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In 1944, when Marta was 15 she might have been shipped to Auschwitz along with the other Jews in Nagyvárad. Her mother's determination, her father's ingenuity, and an extraordinary set of circumstances combined to save her family. And so Marta's remarkable life began in earnest.
"… a revelation and a real pleasure to read. The writing is marvellous and it really captures Marta's essence …"
23rd August ,1949
Marta on her wedding day
In the 1930s
Marta and her brother Robi
Marta with her newborn sons Amnon and Yoram
Marta with her cousin Marika in LA
Marta Elian was born in 1929 in Nagyvárad, a city in Transylvania which was then in Romania but was incorporated into Hungary in 1940. In 1944 her family escaped from the Nagyvárad ghetto to Romania, where Marta and her brother were arrested and imprisoned for illegally crossing the border. After the war, Marta discovered that most of her friends and relatives had been murdered by the Nazis. Her family eventually fled Communist Hungary for Israel, where Marta’s new life began in earnest.
Marta became a mother of twins and a neurologist in Israel. Later she emigrated to London, from where she participated in ground-breaking epidemiological work in Multiple Sclerosis in Sicily and Malta. During her long career she also worked for periods of between six months and two years in Boston, Birmingham, Switzerland, and South Africa. Despite at times experiencing xenophobia, misogyny and anti-Semitism she became accepted as one of Britain's first female consultant neurologists and was internationally recognised for her expertise.
Throughout her extraordinary life Marta came into contact with fascinating and prominent people, including the naturalist Miriam Rothschild, “inventor” of attachment parenting Jean Leidloff, cellist Jacqueline du Pré, Israel humourist Ephraim Kishon, “Father of Epilepsy” Dr William Lennox, South African human rights activist Professor Frances Ames, and many others.
Marta Elian died in St John’s Wood, London on 16 October 2016.
"The only possession no one can take away is what we have in our head, that is, knowledge.”
Marta with friends and her brother Robi (left)
Marta greeted me in a long colourful gown, like I imagine her beloved language tutor Hannenéni used to wear, complemented by several enormous brightly coloured rings and bead necklaces, which I later learned were inspired by her grandmother, Minkanagymama. The studio-like house was filled with art and artefacts: an oil painting of sunflowers; the side of a painted wagon from Sicily, cartoons by her Israeli friend, Kariel Gardosh. Classical music from a top-quality sound system filled the room. Not your average 86-year-old, Marta was glamorous and, if I admit to myself, a bit formidable, but I agreed to participate in the project. It was only over the next year that I would discover her kindness, humour, and extraordinary capacity for friendship.
My starting point was a transcript of interviews which ran to over 100,000 words – fifteen cassettes worth of conversations with an interviewer made several years earlier. As with all conversations, the stories broke off, were interrupted by tangential thoughts; sometimes anecdotes were retold, twice, three times, each time slightly differently; there were few nods to chronology; and important details were omitted. But what was clear from the moment I began reading was that here was a distinctive voice (I loved Marta’s sense of humour, her talent for anecdote, her ‘bloody’ single-mindedness) and, more importantly, here was a unique story of survival that needed to be told.
I tackled Marta’s story the only logical way: from the beginning, piecing together her story from the transcript, from the pages of scrawled writing that occasionally appeared in the post, and from long phone conversations. Marta was a night owl, and the phone sometimes rang at 10 or 11pm, just when, as the mother of two young boys who regularly wake at 6am, I wished to get to bed. But it was at these hours when the best tales arose. Such was the case with the stories of Silvano, her Italian spy – which on two occasions kept me typing past midnight – and of her meetings with Jacqueline du Pré. Always, Marta was charming, funny, and articulate. A master raconteur.
I hope I have done Marta’s story justice. It has involved research on my part into the history of Romania, Hungary, and Nagyvárad, particularly during WWII. Any errors in this history are entirely my responsibility. While Marta had an acute memory for conversations and events, her visual memory was less keen, so some descriptions have relied on old photographs of buildings, landscapes, and people.
I am particularly indebted to Professor Reuven Tsur, Marta’s younger brother “Robi”, for his careful reading and commentary on the text. His memories of events occasionally differed in detail from those of Marta. As this is her story, I have presented it according to her recollection, but I look forward to reading Professor Tsur’s memoir when he has finished translating it into English. I am also hugely indebted to Rosemary and John Emanuel for all their encouragement and help with the editing. John Andrews, from Asociatia Tikvah – which works hard to ensure what happened to the Jewish population in Oradea is not forgotten – has been very helpful in providing photographs and a few clarifying details. Lindy Alexander, whom I have never met, did a wonderful job conducting the original interviews. Marta’s personal assistants have also been instrumental in bringing this project to fruition.
Throughout the course of this past year, Marta was on the brink of death many times – each time, defying the predictions of consultants. If anyone could have defied death through sheer determination, it would have been Marta. I visited her in three different hospitals, but know she was in several more; never once did she lose her sense of humour, or her humanity. Working with Marta was a collaborative, and at times, testing experience, but certainly the most rewarding project I have ever undertaken. She was a friend and an inspiration.
Carol Peaker, 2016
A year ago, Rosemary Emanuel rang me up with a proposition: would I like to edit the transcript of a series of interviews with her friend Dr Marta Elian, an 86-year-old Hungarian Holocaust survivor and one of Britain’s early female neurologists.
I promptly rang the number Rosemary gave me. The phone was answered by an older man with a deep, thick Hungarian accent. I asked to speak to Dr Elian and was taken aback when it transpired that the person speaking was not a man at all, but Marta herself. It was only after hearing Marta’s hilarious anecdotes that I realised how common my mistake was.
In any case, we agreed to meet at her home in St John’s Wood.
A SURVIVOR'S MEMOIR
DON'T ENTER THE WAGONS
In Nagyvárad, Hungary, April 1944, my mother knocked on the door of Magda, an old classmate. The elegant two-storey house was around the corner from our own home, on the upmarket, modern side of the picturesque Körös River, which bends through the city. My mother had not seen her friend for a while; they were no longer close, Magda’s husband being rather too “highbrow” and elitist for my mother’s taste, but when they did meet, their exchanges were warm. Now especially, times were bitter and small differences needed to be put aside.
To my mother’s astonishment, the maid who opened the door attempted to bar her entry, “I am to admit no one.”
“I am not no one,” my mother insisted. “I am certain she would agree to see me. Please tell her I am here.” And though the maid resisted, my mother was by far the more persistent of the two.
Finally, following a brief retreat, the maid reluctantly reappeared and my mother was admitted and taken to the sitting room, where she discovered the reason for all the secrecy.
“I am harbouring refugees,” Magda explained, as two Polish men in their twenties – worn out in appearance, but obviously well-educated and cultivated in manners – emerged from an adjacent room. As my mother knew no Polish and the men could not speak Hungarian, they conversed in German. The men told her about the ghettos in Poland and about the cattle wagons that came to the ghettos to take Jews away. Over and over, the men repeated the warning: “nur nicht einsteigen.” – “Just don’t get in.” What they meant was, “Don’t enter the wagons.”
The phrase lodged itself in my mother’s mind.
Marta’s distinctive low voice and the situations it got her into.
For more information about Jews in Nagyvárad / Oradea visit the following website: https://www.tikvah.ro
Marta Elian enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Nagyvárad, Romania, popping into the family bakery for delicious pretzels and buns, playing at her grandfather’s vineyard, learning languages with her beloved tutor, and cycling with her friends in the Lightning Bicycle Gang.
Slowly, the introduction of anti-Jewish laws eroded Marta’s sense of contentment. When Nagyvárad was transferred to Hungary in 1944, the situation for Jews took an alarming turn for the worse.
Don’t Enter the Wagons is the tale of Marta Elian’s remarkable escape from the Nagyvárad Ghetto, made possible by chance circumstances, her father’s intelligence, and her mother’s relentless determination.
But it is also the story of Marta Elian’s resolution to succeed in life against all odds: the challenges she faced becoming a medical doctor and raising twins in war-torn Israel; her strength throughout a failing marriage; and her struggle to be accepted as one of Britain’s first female neurologists.
An exceptionally intelligent and irrepressible character, Marta has told an inspiring story dedicated to all those people who did not survive.
“I hoped that my modest success would perhaps emphasise what those lost for humanity might have achieved. What a world it could have been.”
Marta Elian, 2016
CONTACTS AND LINKS
For more information about Marta Elian and her autobiography please contact: