Page 1: Biography
Sipos, Eleonora Vera
Businesswoman, humanitarian, welfare worker
This biography, written by Ann Beaglehole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Eleonora Vera Lazarek, who was known in New Zealand as Nora Sipos, was born on 7 September 1900 in Černovice, in the Czech lands of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. She was one of six daughters of Catholic parents Johan Karl Lazarek, a foundry worker, and his wife, Huberta Privrel. Eleonora grew up in Szabadka, Hungary, which was renamed Subotica when it became part of Yugoslavia after the First World War. During the war she made bandages and helped to care for prisoners. Later, as a member of the Circle of Serbian Sisters, she taught child care and helped set up a home for orphaned girls.
Eleonora learned to speak six languages, was financially independent from the age of 16, and later became a chartered accountant and city councillor. On 27 September 1927 in Subotica she married Milan Vujiƒ, a lawyer. After her marriage, Eleonora became manager of a travel agency. She is also said to have owned four cinemas, a transport business, a textile firm and to have been well known in business circles. The couple had no children.
In 1941 Germany invaded Yugoslavia and gave Vojvodina, the area containing Subotica, to Hungary. Because she and her husband were Slavs they were harassed by the Hungarians. Their home was searched and Eleonora was interned for a time. On her release she left for Budapest, where, ironically, she was treated ‘with all the respect a high ranking business woman would expect’. Then in 1944 the German army occupied Budapest. As Nazi persecution of Hungarian Jews intensified and they were herded into ghettos, forced to wear a yellow star and deported to concentration camps, she risked her life on numerous occasions to save their lives. Among the people she helped was Herman Steinmetz, a business acquaintance. She made it possible for his wife and three children to escape from Debrecen, where they were in imminent danger, to Budapest and comparative safety for a time. She also contributed to the survival of other Jews by arranging safe houses and by being a contact between people needing safe accommodation and those able to provide it. She liaised on behalf of people in hiding and gave money to enable them to buy food and shelter, and to use as bribes.
When the Hungarian Communist Party came to power in Hungary after the war, private property, including hers, was seized by the state and economic conditions were extremely harsh. Milan Vujiƒ died in 1948; although the specific circumstances of his death are not known, Eleonora attributed it to despair. Shortly after Milan’s death she escaped from Hungary. Designated as a displaced person by the International Refugee Organisation, she lived in Vienna for about 18 months. There, on 22 October 1949, Eleonora married Hungarian-born Lajos Karoly Sipos, a cabinet-maker and fellow refugee from Subotica.
The couple were selected for settlement in New Zealand under its displaced persons quota, and they arrived in Wellington on 18 October 1950 on the Hellenic Prince. After six weeks at an army camp at Pahiatua they settled in New Plymouth. At first, to earn a living, Eleonora sewed (although prior to settling in New Zealand she had not known how), took in washing and cleaned. Louis (as he was known in New Zealand) worked as a carpenter and furniture maker. Later they bought several properties in New Plymouth.
Eleonora was naturalised a New Zealand citizen on 10 April 1956. She joined the New Plymouth Red Cross and helped refugees from the Hungarian uprising of 1956 find accommodation and employment and trace their relatives. She was assistant treasurer of the New Plymouth Red Cross for 10 years before becoming treasurer from 1961 to 1964. She became a convenor of Meals on Wheels. Friends and acquaintances commented on her generosity and on her desire to create happiness about her. In 1972 she received the New Zealand Red Cross Society Outstanding Service Award.
In 1978 she was awarded a Medal of the Just by the Commission for the Designation of the Righteous, established in Israel by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust heroes and martyrs remembrance authority. When asked in an interview in 1979 why she had risked her life to help Jews she said: ‘first, because I felt a great injustice was being done against the Jewish people who had no country of their own; nowhere to go to … Second, I am a Christian; and a human being. All my life I have helped other people, individually and through movements such as the Red Cross, regardless of religion’.
Eleonora Sipos died in New Plymouth on 5 August 1988, survived by Louis, who died two years later. They had had no children. She was an exceptional woman who showed remarkable courage in wartime Hungary.