festival.
“She models in this way much that William & Mary is and aspires to be,” executive director of the Reves Center Dr. Teresa Longo said. “Her CV is beyond impressive. She has worked as an educator at UCLA, the Actors Lab in San Francisco and the University of Mexico in Mexico City. She has been an actress and a mime. She is a speaker at the Holocaust Museum, L.A.”
Fabian has also spent a large portion of her life producing books and articles. As the Reves Center’s first Artist in Residence, Fabian sought to tell attendants about her story of struggle, escape and survival in 20th-century Hungary.
Giorgianna Heiko ’25 attended Fabian’s talk and shared the impact her story had on her.
“Erika Fabian’s detailed account of her traumatic childhood during WWII, during the reign of Nazi terror made the holocaust feel more real to me than ever,” Heiko said in an email to The Flat Hat. “I felt a sense of my own mortality. How lucky I am as a Jew today to not have to experience such atrocity."
Fabian began her story in chronological order, starting with her earliest memories from World War II era Hungary. She recalled first being forced to move apartments at the age of 4 after Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Hungary. Fabian spent much of her childhood having to hide her Jewish-Hungarian identity in order to survive.
“We had to move from the big, beautiful apartment where we lived to another place, a much smaller apartment, which had a big yellow star on it,” Fabian said.
After Fabian’s family was evicted from their apartment, she, her mother and her 7-year-old sister sought refuge in safe houses throughout the city of Budapest. Fabian’s father was recruited into forced labor by the Hungarian regime and detained in a concentration camp, where he was held until his death. Fabian spent much of her youth in hiding, moving between safe houses and hospitals to avoid Nazi persecution.
“Some people, when they grow up, they forget their childhood memories. I have a good recollection of the terrible things that happened to me,” Fabian said.
Fabian told attendants of the time she and her sister, Judith, were rescued by a Jewish man who was disguised as a Nazi officer. Fabian and Judith had been collected alongside other children from the Red Cross Hospital, but with the help of their mother, Piroska, they were able to escape.
“The Nazi officer who came to get us was actually a Jewish doctor dressed as a Nazi officer,” Fabian said.
Fabian also repeatedly emphasized the strength of her mother and sister throughout her story. Specifically, she recounted how she found comfort in her sister’s words when they were forcibly taken from the hospital by Schutzstaffel or Protection Squad Officers. Fabian also reiterated the tremendous lengths her mother went to in order to ensure the safety of her children.
Fabian and her mother and sister spent the remainder of World War II disguised as Christians in Hungary with false papers. She noted that during this time, roughly 80% of her family died while being held in concentration camps.
After World War II ended, Stalin’s regime swiftly began in Hungary. As Fabian grew up, she continued to experience the unspeakable hardships of living under an authoritarian regime. Religious persecution, poor living conditions and constant suspicion surrounded her later childhood and adolescence.
“I was writing about this in my current book, which is called ‘Liars’ Paradise,’ because everybody in Hungary was lying to everybody about everything,” Fabian said. “Living under communism, you could never tell the truth of how you really felt.”
At the height of communist rule, Fabian and her family then began their quest to escape Hungary and flee westward. After her mother met a human smuggler in Hungary, the family managed to escape to Slovakia in hopes of crossing over into Austria. The journey to Slovakia was not easy. Fabian recalled many of the most frightening incidents in her experience.
“This is a very vivid memory,” Fabian said. “We saw Hungarian soldiers walk halfway down the bridge, Slovak soldiers halfway down the other half of the bridge, and we were sitting, practically under them, on the banks of the river.”
While crossing into Austria from Slovakia alongside other individuals in an attempt to escape communist rule, Fabian and her mother and sister were arrested and taken into custody. While her mother and sister were held in the Bratislava Central Prison, Fabian was taken to a separate juvenile institution due to her young age.
During this period of incarceration, Fabian and her mother and sister were forced to lie about where they were going and who had helped them, and were interrogated for hours on end, blindfolded and numerous intimidation tactics.
Despite the circumstances, the strength of the family kept them motivated. After over six months in jail, Fabian’s mother managed to send for help to Fabian’s uncle, Frank Shatz, in Prague. The card, which was written in Hungarian, said: “I, and my two daughters, Erika and Judith, are in Bratislava. We need your help. Would you help us?” Since Piroska did not have Frank’s address, she addressed the card to “Ferenc Shatz, Journalist, Prague.” Shatz recognized Piroska’s name and tracked down the location, realizing that the women were being held in Bratislava’s Central Prison.
Shatz was a well-known journalist in the Czech Republic, and upon receiving word from Fabian’s mother, came to rescue Fabian and her sister from Bratislava, Slovakia. He took the girls back to Prague, where they attended school while their mother stayed behind in prison. Shatz was able to secure food rations for Piroska but was unable to free her.
One year after their escape, they were requisitioned by Hungary to be returned there. Fabian and her sister returned to Bratislava Central Prison alongside their mother.
They went back to Hungary in January 1954 but having spent a year in captivity in Czechoslovakia, were released without further sentencing and they resumed their lives in Hungary.
The Hungarian revolution broke out on October 23, 1956.
“Within two months, my mother, my sister and I were in the car of a Russian general’s driver and soldier, pretending to be going to a wedding at the border,” Fabian said.
The family was dropped off at a safe location on the Austrian border. After sneaking to the border through a snowstorm and wading through a field of mud, the Fabian family made it to Vienna, where they stayed for approximately a month.
After communicating with family members in the United States, they decided to leave Europe. On Christmas eve of 1956, the Fabians flew to Camp Kilmer, New Jersey and started their new life in America.
“What stuck out most was perhaps how many times she escaped death,” Heiko said about the talk. “It made me consider all the other people who died in the holocaust, like Erica’s father, and how they may have escaped death once, twice, even three times, but perhaps it was the fourth time that is the reason they are not here to tell their stories like Erica Fabian. It also stuck out to me how aware she and her sister were of the situation. They were just two kids who knew their lives, because of their Jewish Ancestry, were at stake.”
Fabian’s story is unique view of two tragedies that affected millions. Fabian has faced tremendous losses, including the loss of her sister and mother to suicide shortly after their arrival in America.
Fabian continues to tell her story beyond the Reves Center through her work as an author. Fabian’s soon-to-be released current book, “Liars’ Paradise,” is an autobiographical novel centering on love and survival during Nazi occupation and Hungarian communist dictatorship.
After twenty-six books, decades of photojournalism and an extensive resume outlining her experience in academia, Fabian continues to inform the world of the story of her struggle and her success.
Ninety-seven-year-old Shatz sat in the front-row at this event, listening closely to Fabian’s talk. Shatz came to the United States in 1958 with his wife, Jaroslava. He began writing for the Virginia Gazette as an international affairs columnist and was instrumental in the creation of the Reves Center. Shatz and Fabian were reunited in 2018 for the first time in nearly 60 years.
“Our work involves bringing an entirely different international dimension to every important thing that William & Mary does,” said Dr. Longo.
This article first appeared in The Flat Hat.