THE TERM “FORCE OF NATURE” is not typically employed to describe an octogenarian, but it seems to be a good fit for philanthropist and activist Eva Haller, who has recently turned 84. One of her mentees, Jessica Mayberry, says “she seems never to be tired.”
I see this for myself when I call to set up the interview with the 2014 recipient of the Magnusson Fellowship, whose members include Nobel Laureate Dr. Muhammad Yunus and former president of Ireland, Mary Robinson. Less than half her age, I feel exhausted just listening to her schedule for the day. Board meeting, board meeting, lunch, doctor’s appointment, meeting. She has a small window from 6:00 to 6:30PM before a dinner party, she offers. We decide it’s better to meet on a less packed Sunday afternoon.
Things are lively at her uptown Manhattan residence when my cameraman and I arrive. We are greeted by her husband, Dr. Yoel Haller, former Medical Director of Planned Parenthood in the Bay area. I’m surprised to find their home filled with guests and the din of conversation. “It’s always like this,” he says, motioning us in. We wait while taking in the view of the city skyline and the modern art in their home.
Eva arrives. Her face is soft and bird-like, but her eyes are piercing. I have been forewarned that she can be almost cruel in her honesty. When she looks at me, I’m reminded of being in the dentist’s chair: there is the distant sensation of something drilling down deep, and, while painless, you sense how close to the nerve it is.
Those eyes belonged to a 14-year old girl who famously convinced a Nazi soldier to spare her life because she was “too young and too beautiful to die.”
Most accounts of Eva’s life begin with this breathtaking story, then continue with the numerous causes taken up by a woman who sought to transform whatever life brought near her. “Eva has sat on more boards than I’ve had hot dinners!” laughs friend Kathy Eldon while describing her. My head swims as I try to keep track of the mission statements of the boards of the non-profits on which she’s formally served. I’m aware of 22.
The director of The MY HERO Project, Jeanne Meyers, tells me there’s a recent BBC interview with Eva which I should listen to for my research. It turns out to be unavailable for download in the US. By what seems like some psychic insight, Eva brings up exactly this omission as she sits down by my side. In a musical Hungarian accent, she asks me whom I have interviewed. She notes that the names belong to younger women who have mostly had a straight path, but her life has not been so straight, and so it is very difficult for someone to interview her.
Funny, I think glumly, I had reached a similar conclusion on my own. She goes on to tell me she was recently interviewed by a journalist from the BBC who had really done her homework, to a scholarly level. And so she truly enjoyed that interview, and thinking about the questions, and answering them, because she was given questions she had never been asked before. I wonder how a person can be so gentle and pointed at the same time. I wryly consider my options in light of this high standard: Panic? Despair?
I manage to say that I have a set of questions, but I’d like to see which way the conversation goes. “Alright,” she says, rising to leave the room for a moment, “I am here to serve you.”
One of her guests, Sunny Jacobs, whose experiences being unjustly convicted for a capital crime were depicted in the play, The Exonerated, looks at me and says, “She is so wonderful. And she is a great mentor. Even now, she was mentoring you.”
EVA’S OLDER BROTHER JOHN worked in the underground as part of the Hungarian resistance in 1942. He “allowed her in on some of the adventures,” printing and circulating anti-Hitler pamphlets in Budapest.
While crossing into Yugoslavia to join Tito’s forces, he saved the lives of his three friends by giving himself up to the enemy. Eva is said to have taken this loss and dedicated her life to helping others in his memory. “Losing him was the greatest sorrow of my life,” she says.
It is estimated that over half a million Jews were deported and killed under Adolf Eichmann during the German occupation of Hungary, which began in March of 1944. During this period, her parents hid her in the Scottish Mission of Budapest. Its matron, Jane Haining, was a British citizen, but had refused to abandon the children in her care and was arrested by the Gestapo. One of the charges leveled at her was weeping when she saw the yellow stars on the clothes of the Jewish girls in her care.
“Not until recently did I find out that the woman who was the head of the Scottish mission was taken to Auschwitz and died in a gas chamber,” says Eva. “She was not Jewish…And she saved my life by allowing me to be there, for at least those couple of months when the Nazis were doing their most vicious killing. And thus I owe a great debt to the Scottish nation.”
I ask about her courage in persuading a Nazi soldier to let her escape during a raid on the mission, and saving a neighbor’s son. She chooses her words carefully, musing, “I think that courage is different than the desire and force of survival. You know, I really am afraid of the dark when I’m alone. I’m not a very courageous person. This question about facing the Nazis and saving that kid’s life was sort of like, ‘Hey! c’mon man! You are a young officer…you really want this on your head? my blood?’” she says, her face breaking into a grin. “[Although] I didn’t say that. I just told him that I’m much too young and too beautiful to die.”
She quips about those memorable words which saved her life: “And he was rather surprised because yes, I was young, but I wasn’t beautiful!”
EVA BRINGS UP SURVIVAL AGAIN when recounting her immigration to the US, initially to study psychology: “When you arrive at a country and you have a 6-weeks visa, and then you stay on illegally, and you clean houses because that was the only way to make a living and go to school at night, you really don’t think too much about anything other than ‘How many credits do I need? How will I survive? is this lawyer going to help me get my student visa?’ All kinds of survival issues come to your head. And you try to find shortcuts to make it all happen.”
It was while working in the lower east side of New York that she discovered what she really wanted to do: “I remember asking my supervisor one day, is it alright if I scream when I see a rat?” she says. “It was so scary–the way that people had to live under terrible conditions. I was trying to help them so that they can get a coat from the Welfare department, so that they get food stamps, so that I can help the kids to get into school. And I realized that that…I really don’t want to be a clinical psychologist. I don’t want to test people. I just really–I want to move into people’s lives. I want to manipulate environments.”
She went back to school and got her M.S.W. (Master of Social Work degree) from Hunter College. “That was a good move,” she says, looking back with a pleased expression. “And once a social worker, you know? You’re always a social worker.”
IN 1967, EVA FOUNDED the Campaign Communications Institute of America, a political telemarketing company, with her husband, the late Murray Roman. She had liked the one-to-one, direct impact of social work, and the idea of working in a world where “the customer is always right” gave her a “big migraine headache.”
“I really saw myself as a helper rather than a business woman. But we met late in life. I was 35, and he was 45, and I was deeply in love. And the idea that maybe we can do something together and be together 24 hours a day was something that truly appealed to me,” she says.