After 60 years, Jewish siblings separated in Holocaust reunited
By Daniel Jahn
One afternoon late last year, Avi Lavi found himself close to tears. He had not felt this way since childhood. When he dialed the number he had been given by Magen David Adom only a couple of hours earlier, he was so excited, he could not hold the receiver. He asked his son Doron to make the call. The 73-year-old had waited more than half his life for this moment, in both hopeful and doubtful anticipation. On that Friday, in his sixth-floor Givat Shmuel apartment, more than 60 years of uncertainty suddenly changed into certainty the moment the female voice on the other end of the line said her name: Erna Muhlstein. Sixty-three years after the Second World War and the Nazi horrors in Europe, he had finally found his sister.
The German Red Cross had located Muhlstein and informed Magen David Adom in Tel Aviv. "In addition, we were told that Mrs. Muhlstein is looking forward to having contact with Mr. Lavi," says the sparsely-worded letter dated September 1. But what words could adequately express such fortune?
Avi Lavi has had a lot of luck in his life - that is, if it is possible to say such a thing about a Holocaust survivor. He survived the war together with his parents Josef and Elisabeth - his father survived the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, his mother survived Ravensbruck. Nine-year-old Avi found refuge with farmers in Liptovsky Kriz in the northern Slovakian region of Liptov, a "small peasants' village of less than 50 wooden houses," Lavi remembers.
Starting in the summer of 1944, he took over responsibility for his own survival and that of his sister Erna, after the Nazis had deported his parents. "I was never a child. I became an adult at an early age, because I had to survive," Lavi says. His legs and his back bear scars caused by infections caught when his young body was weakened by malnutrition and the pitiless cold. "I was never able to cry again," he says. Not even when his father died in 1988 or when his mother passed away last year.
In 1944, Erna was six years old and had only been Avi's sister for a few months. His parents had officially adopted her, as part of their efforts to help Jews flee the Nazis. In February 1943, shortly before their deportation from the Krakow Ghetto to a forced labor camp, her parents had entrusted her to a Christian family. From that moment onward, she became known as Eva Maria Vowek. A year later, she was supposed to have been smuggled, as part of a group of other Jews, to Hungary via Slovakia. One night she arrived at the Lavis', whose name had been changed to Liptak in an effort to evade the authorities. Back then, Avi was called Egon Liptak. Shortly afterward, in March 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary.
When the Germans occupied the Slovak city Banska Bystrica in the summer of 1944, the family fled to nearby Liptovsky Kriz, located in a remote, rural and mountainous area. Lavi's parents had friends in the farming village, yet this did not prevent them from being taken soon after their arrival. Lavi remembers Ukrainian Nazi helpers bursting into the farmers' house, screaming 'Judo, Judo,' while he hid in a storeroom. The parents' fate remained unknown and a cold Slovak winter grabbed hold of the village shortly after the Germans occupied it. In return for rye bread, which he received from German soldiers as a gift, Egon was allowed to warm himself at the farmer's fireplace. The Germans dubbed him 'wonder boy,' because he knew a little German. They didn't know that he was Jewish. Every day he met with Erna, who was in hiding with another farmer's family. The children spent their days looking for something to eat and a little heat. "Hunger and dirt," is how the 73-year-old sums up his childhood memories.
"What I remember about my childhood is this: That they were after me," Lavi told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times three years ago, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. He had traveled to the U.S. with a Jewish delegation to participate in the Holocaust Day ceremonies there, where he continued his search for the woman, the girl, who kept haunting his memories. "I spent the worst time of my life together with Erna," Lavi says.
His sister vanished from his life in 1945, just as suddenly as she had entered it. A Jewish refugee organization had brought her to Bratislava, where she was placed in an orphanage. When Avi's father went to pick Erna up from there, she was nowhere to be found - having been collected earlier by a man claiming to be her biological father: Simon Muhlstein. All efforts to find Erna proved in vain, even though Avi's parents never lost hope, even after coming to Israel in 1949.
Letters, documents, photocopied materials - Avi Lavi sits in his living room, looking at the stacks of paper. "Now all this can go," he says. His journey to find his sister has led him through half of Europe. He documented it in a movie he made together with his sons, Doron and Ofer, entitled "Egon's Journey" (the first part was screened on a community cable channel  last year on the show 'Voices of the Heart'). Egon's journey is now near its end. The second part of the movie is still being filmed, and will be completed soon with the missing chapter of the story: the reunion with Erna.
Only his mother, who never tired of searching, was unable to be there when the phone rang in the Lavi household and Erna Muhlstein called from Belgium. Elisabeth Lavi died a year ago, almost to the day. 'Find the girl,' she always said, Avi remembers. Then he starts imagining his reunion with Erna - who in-between changed her name to Eva again - which is due to take place as soon as the Red Cross gives the all clear for a sponsored flight to Belgium; Avi can't afford the travel cost. Suddenly he seems tired. But then Avi regains his strength, as he envisages the meeting: "We will laugh, sing, dance." And the tears in his eyes hint at a joy that cannot be described in words.