Agnes Sekely Heller was ten years old in March 1944 when Germany invaded Budapest, Hungary. Her father was warned by friends about impending deportations and he immediately started making plans to go into hiding. Agnes spent the summer at an estate where her family was hiding in a pantry, except for her older sister who was sent to live with Christians. In September they were all forced to leave. Agnes’s father secured her a place to stay with Gyula and Lujzi Halmi who took her in and hid her identity. Agnes stayed with them through liberation in January 1945 until she returned to her family. In 1948, she and her family emigrated from Hungary due to the restrictive Russian occupation.
Robert Heller’s father was rounded up and deported to the Russian front July 1942 where he froze to death. Robert became a plumber and was inducted into a work unit wherein he would clean up after Allied bombings in Budapest. Robert was 16 in 1944 when he and his family were forced to leave their home and move into houses designated for Jews. They were forced to wear the yellow Star of David and carry identification. Rather
than be forced into the ghetto, Robert’s mother secured false identity papers for her, Robert, and Robert’s sister and they were taken in by the Sisters of Mercy convent. When it became unsafe for Robert to stay in the convent his mother took him to the Swedish embassy where he met Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg sent Robert to a safe house in Buda that was protected. Robert was almost captured twice but escaped. Once the Russians had occupied Budapest he returned home to meet his family where he found his mother and sister.
Agnes and Robert met in New York and married in 1954. They have two sons.
Holocaust Survivors Oral History Project
Each spring, St. Michael’s Episcopal School seventh graders engage in an inquiry-based humanities project. Student groups create podcast episodes exploring a theme from Holocaust literature within the historical context of World War Two. In 2020, the nature of that project shifted to accommodate virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather than working in groups to explore thematic connections between literature and history, students created original texts of their own that memorialize the experiences of Virginia Holocaust survivors.
Using the Virginia Holocaust Museum’s extensive collection of survivor testimonies, each student chose a survivor, watched and listened to their story, and took copious notes on what they heard. Then, students synthesized the survivor’s experience, putting it in their own words, adding in historical context when necessary, and recorded themselves retelling their survivor’s story as a podcast episode for the podcast, Use Your Words. Without ever stepping foot in the classroom, seventh graders created oral histories that honor the stories of Virginia Holocaust survivors and are now accessible to anyone around the world through iTunes or Spotify. And, just as importantly, St. Michael’s seventh graders said that the project made them feel bonded to their survivor and gave them a deeper, emotional and historical understanding of the Holocaust.
This is the story of Agnes Heller, who survived the ghettoization and bombing of her hometown in Hungary from 1944-1945. Let our student Sophi’s soft voice carry you through Agnes’ experience during WWII. Like all Holocaust survivors, Agnes’ story is unique, but carries a similar message to many of our other stories this season. Sophi says she learned how hope can prevail, even in the toughest of times. And that the power of family is priceless.
Agnes Heller (center) with family.
Agnes & Robert Heller