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Survivor’s story is one of 52,000 testimonies


Irene Boehm
Irene Boehm with a photo of her younger sister, Ilyona.

Irene Boehm survived World War II and the Holocaust in Hungary by hiding her identity when she moved from her small village, Olaszliszka, near the Czech border to Budapest and then to a villa on the Danube.

In Budapest, she convinced her landlady, who often derided Jews, to let “a friend”—actually her sister Margaret—move in.  When Irene went to care for an older woman in a villa 60 kilometers south of Budapest, Irene again was silent when that woman also voiced anti-Jewish sentiments.

When Margaret moved out of the room in Budapest, she thanked the landlady for saving a Jew: her.  Later the landlady saw Irene on the street and exclaimed her horror at learning Irene’s “friend” was a Jew:  Irene said, “She is my sister.  I am a Jew, too.”  The landlady ran off.

Irene felt a sense of victory after years of using false papers and concocting stories to hide her identity.

Irene will be among the Holocaust survivors who will light candles during the Yom Hashoah service at 7 p.m., Sunday, April 27, at at Temple Beth Shalom, 1322 E. 30th Ave.

“Saving Our Culture: Rescuing Children from the Nazis” is the theme of keynote speaker Stephen Adler, a Jewish child survivor through the Kindertransport and part of the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center’s Speakers Bureau.

The service will include reading winning high school and middle school entries in the Eva Lassman Memorial Creative Writing Contest and music by the Ferris High School Ensemble.

In a recent interview, Irene shared her story.

Irene lost her parents, brother, a sister, brother-in-law and two nephews at Auschwitz.

Because she escaped detection, she feels guilt that she did not suffer as others did.  She used her wits and lies to survive.

“I would not want to go through a war again,” Irene said.

In 2004, Steven Spielberg commended her for participating in the 10th Anniversary of Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, an archive compiled since 1994 with testimonies of 52,000 Holocaust survivors.

Youth and adults can watch video of their stories in schools, libraries, museums and universities around the United States and the world.

The testimonies are “a bridge between history and contemporary issues,” Spielberg wrote, for people to learn “of the terrible consequences of hatred and racism” and to realize that they “have power to bring about change and act against intolerance.”

In 2012, Irene and several Seal Beach, Calif., residents told an eighth grade class of their experiences in World War II, and the Korean and Vietnamese wars.  That year, she was one of 17 survivors speaking for the Chapman University Holocaust Art and Writing Contest.

“I never wrote my stories.  I keep them in my head,” said Irene, who belonged to a Seal Beach Holocaust Survivors Club.

In March 2013, Irene moved to Spokane to live in a retirement community near a grandson. 

In the 1950s, she had settled in Los Angeles after coming from a displaced persons camp with her husband, Al, and two daughters. 

Born in 1919 after her father, a baker, returned from being a prisoner of war in Siberia in World War I, Irene said her family feared Communists because of that and local experiences of harassment.

Because Polish Jews fled to Hungary after Germany invaded, the Hungarian government required Jews to legally prove their Hungarian ancestry.  Lacking money to hire a lawyer, her father sent three of his daughters, Irene, Margaret and Ilyona, to Budapest to work as nannies for a year, but it took more than a year.  A week before they had enough money, the government took his license, and he could no longer work, so the sisters stayed in Budapest.

Irene worked for a couple, who were dentists. Even though their Jewish parents had become Christian, the husband was taken to a forced labor camp.  Irene continued to work as nanny. 

When military police began picking up Jews, the woman arranged with a reporter for Irene to have false papers that said she was Christian and her father was a farmer.  She had this paper April 7, 1944, when Germans came.

Jews put on yellow stars and had a 5 p.m. curfew.  Irene could not visit her sisters, so she introduced Margaret to her landlady as a friend, so she could move in.

Irene went one day with the reporter to a villa he was building beside the Danube.  A rich old widow, who lived there, feared the Russians would come and take everything. The reporter asked Irene to stay to take care of her.  Irene gained papers as a nurse.

“Margaret stayed in Budapest and helped people in the Jewish ghetto, throwing food over a fence to them.  She became Christian,” Irene said.  “She was a hero.  I just watched out for myself.”

Irene befriended the widow and was silent when she and friends laughed about Jews being killed. 

In the winter, the woman let Hungarian military police stay in the villa’s cabins.

 At night, a lieutenant serenaded Irene.

When a gendarme came one day because someone said Irene was Jewish, she thought they would kill her.  She gave him her false papers.  He took them.

The lieutenant who serenaded her asked the gendarme, “Why are you bothering this girl?  She is not a Jew.  I went to school with her.”

Later, Irene told the lieutenant she was a Jew.  He did not believe her until she read the Hebrew words on a cloth she had to cover matza at Passover. 

It didn’t matter.  He loved her.  He offered to help her escape, but soon Russian soldiers came, and the Hungarians left for the front.

As the war was coming to a close, the widow went to Budapest to be with her nephew.

When English and Russian planes dropped bombs at night, Irene’s bed shook.  She was not afraid because by then, “life did not count for anything.”

German soldiers came. The reporter’s niece came to dig up gold the family had buried, but could not leave, because the train tracks had been bombed.

The two stayed in the villa.

On Dec. 6, two Hungarian soldiers had found two chickens the Germans had cleaned to eat.  They asked Irene to cook them.

While they sat at the kitchen table, Russian soldiers came, and the Hungarians fled.  So the Russians ate the chickens the Germans had cleaned and the Hungarians had cooked, she noted.

That night, a Russian soldier raped her.  She went to a doctor the next day, and the village asked two young men to come and protect the women.

Later two soldiers asked to make the villa a hospital.  When she said she was a nurse, they said they would take her to their headquarters, but instead took her to a house, took her clothes and locked her in a room.  One day when the guard was quiet, she asked a woman for something to wear so she could leave.

Running on the main road to the villa five miles away, she saw five sick boys walking slowly, Jews returning from a forced labor camp.

“I said I was Jewish and I would take care of them at the villa,” Irene said.

She boiled their lice-infested clothes, and in the village traded a barrel of wine for half a pig to feed them.  Two brothers, who were religious, said they would “pray that I would have a good life,” Irene said.

Another day, they were sitting around the stove talking.  Russian soldiers came, took her and raped her until she passed out.

She decided to leave.  She and one of the boys went by sleigh across the river to a village.  Russians there were forcing Hungarians to clean up war damage. 

They found a place to sleep in a kitchen, but she knew she had to escape.  They walked for three days.  Some others joined them, going to a city, where they found a house to stay.

Then Irene went to Budapest and met her sisters. 

She learned her parents were put in train cars and taken to Auschwitz, where they were gassed and put in ovens.  She learned from Auschwitz survivors what fate they likely met there.

Her younger sister, Ilyona, fled on the underground to Yugoslavia, where Germans shot her.  A plaque on her tomb in Budapest honors her.  Another sister, Frieda Freedman is buried in New Jersey

In Budapest, Irene met her husband, Al Boehm, who had been in a forced labor camp.

He came all summer to a flea market stand where she and her cousin sold cigarettes. 

In the fall, they each shared that they were going to the temple for the holiday.  One day she went to dinner with him, his mother and sister.  In a few weeks, they married and lived with his mother. Irene nursed her.

Hoping to go to Israel, they went with Polish people to Vienna, but only Poles were being accepted.  So they lived four years in a displaced persons camp—in a stall in a crowded former horse barn.  The U.S. quota for Hungarian Jews was small.  Her older daughter was born at the camp, and her younger daughter on a navy ship on the way to America.

For several months, they stayed at an uncle’s summer resort in the Catskills, and then went to Los Angeles.  Al worked in the office of a housing complex developer. 

Irene learned English by reading children’s books to her daughters.  She volunteered with PTA, Girl Scouts and other agencies.  She had many jobs—Hungarian nightclub cook, a surgical orderly, a children’s hospital supply room worker and factory worker.

After they retired, they moved to Seal Beach, where she and Al volunteered with RSVP.

For information, call 747-3304 or email

Copyright ©April 2014 - The Fig Tree