Holocaust Survivors' Network

Personal Remarks on Éva Székely
from the University of Miami professor, Dr. Peter Tarjan


Éva Székely was a world class swimmer with several gold medals, world records, etc. I once read her autobiography and even met her personally around 1990.   She also participated in the London, Helsinki and Melbourne Olympics, but unlike Keleti, she did return to Hungary from Australia. She was married to the captain of the Hungarian waterpolo team, Dezsö Gyarmati. (When I met Éva, she had been divorced from Gyarmati and she was living alone.) Their daughter, Andrea Gyarmati, also became a world class swimmer.

I recall a couple of episodes from her book. One of them was about political harassment. For reasons related to her independent thoughts, her club team that was financed and directed by the government in communist Hungary, demanded that she account for the equipment issued to her, such as wooden clogs, warm-up suits, terrycloth robes, etc. Over her career she probably wore out dozens of those without keeping track of them. Her answer was simple: count the number of the medals won and records broken by her as receipts for the worn out gear. The officials let her alone to avoid embarrassment -- a near miracle under communism.  

During the worst period of the the fascist persecution, Éva was in the International Ghetto in Budapest in a Swiss house (I also spent some time in a similar house). Since she was not allowed to swim any more -- no Jews were allowed to enter the public swimming pools -- she ran up and down five flights of stairs up to a hundred times a day to stay in shape. This was at a time when food was extremely scarce. They lived on poppyseeds and honey -- that's all they had.  

When I met her, she was about 70, retired and living comfortably in the Buda section of the city. Her apartment was filled with her trophies. I visited her on behalf of our mutual friend, Andrew Handler, a historian, who had written extensively about Hungarian Jewish athletes, among other Jewish subjects. "Andris" was a professor of history at the University of Miami and he co-edited a book with Susan Meschel, "Young People Speak - Surviving the Holocaust in Hungary" (Franklin Watts, 1993). Székely's story starts on page 41. I just reread her story and rediscovered that she decided to become an Olympic champion during the 1936 Olympics when she heard the national anthem over the radio following the victory of Ferenc Csik in Berlin. It had such an effect on everyone that she wanted to bring the same pride and joy to her countrymen, who later rejected her in such ugly and inhumane ways in 1944. But she did overcome all the hardships in her path and won the 200 meter breast stroke in Helsinki and a silver medal in Melbourne.  

Dated: August 19, 2004