Finding humanity in hell
September 8, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series about Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger and parts of her amazing life. Find the previous two stories on our website, vaildaily.com
EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado – Magda Herzberger found humanity in hell.
The local Holocaust survivor was cast into the pit of human depravity, the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz, Bremen and Bergen-Belsen. Most of the voices of human decency were found in her own heart.
She has written 10 books, all available at the Bookworm in the Edwards Riverwalk. The latest is “Dream World,” is a delightful combination of of poetry and prose, chronicling dreams she had over a 10-year period about the Holocaust, Elijah, Robert Frost and a heavenly host of other topics.
Her book “Survivor” chronicles the horrors and miracles of those death camps.
Magda was forced into slavery as a corpse collector and other forced labor, and was moments from her own death when British troops liberated Bergen-Belsen, pulling her back from the brink of the grave. She was 18 years old.
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It took her three months to gain enough strength to walk. When she did, the Red Cross arranged transportation and food back to her hometown, Cluj, Romania, to search for her mother. Magda found her living in a one-bedroom apartment and rang the bell.
“Who is it?” her mother asked.
“It is your daughter coming home,” Magda answered.
Waiting for Magda inside were three boxes of chocolates, some clothes and shoes neatly folded, and Magda’s piano.
“Everything else had been looted,” she said.
Lifetimes passed between the time that 12-year-old Magda announced she wanted to go to medical school, and when she returned home an 18-year-old Holocaust survivor. But she still wanted to go to medical school.
She passed her first round of exams, then her baccalaureate and prepped for the medical school exam. Her mother, meanwhile, had scraped together enough money for her to either buy a swimsuit or take a literature class. Magda opted for the class, a decision that would change her life yet again.
Eugene Herzberger was a medical student with a love for literature sitting in the back of the classroom when he spotted Magda.
“He liked the look from the back, so he decided to see what I looked like from the front,” Magda said.
He walked her home from school and a week or so later they found themselves at a student outing at a lake, arranged by the university.
Magda went along, even though she had swapped her swimsuit for literature and didn’t think she’d be getting in the water. Gene rented her a swimsuit and they dove right in – both literally and romantically. He rose from the water and it was Magda’s turn to like what she saw.
“He looked like Tarzan,” Magda said, grinning.
But Magda’s rented swimsuit had a hole in the hind end, so Gene swept her off her feet and carried her out of the water, her dignity intact.
It may not have been love at first sight, but it came on pretty fast.
He helped her study for her medical school exam and three months later they were married, Nov. 21, 1946. That’s 64 years.
“We studied very hard every day. We were very poor, but we were happy. We had each other,” Magda said.
For Gene on their 50th anniversary she wrote, “If You Truly Love Me,” a book of love poems.
Their daughter Monica Wolfson illustrates Magda’s books. Monica is also a breathtaking singer, trained in opera and jazz.
But it was 1946 in Romania and the Soviets began rolling where the Nazis left off. The Romanian government soon became a totalitarian regime.
“They took land from the people, making them slaves of the state. They’d say it’s all for the people,” Gene said.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press was crushed. Reporters were considered enemies of the state, Gene said.
“There were no movies. Everything was propaganda,” Magda said.
The Soviets started hiring informers who they paid for denouncing you, Magda said.
“No one dared speak to anyone about anything that could be construed as opposing the government,” Magda said. “We are people who like to say what we think.”
“We even whispered in our own house because maybe they hired someone to sit at your door and listen,” Gene said. “Jewish people were now under another type of persecution.
That was 1946 and a new Jewish homeland was being carved out along the Mediterranean coast.
A relative helped arrange an immigration voyage and they joined 8,000 other people stuffed onto two cargo ships headed for Palestine. Gene, Magda and Magda’s mother left Romania with a knapsack and slept on wooden shelves, packed in like sardines. The ships had to negotiate mine fields left in the ocean from the war that had ended just over a year before.
Late in their journey, seven British warships stopped them in the Aegean Sea, and their captain was told that if they continued there could be no guarantee for their safety.
On Jan. 1, 1948, the 8,000 people landed on Cyprus and a refugee camp, surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, and living at least five people to a tent.
“You would be shot for trying to escape,” Gene said. “Even after the Hitler camps, they took it upon themselves to put us in these camps and keep us there.”
Five months later, May 14, 1948, Israel was declared an independent nation. Arab armies invaded that very night, Gene said.
The month before, in April, the call had gone out that males over 35 could leave the camp for Israel. That left two physicians in Cyprus refugee camp. The 28-year old Gene was one of them.
Gene soon left Cyprus for Israel to take a job as a neurosurgeon. The chief of neurosurgery had lived in the tent next door in the refugee camp.
Magda followed with her mother three weeks before their son, Henry, was born.
“It was Feb. 21, 1949 when I got the call and I was drawing brain gunshot injuries for a paper the chief of neurosurgery wanted to present,” Gene said. “I said ‘Congratulate me. I am a father!’ He said congratulations, then told me to sit down and get back to work.”
In the three months before Madga arrived in Israel, Gene slept in the hospital’s blood bank every night and operated on brain tumors and spinal cords every day. He had to be out of the blood bank by 6 o’clock each morning.
“On one hand, the load was tremendous, but I got lots of surgical practice,” he said.
They ate in the hospital cafeteria, lived in a one-room apartment and Henry slept in a large laundry basket. Soon, Magda’s in-laws were living in the same room.
Gene was 33 years old and the head of neurosurgery in an 850 bed hospital, when he was mobilized for the Israeli army and the 1956 Sinai War. How it started depends on whose history you’re reading, but Israel ended it quickly.
“It was considered a brilliant military victory for Israel,” Gene said.
They lived in Israel nine years and never knew peace. They kept clothes by the door in case they had to flee an attack.
They scooped up their two children, Henry and Monica, both born in Israel, packed a knapsack just like they had when they left Romania and headed for America. They had $100 with which to start their new life in the United States.
They landed at New York’s LaGuardia Airport. Before long a doctor friend later told Gene about a job far from the city in a psychiatric hospital for $400 a month.
“American doctors would not work for $400 a month, but I had two children and one wife. I was happy to have it,” Gene said.
Home was a cabin in the woods.
The first night a huge thunderstorm hit with a thunder clap that sounded like a bomb going off, a sound they knew all too well. They still kept clothes packed by the door, and when the thunder cracked Magda jumped for it.
“I thought for a second that we were under attack,” she said laughing.
Henry and Monica had learned some English in Israel and caught on quickly. Gene knew English and improved almost daily.
Magda spoke no English when the family immigrated from Israel to the United States in 1957. But by 1963 she was writing poetry.
She was born with a poet’s soul and started composing short stories when she was 10 years old. But she put off writing because she did not want to relive the Holocaust, and it was always there, lurking.
She didn’t write about the Holocaust until 1973, when someone in an elementary school asked her to do a little something for a history lesson, and then not directly, alluding to it in a collection of fairy tales and poems.
She was scheduled to speak in a classroom and ended up in front of hundreds of people in a lecture hall. Most of her public appearances are like that, scheduled for some small intimate venue, but moved to a large hall because Magda’s and Gene’s story is so compelling and so many people want to hear it.
She and Gene were driving through the rain in Wisconsin, where Gene had a neurosurgery practice. Magda was watching the windshield wipers rhythmically pass back and forth in front of her, when she had a vision of a death camp. She’d held them at bay for years, but pictures became visions, the visions became two lines of poetry:
• “Life without liberty is plain agony.”
• “As time goes slowly on, we become a piece of stone.”
She wrote them down and has not stopped. She has 10 books published and is working on the next two, unique combinations of epic poetry and prose.
She rarely writes directly about the Holocaust, but you don’t have to look far to see the themes of rebirth and love, and how love lives on.
Her work is gracefully packed with lyrical imagery: cold bricks, bombing rubble, cold beaten and bloody hands juxtaposed against the healing power of faith, hope, human love and compassion.
She will not allow Holocaust victims to be forgotten, nor their vision: “A stone falls to the bottom of the sea and stays there, forgotten forever,” she writes.
Not as long as Magda can draw breath or put pen to paper.
“It’s part of me,” she said.
It’s becoming part of us, too.
A New York City publisher published some of her work. Groundbreaking Press in Austin, Texas is her current publisher.
She hears from students around the world. There are some in Kyoto, Japan, recently, and another in Korea.
She’s the subject of a young historian’s graduate thesis.
She and Gene were part of the National Prayer Breakfast, invited by Assistant Secretary of Commerce Jim Moore.
She’s taught in schools in her home town, Cluj, Romania.
For Magda Herzberger, books are not written. They are “born.”
Her writing is powerful and personal, aimed at inspiring readers toward their higher selves. She’s seen the lowest and the highest, and the highest is better.
“What kind of book is it that you don’t put yourself out there?” she asks.
She and Gene have climbed almost every fourteener in Colorado. They’ve been up Mount Elbert 28 times.
They live in Eagle-Vail through most of the year, but gave up alpine skiing in 1976 for backcountry skiing.
“It’s much more interesting to walk up the mountain,” Gene said.
They know about heights and depths, and like her father told her the day he died in that Nazi death camp, faith hope and love will get you through both.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.