In 1944, a frightened young Jewish girl from Hungary who was about to be deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau handed over her prized possessions, a pair of beautiful earrings, to a neighbor to bury instead of handing them over to the Nazis.That girl was ultimately murdered by the Nazis in Birkenau but her neighbor survived, returned to his home city and found the earrings where he had buried them.For many years he sought to find out the fate of the girl and the rest of her family in the hope of giving the earrings back to her, but was ultimately unable to do so, and instructed his grandson to give the earrings to Yad Vashem after he died. Nearly eight decades later, a researcher at Yad Vashem has in the last few weeks finally identified who that young girl was, who her family were, where they lived, and the awful fate that befell them at the hands of the Nazis.This is the story of Zisso.Hungary had been an ally of Nazi Germany since 1940, but due to souring relations as the war went against Germany, the Nazis occupied the country in March 1944, and in April that year, the Jews of Hungary were forced into ghettos.The Weisz family, including parents Yosef and Amalia and their seven children, lived in the city of Beregszasz in what was then eastern Hungary and is now western Ukraine, and were forced into the ghetto along with the rest of the Jewish population.
In May 1944, the Nazis liquidated the Beregszasz ghetto, but before deporting its Jewish inhabitants instructed the city’s Jews to take any valuable possessions with them to the premises of a brick factory in the ghetto.There, they were told to hand over these valuables to the Nazi troops.At that brick factory, Zisso (Magdalena) Weisz, just 16, noticed her neighbor Eliezer Smilovits, 17, burying his valuables under a bench at the site. She quickly gave him her treasured pair of earrings, gold with pink-colored stones set in the center, and asked Eliezer to bury them as well, which he did.That was the last Eliezer saw of Zisso.Both the Weisz and the Smilovits families were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, along with the majority of Hungarian Jewry, where most of their family members were murdered, including Zisso.Of the combined 13 members of the Weisz and Smilovits family, only three survived the Holocaust, Zisso Weisz’s brother Nandor-Shmuel, along with Eliezer Smilovits and his sister Sheva Goldberg.After deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Eliezer was sent to forced labor with his brother Ze’ev Vilmush to the Buna-Monowitz sub-camp. Towards the end of the war, Eliezer and Ze’ev were forced onto a death march. Eliezer was taken to the Mauthausen concentration camp and liberated from there in early May 1945, but Ze'ev did not survive.After the war, Eliezer returned to Beregszasz, where, to his amazement, he found Zisso’s pair of earrings still buried exactly where he had left them, and he kept them with him always as a reminder of Zisso and her family who had been murdered.Although they had been his neighbors, Eliezer had not known much about them, and he either never knew, or forgot, their last name.He spent many years trying to find a member of the family to discover what had happened to them and to Zisso, but was unsuccessful.
Eliezer immigrated to Israel in 1948 where he raised a family.
In 2015, despairing of finding Zisso or any of her relatives, Eliezer gave the earrings to his grandson Yochai Yaoz and asked him to give them to Yad Vashem so that the memory of Zisso and her family would be kept alive.
Eliezer died two years ago, and at the beginning of 2021 Evgeny Rozin, a Holocaust researcher and genealogist at Yad Vashem, began an investigation to discover Zisso’s identity and what had happened to her and her family.Rozin was hampered by the fact that no one had submitted pages of testimony for Zisso or anyone from her family to Yad Vashem.But, along with the earrings, Eliezer had provided a note providing details about Zisso that he did know, including that her father had been the “Shamash” or caretaker of Beregszász Great Synagogue.After several months of searching, Rozin finally managed to locate the head of the current Beregszász Jewish community, Ernest Goldberger, who provided him with the names of some of the elderly members of the community who he thought might be able to help Rozin with his efforts.Eventually, Rozin found Joseph Vays, a businessman living in the US but originally from Beregszász who knew, and in fact lived in close proximity to Tibor Weisz, the son of Nandor-Shmuel Weisz.Nandor-Shmuel, Zisso’s brother, was the son of Yosef Weisz, the father of the Weisz family, and managed to survive the Holocaust.Rozin contacted Tibor and together they uncovered more details about what happened to the Weisz family and Zisso, making it possible to paint a more complete picture.Tibor told Yad Vashem that all members of his family had been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and that Nandor-Shmuel and two of his three sisters had survived until the end of the war.Sadly, his sisters died of typhus shortly after liberation. Zisso was murdered in the death camp.A genealogist in Beregszász by the name of Bela Huber also assisted in locating the names of other family members, including Zisso’s birth certificate.Eliezer’s grandson Yochai told The Jerusalem Post it had always been important to his grandfather to find Zisso or someone from her family.“Yad Vashem managed to give Zisso a face and an identity, so this is a very moving closing of the circle,” said Yochai.
Rozin said he saw great importance in eternalizing the memory of the Jews who died in the Holocaust.
“Very often, there is no reminder whatsoever of these people, and neither do any relatives acquaintances remain who could submit Pages of Testimony in order to memorialize them,” said Rozin.
“With the help of objects like these earrings we have an opportunity to memorialize the victims and tell the stories of the families who owned these items.”