Of life, death and love
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part series about Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger and her amazing life. The Vail Daily is republishing these stories in honor of the 70th anniversary of liberating Nazi death camps near the end of World War II.
EAGLE COUNTY — Nazis could not kill Magda Herzberger’s body or her poetic soul, and it’s that soul that helped her survive the death camps.
The Holocaust survivor and author of more than a dozen books has lived through humanity’s worst, and now strives to bring out its best.
“People sometimes ask, ‘How can you remember so much about the Holocaust?’” she said. “How could you ever forget? I promised God that my mission would be to do everything I can to make sure these people are never forgotten.”
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Eugene and Magda Herzberger have walked hand in hand through history. Yes, they live in the Vail Valley, but mostly they live in each other’s hearts.
Eugene Herzberger is a neurosurgeon by training and an adventurer by spirit. He and Magda were among Israel’s first settlers after it was declared a sovereign nation on May 14, 1948. They survived World War II and escaped the communist takeover in eastern Europe. They have two children, Henry Herzberger and Monica Wolfson, both among the first children born in Israel.
But before we can tell you that love story, we have to tell you this story.
Jewish oppression in the 20th century culminated with the Nazis and the death camps of World War II, but it didn’t start there.
Magda was 7 years old and living in Romania when her father took her aside and explained the importance of education and what it means to be Jewish. She soon learned the lesson the hard way. She was 11 years old and attending a school where the teachers and principal hated Jews.
“Jews stand up,” the teacher told Magda and the other Jews in the classroom and then called them awful names.
After school, the other children threw stones at them and shouted degrading anti-Jewish limericks.
Young Magda turned to her father and asked, “Why do they hate Jews?”
Her father told her they had to make sacrifices for what’s important, and education is important. But the grades of Jewish students were routinely lowered to keep them out of better schools.
In that part of Europe, students had to have exceptional grades and high scores on national tests to advance to better schools. If they didn’t have the grades or test scores, they were funneled to trade schools.
Anti-Jewish laws prohibited Jews from holding management positions, and Magda’s father was forced from his job with an automobile company. Jews were banned from public speaking and performing, they could not hold public office, their land and valuables were confiscated. Magda’s uncles were forced at gunpoint to abandon their businesses. Jews’ radios were confiscated so they couldn’t hear the news. Jews couldn’t travel, classrooms limited the number of Jews, and finally Jews in Hungary were banned from schools completely … it went on and on.
“We really were surrounded and stuck,” Magda said.
Jewish professors and teachers were fired, which turned out to be something of a miracle, one of a lifetime of Magda miracles.
Their Rabbi, Dr. Moshe Carmilly-Weinberger launched two Jewish high schools, one for boys and one for girls, where many of those professors and teachers went to work. “I had excellent teachers,” she said. Magda was 12 years old and knew she wanted to go to medical school.
She never had the chance
Taken and tortured
“I was 18 when they came to take us,” she said.
She was not quite finished with high school as the war raged all around. The Nazis rolled through her hometown, Kolozsvar-Cluj, Romania, on March 27, 1944. In April, Jews were relocated to a ghetto at the edge of town and forced to wear a five-pointed yellow Star of David any time they were outside.
In May 1944, the police gathered all the Jewish addresses from city hall and stormed from street to street, giving the families moments to pack before forcing them onto an open truck that would haul many of them to their deaths.
“What do you grab when you can only take one thing?” Magda asked.
She snatched up a book of short stories she’d been writing since she was small. Clutching it to her breast she started outside. A policeman barked questions and commands. When she told him what it was, he smiled the first truly evil smile she had ever seen.
“I came from a very loving family,” she said.
The police officer tore the book from her arms and ripped it to pieces.
“I was heartbroken at first,” Magda said. “But I quickly realized that I was a writer when I was 10 years old. They could take my book, but they could not take my mind and my heart. I could write more. I can replace this.”
Her father was away, working at his clandestine job as an accountant when the Nazi police kicked in the door to their house and took his family.
“I begged the gendarme to wait for my father, but they could care less if I ever see him again,” Magda said.
He rode his bicycle up the street as he saw the truck pulling away. Pedaling faster than he had in his life, he caught up to the truck, threw his bicycle against a wall and swung on behind with his family.
“At least we were together,” her father told Magda.
The camps killed him. As he died he told Magda to always keep the “gift of forgiveness.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @torqueandrecoil