Houston’s Survivors

Vera Hollo*

Born: Vera Epstein
June 25, 1936
Novi Sad, Yugoslavia
Died: December 12, 2008

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“The bodies were piled up…I don’t know if the whole street was filled but where I saw it, it was bodies laid one on the other. My grandfather always used to cover my eyes when we passed that point, but I looked through his fingers.”

Vera Hollo was born in 1936 in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia to a family who had lived there for generations. Novi Sad was home to an affluent and assimilated Ashkenazi community, and Vera did not recall experiencing antisemitism when she was a child. “But then,” she said, “the Hungarians occupied us and hell broke loose.” On April 6, 1941, Germany, together with its Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian allies, invaded and partitioned Yugoslavia. Novi Sad fell to the Hungarians and Vera’s father was sent to a forced labor camp. She never saw him again. At the beginning of 1942, the Hungarians perpetrated a bloody massacre in Novi Sad. “They took five people in a row, shot them and they fell in the Danube,” recalled Vera of the horrible January day when 500 Jews and nearly 300 Serbs were brutally murdered.

In March 1944, Germany accused Hungarian leaders of treachery against the Axis powers and occupied Hungarian territory. At the time, Vera was in Budapest with her mother and her maternal grandparents. Deportations of Jews from Hungary began within months and Vera’s mother was caught in the net. Vera and her grandparents, Josef and Stephanie Reiner, were more fortunate. They managed to secure protective passports from Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat stationed in Hungary who worked with the United States War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress to keep tens of thousands of Jews from being sent to extermination camps. Together with her grandparents, Vera lived in one of the safe houses Wallenberg established for people who held passports from neutral countries like Sweden. The winter of 1944-45 was freezing cold and bleak. Daily, people died of hunger and exposure. Allied bombs fell regularly and, although they terrified Vera, they were far less frightening than the thought that the Germans might come and kill them.

Vera and her grandparents were huddled in a bomb shelter on February 14, 1945 when the Red Army took Budapest. After liberation, Vera returned with her grandparents to Novi Sad. In 1948, they went to Palestine where Vera completed her schooling. In Palestine Vera married and had a son Reuven. Vera came to Houston in 1982 to join Reuven who had settled there. As a travel agent for American Express, she went frequently to Europe. But she could never bring herself to go to Bergen-Belsen where her mother died of typhoid only four days after British troops liberated her in 1945.

Emil Epstein, d. USSR, 1943
Rose Reiner Epstein, d. Bergen-Belsen, 1945