Eagle County’s Magda Herzberger: Soul survivor
Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series about Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger and parts of her amazing life.
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Nazis could not kill Magda Herzberger’s body nor her poetic soul, and it’s that soul that helped her survive the death camps.
The Holocaust survivor and author of 10 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,” she said.
Her latest book, “Dream World,” is a powerful combination of poetry and prose that deftly and elegantly captures the beauty in a series of dreams over 10 years. Dreams, not nightmares, although she’s had those, too.
“She wants the world to know that under the most inhumane conditions, the human spirit can survive and overcome even the deepest despair,” James Moore, author of “One Nation Under God: The History of Prayer in America,” writes in the forward.
Eugene and Magda Herzberger have walked hand in hand through history. Magda’s book “Survival” stops where their marriage began and the Holocaust ended.
Eugene Herzberger, M.D., 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, surviving World War II and escaping the communist takeover in eastern Europe. They have two children, Henry and Monica Wolfson, both among the first children born in Israel.
But before we can tell you that love story, we have to tell your 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, 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 scored 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.
Magda lost touch with that rabbi until the 1990s when she tracked him down through friends and asked him to write the forward for “Survival,” her Holocaust account. He was in his 90s by then. He said he’d be happy to, so she sent him the manuscript; he corrected some spelling and grammatical errors, wrote her a delightful forward and sent it back.
“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.
“It symbolized a dirty Jew,” Magda said.
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 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.”
Tomorrow, Part 2: Surviving the Holocaust’s horrors