Yona Eckstein: A Jew Does Not Abandon Jews

He opened his home to orphans who had fled from the inferno and to Jews who had escaped the Nazi destruction and had nowhere to hide. He helped many Jews while risking his own life and the lives of his family, and when the war was over, his home became a haven for refugees who had lost everything. On Holocaust Remembrance Day 2014, we remember Yona Eckstein, the guardian angel from Bratislava.

“There are legends told about his deeds. To this day he is blessed not only by the Jews of Bratislava who survived but also refugees from neighboring countries… His large and captivating personality seemed like it wished to connect people. His effusive smile made everyone who turned to him for anything immediately feel great trust towards him.”

-Those that the Guardian Angel did not Abandon, Sandor Eckstein, Tel Aviv, 1962

Yona and Michal Eckstein. Courtesy of the Eckstein Family

For many years, the rescue stories about Yona Eckstein were known mainly by Jews from Bratislava, Slovakia.

Yona Eckstein was well known in Bratislava, and “when the troubles began,” as recounted by the former secretary of the Jewish community in that city, “he helped the Jews in all kinds of ways.

He collected money, collected food for Jews who had none, helped hide Jews, and for anyone who needed assistance or advice, the address was Junis (Yona).

Who was Yona Eckstein?

Yona Eckstein's wrestler certificate. Photo: Courtesy of the Eckstein Family

Yona (Jonas) Eckstein was born in 1902 in Bratislava, Slovakia, to a religious Jewish family. He was the seventh of nine children, only two of whom survived—Yona and his sister Sarika. Before the events of the Holocaust began, Yona earned a living from a grocery store he owned in Bratislava, where he was an active and well known member of the Jewish community. In 1937 he went to Vienna, Austria, where he married Michal (Wally).

Yona was a large man and was a wrestler at the Jewish athletic club known as Hakoach. His involvement in wrestling helped him acquire friends and acquaintances among the general public and among government officials and the police. Descriptions of him depict a man who was very charming, with a sense of humor, sensitivity to the hardships of others, and courage—attributes that helped him save many Jews.

Helping the Evacuees of Burgenland

On March 13, 1938, Austria was annexed by the Third Reich, an event known as the Anschluss. Several days earlier, Dr. Tobias Portschy, a Nazi, had become the governor of the Austrian State of Burgenland, and Portschy's first act, only one day after the annexation of Austria, was an edict to expel all the Jews of the state and confiscate all their property. Among those expelled were Israel and Lea Hirsch, the parents of Michal, Yona’s wife.
The Jews who were expelled from Burgenland had nowhere to go (the countries to where they were sent refused to accept them), and they got stuck on a small island near the city of Bratislava. When Yona heard about the Jews on the island, he arrived there quickly, took Michal’s parents into his home, and helped other evacuees find lodging with other Jews in Bratislava. Yona and Michal also forfeited the certificates they had obtained and gave them to Michal’s parents who then emigrated to Israel.

Samo Eckstein is Captured and Sent to Auschwitz

Yona Eckstein brings soup to a labour camp in Petronka. Photo: Couretsy of the Eckstein Family

In the course of the war, the Slovakian government issued an edict according to which the Jews of Bratislava had to move to labor camps. Yona and his brother Samo volunteered to help the Jews of Bratislava move to the camps, and by doing so they succeeded in creating a way for themselves to transmit information, food and all kinds of assistance to and from the camps. They built houses in the camps for the evacuees, and they were even appointed to bring kosher food to the inmates of the camps, which was prepared in the public kitchen of the Jewish community.

Although they were forbidden to talk to the inmates, Yona and Samo smuggled information from the captives to their families, information that sometimes helped the families free the captives with bribes. Yona and Samo knew they were risking capital punishment but did this nevertheless. Unfortunately, Samo was caught smuggling a letter. Samo, along with his wife and children were immediately arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.

Opening his Home and Risking his Life

Yona Eckstein in Bratislava, 1942, with four of the children he kept in hiding. Photo: Courtesy of the Eckstein Family

In 1942 and 1943, Polish orphans passed through Slovakia on their way to Hungary and from there to the land of Israel. Yona, along with other Jews, took care of two thousand of these children. Many found refuge in his home, where he gave them food and helped them recover their health. When the way looked safe, he brought them to the smugglers at the border who helped the children get to Hungary.

Around that time, Yona was also involved in hiding Jews. He built a bunker in his house with room for about 60 people. Yona also provided for all their needs. He was then also providing food every night for 50 other people hiding in a chapel in town. This was a critical period, because the Gestapo suspected that there was a bunker in the vicinity, and had Yona been caught, his end would have been bitter. Yona Eckstein, however, said he would rather go to Auschwitz than turn 50 people in to the Gestapo.
Yona also helped refugees from Poland and turned his house into an aid center for these refugees. It was later written about him that “in the summer of 1943, when the first refugees arrived from Auschwitz, you were the only one that took them in and provided them with a hiding place in order to save them.”

A Jew Does Not Betray Jews

In June 1943, Yona was arrested by SS soldiers and the Hlinka Guard, an extreme right militia that acted against the Jews in Slovakia, and they demanded that he surrender four Polish Jews who were hiding in Bratislava. Yona refused and was tortured. His wife Michal was also detained and ordered to reveal the whereabouts of the four, but she too refused to give them information. Michal was tortured but did not break. The four Polish Jews lived to survive the Holocaust.

The Eckstein family with the Pianko family, who hosted them.
Photo: Courtesy of the Eckstein Family

A few months later, realizing that it was too dangerous for them to continue living in their home and hiding refugees in the bunker, Yona and Michal went to live with a Catholic family in the village of Lehnice. In 1944 there was a rumor that it was safe to return to Bratislava. Yona and Michal left their daughter Tova with the family and went back to the city. Very soon it became clear that this was a trap, and Yona and Michal, along with many other Jews, were captured and transported to Theresienstadt. They were liberated from that camp at the end of the war, in May 1945.

After the War Yona Takes in Refugees

The end of the war was the beginning of a new chapter in helping Jews. Yona and Michal returned to Bratislava and found their house intact and empty. They opened it right away for any survivor who had nowhere to go. People slept in every vacant space, even on the tables and chairs. In 1947 their first son was born, Binyamin Zeev.

Meanwhile, Yona started working on the emigration of the Jews to the land of Israel, but the new communist regime did not approve of it. In 1948 Yona was planning to emigrate to Israel with his family, but then he found out that there was a warrant for his arrest. He escaped to Prague, where Michal and the children joined him. They tried to get to Israel, but their path was blocked due to the Israel Independence War, so they eventually arrived in Australia and made it their home.

Tova Eckstein, the daughter of Yona and Michal, emigrated to Israel in 1964 and established a family there. Yona passed away in 1971 in Australia, but not before visiting Israel and meeting many of the Jews he had helped during the war. Michal passed away in 2010. Both were buried in Jerusalem.

Tova Teitelbaum (Eckstein) with her family. Photo: Courtesy of the Eckstein Family