The hell of the Holocaust
Editor’s note: This is the second 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 — Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger has known family and famine.
Magda lived through three Nazi death camps — Auschwitz, Bremen and Bergen-Belsen. She was 18 when the Nazi SS grabbed her and her family.
“I have seen the ravages of war, and I saw some miracles in the camps,” Magda said.
She has written a dozen books, all available at The Bookworm in Edwards. Her book “Survivor” chronicles the horrors and miracles of those death camps.
Hers is a story of love and loss and loving again. It’s a great story.
Hitler history hits home
Hitler’s Germany took the northern half of Transylvania, in Romania, the half where Magda’s family lived. The Nazis needed its natural resources to fuel their war machine.
As the war clouds grew closer to their home, her father hid a few heirlooms in a metal box and buried it in their backyard. Each day Magda wears a wristwatch from that box. Whether it keeps perfect time is irrelevant (it does). It’s more important that its soul is strong, like Magda’s.
The war raged through Romania and the rest of Europe. In 1944, the Romanians abandoned the Axis powers and aligned with the Allies against the Nazis, resulting in furious battles over Romania’s oil fields. Along with human blood and sacrifice, oil fuels war machines.
All the while, the massacres continued with Jews and others hauled by the thousands to death camps.
They sometimes wondered if it could get worse. It could. An entire world was locked in war and Auschwitz was looming for Magda and her family.
“Our family was decimated by the camps,” Magda said.
In May 1944, police stuffed her and her family into small cattle cars, more than 80 people crammed together per car, and hauled them to Auschwitz, a trip of three days and three nights. Their horrors had just begun.
Faith, hope and love
When they arrived at Auschwitz, Nazi SS guards with rubber sticks split them into groups of men and women, in rows of five, beating them as they went. If they fell, then they were killed. If they stood, then they were sometimes killed anyway.
Her father knew he would soon die, and he gave his young daughter a gift that he prayed would sustain her.
“He told me to cling to the three pillars of life: faith, hope and love. ‘Never let hatred enter your heart, no matter what happens,’” Magda recalled, her voice cracking slightly at the memory.
Her uncle found her, and gave her a similarly beautiful gift.
“He told me, ‘Maintain your physical and emotional strength. Pain increases endurance,’” Magda recalled.
Death is no angel
As they waited silently in their lines, the Angel of Death strolled into their midst. Dr. Josef Mengele wore a small and evil smile on his handsome face, his hair perfect, his boots polished to a high shine, his swagger stick under his arm. Mengele tortured and used Jews in Auschwitz for medical experiments in his fruitless attempts to create Hitler’s master Aryan race.
He began to select his new subjects as Magda and the others watched and waited, gazing into the face of pure evil.
“I saw him. He was humming his favorite opera arias,” she said. “He pointed left and right. People sent to the left were not useful: children, the old, the disabled.”
Magda, 18 years old, strong and athletic, was useful. She was sent to the right and put to work as a corpse collector.
“Just five minutes to the left from where we were standing was the killing factory,” she said.
As she waited, she was horrified as huge trucks piled high with corpses rumbled past, so full that arms and legs dangled out.
“I wondered, ‘Where do all these bodies come from?’” she said.
She soon learned.
The gas chamber and crematory ovens stood behind an inviting entrance with gardens, flowers and fountains — a cruel and vicious juxtaposition. Victims were led to an underground viaduct, their clothes folded neatly as if they would return after a shower. Their clothes were distributed throughout Germany after they were killed, as they quickly would be.
When 3,000 people were pushed inside, the cyanide gas was let out.
“In five minutes, people died a horrible death,” Magda said. “There were piles of corpses in those gas chambers. People would climb up on each other trying to escape, trying to get away from the gas, but no one did.”
Four killing factories worked with morbid efficiency, with hundreds of people like Magda collecting corpses. The Nazi guards took gold teeth, hair and anything else they thought they could use. The bodies were burned and the ashes used to fertilize fields.
Auschwitz was an extermination camp. Victims were either killed or worked to death digging mass graves and gathering corpses.
“There was so much killing that the gas chambers couldn’t handle it all,” she said. “You never knew if you would be alive the next day.”
‘No one should experience what I did.’
Scant food, no heat, no warm clothes. The dress Magda was wearing when she went into the camps was the same dress she wore when she was liberated.
“It was the most ridiculous dress. We looked like tragic clowns,” she said.
All those dresses had a two-inch red stripe up the back so Jews could be easily identified if they tried to escape. Magda tried twice, but was caught and beaten both times.
To wash it, she stood in the rain. When they slept, they slept on dirt or wood floors. Their barracks had only one window, but it was close to the crematory ovens and the sickening sweet smell of death and burning flesh easily found its way in.
They were beaten if they worked too slow, beaten if the guards felt like beating them. Women were beaten when they had their periods.
“I tried to put myself in a trance. I wanted to create my own world because in the daytime it was unbearable that this horrific world was real,” Magda said.
Death by despair
She was working with a girl and together they searched for the girl’s mother throughout Auschwitz, among the living and the dead. They found her mother electrocuted on a prison fence. She had committed suicide, a common practice in Auschwitz, by throwing herself on the wire that coursed massive amounts of electricity through her body.
The girl turned to Magda and with a dead look in her eye, and grabbed the wire. The massive surge of electricity killed her almost instantly.
Magda had to pull them both off the fence.
“Seconds before I had been talking to her, a living breathing human being,” Magda said.
Seven weeks later, she was one of 500 prisoners forced to march 40 kilometers to another death camp, Bergen-Belsen, in a German port. No food, ill-fitting wooden Dutch shoes in which to trudge through the biting winter cold. If they fell during the march, then they were shot.
The prisoners slogged into Bergen-Belsen in the middle of the pitch black night. The smell of decay told her she was in another execution camp, where the living existed among the dead.
A friend had smuggled a candle and a match, so they found a tent and slipped inside to light it.
The tiny flame illuminated a vision of hell itself. Corpses were piled high inside, outside, everywhere.
The Allies bombed the city relentlessly each night. By day, prisoners would clear some of the rubble and the bombing victims’ bodies, tossing jagged bricks from hand to hand through the bitter cold, their fingers cracking and bleeding — no socks, no coats, no heated barracks.
If they got frostbite, then they were no longer useful and were killed. If they were lucky, then they found rags to wrap around their hands and feet.
“There was always bombing. Entire streets were gone,” Magda said. “But they could not kill my spirit. I felt sorry for some of those victims.”
Magda’s spirit lived, but the Nazis killed everything else they could.
Angels in army fatigues
Starvation forces the body to devour itself — to use itself for fuel. If you don’t get food and rest, you die.
No food, no rest, slave labor for weeks and months on end, disease and cold took their toll on Magda, a former champion in gymnastics and fencing.
“I was used up,” she said.
She was dragging yet another corpse through the mud when she collapsed under a birch tree, beside a pile of bodies. She lay there and resigned herself to her death, asking God only that it be peaceful.
She was dying, lying under that birch tree amid all that death and decay, asking God to make her part of that tree’s root system so she could live on through it. She was still just 18 years old.
“I was no longer afraid to die,” she said.
She closed her eyes and was slipping away when she heard screaming and commotion. She used much of her remaining strength to open her eyes.
She wasn’t sure if it was a dream, delirium or reality, but she thought she saw that the Nazi guards had fled their guard towers and posts. British tanks were crashing through the main gate, angels wearing green Army fatigues.
“One of them was headed straight for my pile of bodies,” she said. “He was weeping when picked me up like a leaf.”
“My destruction was swept aside by the kind hand of fate.”
Most prisoners were tattooed with identification numbers. Magda was not. She was given dog tags instead.
“They did not think I would be alive that long,” she said.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
It would be really hard to spark a wildfire anywhere near Vail Mountain or Beaver Creek right now. Still, unattended campfires will always draw attention.