Frank Shatz could not believe it was Erika Fabian walking toward him in the Virginia airport.
He bounded toward the woman he’d rescued from a Cold War prison so many years ago and gripped her in his arms as if afraid she’d disappear. Fabian clutched her suitcase as the two embraced and kissed on the other’s cheeks in the middle of the hallway, heedless of passersby.
It didn’t matter that the two hadn’t laid eyes on each other in 65 years. They never hesitated. Shatz, 92, knew his 78-year-old cousin’s daughter — and she him — instantly.
“When she came through the door, I still saw her as a 13-year-old girl — and I still do somehow; it just doesn’t sink in that so many years passed,” Shatz said in a joint interview with Fabian. “She looks exactly like I remember her.”
Both survivors of the Holocaust, Shatz and Fabian met in 1953, when Shatz helped extricate Fabian and her sister from prison in Bratislava, Slovakia. The sisters had been jailed for trying to escape from communist Hungary to Austria.
Years later, Shatz and Fabian separately immigrated to the United States, where they lost touch. In the intervening decades, both forged new lives in America. Shatz, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., became a columnist for the Virginia Gazette. Fabian pursued professional photography and published articles, travel guides and books.
Fabian never stopped trying to find Shatz, though. So when an online search yielded a Holocaust survivor named “Frank Shatz,” she reached out. Her e-mail led to more e-mails, which led to long phone conversations, which led to Fabian’s flight from her home in California to Williamsburg.
Shatz was 27 and working in Prague as a foreign correspondent when a cryptic postcard arrived. The missive, written in Hungarian, read, “I, and my two daughters, Erika and Judith, are in Bratislava. We need your help. Would you help us?” The note was signed “Piroska,” and the return address was the address of Bratislava’s central prison.
Piroska was the widow of Shatz’s cousin, who had lived in Budapest until the start of World War II, when he was deported to a slave labor camp and killed. Fabian was 4 when her father died. Fabian, her sister and her mother survived the Holocaust by obtaining false papers that labeled them Christian and moving to a section of Budapest where “nobody knew us.”
After traveling to Bratislava in December 1952, in an attempt to cross the border to Austria, they were spotted by border guards and sent to prison.
Shatz escaped a labor camp and returned to Hungary, hiding successfully in Budapest for the duration of the war.
In 1956, after Soviet leader Josef Stalin’s death, Fabian, her sister and mother emigrated to the United States. Shatz and his wife, Jaroslava, followed suit two years later.
For a long time, neither publicly discussed the horrors of the Holocaust. Fabian’s sister, Judith, died by suicide at 25. Her mother killed herself three years later.
Today, Fabian volunteers at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, where she often addresses Mexican-American students in Spanish — in the hope that her life story will “encourage them to make a success of their lives.” Shatz has lectured on the Holocaust at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg.
Since finding each other, Shatz and Fabian have hardly stopped talking, delighted to find family and someone who understands. “It’s like being a beachcomber and suddenly you found a diamond ring,” Shatz said.
“For 65 years, I didn’t know that she is alive or not.”