Swimmer and survivor: Hungarian Olympic champion Éva Székely

Olympic gold medallist who survived the Holocaust and lived through the 1956 Hungarian Revolution

by
Adrian Murphy (Europeana Foundation)

Hungarian swimmer Éva Székely was an Olympic gold medallist who survived the Holocaust and lived through the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

[Eva Szekely, Hungarian Olympic Games swimmer, 1956, National Archives of the Netherlands, CC0](https://www.nationaalarchief.nl/onderzoeken/fotocollectie/a9515ce6-d0b4-102d-bcf8-003048976d84)

Born in Budapest in April 1927, Székely was a swimmer from a young age. Seeing fellow Hungarian Ferenc Csik win the 100m freestyle race at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin made her determined to swim competitively.

In her youth, she was a member of a local swim team. During World War II, in 1941, she was expelled from the team because she was Jewish, as well as being excluded from competitions until the war ended.

Székely was very nearly killed during a roundup of Jewish people by in Budapest in winter 1944.

WATCH: Interview with Éva Székely at USC Shoah Foundation

In the video, she explains how, when threatened by a young Nazi, she was spared her at the last minute due to her father's quick thinking by saying that she was the Hungarian swimming champion.

After the war, her swimming career resumed and she went from strength to strength, winning gold medals in multiple races at the Hungarian swimming championships every year from 1945 to 1956. She set many national records in this time, as well as six world records.

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She competed in the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, winning gold in the 200 metre breaststroke.

black and white photograph, 3 women posing for a photograph wearing tracksuits holding bouquets of flowers

She returned to the Olympics four years later in Melbourne. During these 1956 Olympics, the Hungarian revolution broke out while they were away. Szekely’s daughter was still in Hungary, and despite her concern, she still competed and won silver in the 200 metre breaststroke.

The following year, Székely, her husband and daughter, defected to the United States but returned to Hungary later to look after her parents. Székely’s husband Dezső Gyarmati was a water-polo player - after their return, the authorities only allowed one of the couple to go to the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Her husband competed, with Székely retiring from competitive swimming in 1960.

Afterwards, Székely worked as a pharmacist and swimming coach, training among other her daughter Andrea Gyarmati who won two medals at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.

In later life, Székely spoke openly, with courage and determination, of her experiences during World War II as a Jewish athlete. Éva Székely died in February 2020, aged 92.

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This blog is part of the Europeana Sport project which showcases cultural treasures relating to sporting heritage in Europe.

sport World War II Olympic Games women women's history 1950s swimming Jewish history