Ms. Szekely was 17 at the time of the roundup — a star swimmer despite anti-Semitic laws that had forced her off her team in 1941 — and avoided arrest through the intercession of her father, who ordered her to feign illness as the fascist approached.
“Don’t take her — she is sick,” she recalled her father pleading. “Can’t you see she cannot walk?” Moreover, her father told the fascist official, “she is the swimming champion of Hungary, and one day you will be happy you saved her life!”
“This is how I stayed alive,” Ms. Szekely said years later in a testimony housed by the USC Shoah Foundation. “Dad told him I was a swimming champion and he would still remember me.”
Ms. Szekely survived the war in a forced-labor program and later in a safe house operated by the Swiss where, according to the online Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, she stayed fit by running up and down five flights of steps 100 times a day.
She went on to become one of her country’s greatest swimmers, credited with numerous world and Olympic records. She won a gold medal in the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki and a silver medal four years later in the same race in Melbourne.
Ms. Szekely, who became known as the Hungarian “Madame Butterfly” for the butterfly style she brought to the breaststroke, died Feb. 29 at her home in Budapest. She was 92. Gergely Csurka, media manager for the Hungarian Swimming Association, confirmed her death but did not cite a specific cause. Ms. Szekely had been in declining health and had lost her eyesight, according to Csurka, but had continued swimming even as she approached her 90th birthday.
Eva Szekely was born in Budapest on April 3, 1927. She was inspired to become an Olympic swimmer in 1936 when she listened on the radio as her countryman Ferenc Csik took home the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle race at the Berlin Games.
“Then and there I made a resolution,” the Guardian quoted her as saying, “I, too, would be an Olympic champion.”
She made her Olympic debut after World War II, at the 1948 Games in London, where she placed fourth in the 200-meter breaststroke. Her performance in the same race four years later in Helsinki set an Olympic record. The Helsinki Games were a triumph for the Hungarian women’s swimming team, which won gold in four of its five events.
The anti-communist Hungarian Uprising of 1956, ultimately crushed by the Soviet Union, began shortly before Ms. Szekely and her then-husband, Dezso Gyarmati, a Hungarian Olympian regarded as perhaps the best water poloist of his time, had left for the Melbourne Games.
Back in Hungary was their 2-year-old daughter, Andrea Gyarmati, who also grew up to become an Olympic swimmer. Having little or no contact with her family, a distraught Ms. Szekely was said to have lost 12 pounds during the Games — but still finished second in the 200-meter breaststroke.
She and her husband went back to Hungary, then briefly defected to the United States before returning home to care for Ms. Szekely’s aging parents. Ms. Szekely became a pharmacist and a swimming coach, with proteges including her daughter.
Ms. Szekely attended the 1972 Munich Games, where her daughter received a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke and a bronze medal in the 100-meter butterfly. Exploring the Olympic Village, Ms. Szekely befriended a member of the Israeli athletic delegation hours before he was killed along with 10 other Israeli athletes and coaches in a Palestinian terrorist attack.
In 1976, she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, as was Dezso Gyarmati, from whom she was by then divorced. Andrea Gyarmati was inducted into the hall of fame in 1995. In addition to her daughter, of Budapest, survivors include a grandson, who is also a noted Hungarian water poloist, and a great-granddaughter.
Ms. Szekely said she was most comfortable in the water, remarking that at times she felt as though she had been placed on land by mistake. Her Olympic triumphs served her throughout her life, she said, with the immutable knowledge that she had once been the best in the world.
Recalling the times during the Holocaust and under communism when people were “stripped of many things” — title, rank, property, dignity — she described an Olympic gold medal as “a fixed shiny star in the universe.”
The medal was also a fulfillment of her father’s admonition to the Hungarian fascist of his daughter’s athletic gifts. In 1950, she competed in an international swimming meet held in Hungary where she won a gold medal, as well as a special prize awarded by Hungary’s communist authorities.
“Imagine, there I was standing there, up on top of the dais . . . and the man looks at me,” she told the Shoah Foundation. “It was that Arrow Cross man, with his different colored eyes.”
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