Writer and photographer Erika Fabian recounts living under Hitler’s, Stalin’s regimes

The crowd packed William & Mary’s Reves Center for International Studies on Friday to hear writer and photographer Erika Fabian recount her remarkable story of survival.

Born in Hungary, Fabian’s early childhood memories are punctuated by daring, improbable escapes from Nazi officers, interrogations, imprisonments and constant displacement from home.

The event was part of the Ampersand International Arts Festival, with Fabian as the Reves Center’s artist-in-residence.

During Friday’s talk, titled “Surviving Hitler and Stalin: One Woman’s Account,” Fabian recounted when the Nazis arrived, taking her father away and forcing her family to move from their own apartment to a new home with a yellow star on the front, marking its inhabitants as Jews. It was her earliest memory of that time, she said.

In her newest book, “Liars’ Paradise,” Fabian, who lives in California, gives a fictionalized account of her life, including her time living under Adolf Hitler’s and Joseph Stalin’s regimes. Fabian also presented a workshop on Saturday about how to get a book published.

“Some people, when they grow up, they forget their childhood memories,” Fabian said. “I have a good recollection of the terrible things that happened to me.”

Often, it was the kindness of strangers that helped save Fabian and her family throughout the years. Early on, she recalled a neighbor saving her, her mother, Piroska, and her sister, Judith, from being taken away by the Nazis by telling the officers that the family had already left.

Later on, Fabian and Judith, along with a ward full of children from the Red Cross Hospital, were nearly taken away by Nazis, but were plucked away to safety by a Jewish man posing as a Nazi officer.

Fabian, her mother and her sister survived the rest of World War II living as Christians in Hungary while about 80% of the rest of their family died in concentration camps, she said.

During the height of communism, Fabian’s mother tried to have their family smuggled out of the country. When they were caught along with several other people attempting to cross the border between Slovakia and Austria, Fabian was held in a children’s police institute while her mother and sister were imprisoned.

Eventually, Fabian’s mother was able to contact a relative in Prague for help. This relative was Frank Shatz, then a journalist in Prague and now a columnist for The Virginia Gazette. Shatz was able to extricate both sisters from prison and bring them home with him.

When Stalin died, the family was sent back to Hungary and then eventually allowed to return home. Two years later when the Hungarian Revolution broke out, they attempted to escape the country again. This time, they were successful and eventually made it to America.

Fabian went on to become a photojournalist and a writer, publishing articles, books and travel guides. She lost her sister to suicide not long after coming to America and then her mother, three years later, also to suicide.

In 2018, Fabian and Shatz reunited after more than 60 years apart. During Friday’s presentation, Shatz sat in the front row.

Sian Wilkerson, sian.wilkerson@pilotonline.com, 757-342-6616