‘Hatred, cruelty, violence ruled’
EAGLE-VAIL ” Backcountry skiing with friends in Vail Mountain’s Mushroom Bowl is a long way from collecting corpses at the Auschwitz death camp.
Both are among the most indelible moments of Eagle-Vail resident Magda Herzberger’s life.
Herzberger, 79, spends the summers in a duplex on Eagle Road with her husband of almost 60 years, Eugene, a retired neurosurgeon. And she’s spent the last 30 years talking about how Nazis murdered almost her entire family and finally left her to die in a pile of dead bodies at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
“We had tremendous losses,” said Herzberger, a native of Cluj, Romania who was 18 when she was deported to Auschwitz on cattle cars with her entire family.
“I had wonderful parents, a big family, unfortunately 80 percent are gone. I was very fortunate my mother survived, but my father and my uncle ” who was the Romanian fencing champion ” perished in Dachau, and then many of my family members, like aunts, uncles and some cousins, were gassed in Auschwitz,” Herzberger said.
Herzberger and her husband have climbed Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado, 28 times, and Mount of the Holy Cross, Eagle County’s highest, three times. They first came to Vail in 1967 and skied Back Bowls when they were still a wilderness.
The idyllic surroundings she’s explored since being liberated from the Bergen-Belsen death camp are as majestic as those she grew up among at the foot of Transylvania’s Carpathian Mountains.
Her large family was prosperous before anti-Semitism destroyed their lives, she said. Before the Nazi slaughter began, there were summer carriage rides, young cousins with whom she played and gathered pears, and barbecues with handmade ice cream and fresh corn-on-the-cob.
There were also Herzberger’s parents ” a father whom she describes as affectionate. The manager of an engine factory who played the cello, the violin and the clarinet, he instilled in Herzberger a love of culture, she said.
Her mother, with whom she would be reunited after the Holocaust under miraculous circumstances involving a one-room apartment and a box of chocolates, was a charitable woman who invited the neighborhood’s poor to eat dinner with the family on Friday nights, she said.
“Imagine growing up in an environment like this and being thrown in the German concentration camps where everything I learned at home, all my principles, did not exist ” love and compassion were dead,” she said. “Hatred, cruelty, violence ruled.
“So at the beginning I thought I’m in a nightmare, I thought this couldn’t be true, and then I had to accept it,” she said.
When the Jewish prisoners who survived the harrowing deportations arrived at Auschwitz, a group of SS officials, often led by the notorious Dr. Joseph Mengele, separated the crowds into those who could work and those who would be gassed immediately.
“All the little kids in my family, pregnant women, old people, sick people, invalids, the mentally disturbed, they all went to the gas chamber,” she said. “I was selected because I was strong, I was really athletic.”
Her father and her uncle, who began to realize horror lay ahead, spoke to her on the “selection platform” shortly before they were separated forever. In her book, “Survival,” Herzberger shares their words:
“Follow the broad, countless streets of knowledge and beware of the dark, narrow alleys of ignorance,” her father said. “Don’t forget me in case something tragic should happen to me and I will never be able to come back to you.”
“Pain increases our endurance” her uncle told her. “We have to tolerate pain in order to survive and not fall apart under any adverse situations which we may encounter.”
Though the scene at the gates of the death camp was grim, the horrors occurring inside had not yet been revealed to the newly arrived prisoner ” they could not even be imagined, Herzberger said.
“Imagine you’re standing on this platform and you have the railroad tracks … and the huge chimneys and the great flames coming from these chimney and the air was filled with the strange, sweetish, sickening door of burning flesh,” she said.
“Would you imagine in your nightmares that those were the bodies of the innocent victims of persecution, family members were burning there after they’d been gassed, in the gas chamber? Nobody could visualize something as horrible as that.”
Herzberger was put to work collecting the corpses of Jewish prisoners who died from exhaustion, starvation and from the fatal diseases rampant in the camps.
The prisoners had no masks or gloves with which protect themselves from infections when dealing with the dead bodies.
“Horrible illnesses broke out due to the terrible conditions,” she said. “When you drag corpses you never knew what people died of. There was scarlet fever, scurvy, dysentery, typhus, all kind of illnesses,” she said.
Using an expletive, Herzberger said the prisoners were treated like refuse. “We had no names, we had prison tags,” she said. “We were disposable and they tried to kill us in any form they could.”
The corpse-gathering “commando” also had to drag away the bodies of prisoners who committed suicide by hurling themselves into the camp’s electric fences. Suicide was a “daily event,” in the camp, she said.
“People did not see any reason to live ” they lost their hope,” she said. “Hopelessness leads to desperation, desperation leads to depression and depression deepens … and then they desire to die, and suicide is next.”
Life in the shoddily-built camp barracks was no relief from the hellish conditions outside, Herzberger said.
“They had big holes in the roof, they had big cracks in the walls and so when it was raining, the water came in … and we had to sleep on the damp floors,” she said. “We could not wash ourselves, there was no water or there was foul water.”
Along with small pieces of stale bread, “our food consisted of a concoction of a soup that when you have seen it, you felt like you want to throw up,” she said.
Bodies often rotted in the barracks, attracting vermin, she said.
“I have seen corpses in stages of decay that is unbelievable ” partially eaten by rats,” she said.
Pregnant women ” who would be gassed and cremated with their newborns ” had only one hope for survival, and at the camp’s infirmary, there were doctors and nurses who would try to save these women by giving them abortions.
“What they had to do to help, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “There was some kind of a substance could be injected, because there was no way the baby would stay alive.
“Auschwitz was an epitome of horrors … and you were always afraid you might get one of these infectious illnesses,” she said, “because this was your death sentence, you were not considered useful anymore.
“You lived in constant fear.”
Herzberger wore the same blue dress, without underwear or any warmer winter clothes, for almost the entire time she was imprisoned by the Nazis.
She wore it to her second camp, Bremen, where she and the other prisoners were forced to clean up after the massive bombardments.
“I never thought I was going to survive Bremen,” she said.
Later during her imprisonment at Bremen in the fall of 1944 ” around the time of the holiest Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur ” she developed strep throat. Her throat was so sore and inflamed she couldn’t swallow the hard, dry bread the prisoners were given, she said.
The camp guards decided she wasn’t sick enough to either be admitted to the infirmary or excused from work. But that day she would make two discoveries, she said, that saved her life. In the ruins of bombed jelly factory, her friend her found an old raincoat.
“Do you know what it means to have two pockets when you don’t have gloves and you just have rags?” she said. “It was a treasure.”
Later, she found two jars of jelly, and had the pockets in which to hide them from the guards.
But if she had been caught with the jars when returning the concentration camp, they would’ve been taken and she would’ve face a punishment that likely meant a severe beating.
Her only hope was an allied bombing raid, which meant the prisoners would be taken to a bunker rather than back to the camp, she said.
When the bombing came, it was so intense she prayed to God to let her die in the bunker instead of in the gas chamber, she said. But though an adjacent bunker was completely destroyed, killing a group of Russian prisoners inside, she survived.
“All the houses were burning and some were just pieces,” she said. “I could see a girl running out from a house. She was yelling that her house was burning and that her parents were inside.
“I have seen the terrible tragedies and the ravages of war,” she said.
Because of the bombing, some of the SS officers had fled her concentration camp and there was no inspection. She smuggled in her jars of jelly and at them that night after the other prisoners had fallen asleep.
“I woke up in the morning, the strep throat was gone, the fever was gone,” she said. “I could never understand what the jelly contained that healed me.”
Then she was forced to march from Bremen to the notorious Bergen-Belsen death camp. Many prisoners died on the march and conditions at the camp were even worse.
“The grounds of Bergen-Belsen were littered with corpses,” she said. “We slept next to corpses and the stench was terrible. But if you can’t get away, you have to get used to it.”
Herzberger again got ready to die, she said. “One day I collapsed with the corpses at the trunk of a birch tree,” she said. “That day I had to prepare for death. I felt I wanted to do some things with my life. At this moment, I thought I was going to die and realized the great beauty of life.
“I wanted to live and I wanted to live peacefully,” she said.
Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945. A soldier found Herzberger lying in the pile of bodies.
“The British soldiers lifted me up from the corpses and carried me,” she said. “As I looked at the ground of Bergen-Belsen and saw the corpses, I thought, if I survive and get a second chance, I am going to do something in their memory ” but it took me a long time.”
It took Herzberger almost 30 years before she began telling their stories, first in poems and later, in her book.
Herzberger returned to Romania and found her mother working as a restaurant cashier and living in a one-room apartment, where her mother had left out a pile of second-hand clothes and a box of chocolates for her in case she returned.
“When I came home I went through a real difficult time, because the first months I realized all the losses,” she said. “I felt like was 100 years old, I didn’t feel like a 19-year-old girl.”
But simple pleasures began to revive her, she said.
“We were very poor, but we had each other,” she said. “And I enjoyed it immensely ” that I was free, sitting by the fireside and eating chocolates. Scrambled eggs and one piece of bread with butter was a delicacy.”
By 1946 she had met and married her husband and was a medical student. She began writing poems in the 1960s and began talking about the Holocaust in the 1970s. Her book, “Survivor,” is meant to honor and tell the stories of those who died, she said.
And details of life in the camps are explicit for a reason, she said.
“If I really want to do something in the memory of the Holocaust, I cannot just present halfway the horrors of the Holocaust,” she said. “People have to know what the real Holocaust was. The real Holocaust was not only ‘Schindler’s List,’ the real Holocaust was not only ‘A Beautiful Life.’ Sometimes there’s a tendency not to shock people, which means not telling the whole truth.
“I decided my book will be so that I can talk you along with me .. into the camps and live with me every day,” she said. “It’s the journal of an 18-year-old who’s thrown into this hellish environment and struggles and fights to survive, to maintain her humanness so that love and compassion should not ever leave her heart … and not to become animalic and fight and steal the little piece of dry bread from the other (prisoners) and behave in a way that’s very degrading.
“I thought if they would do that to me and I would behave like this would mean that they really killed me, that spiritually, they made me into a different person who leaves their principals and became somebody else.
“So you have to fight for life but you have to fight to keep your principles,” she said, “because there was no guarantee that you survive if you became a monster.”
Herzberger said she still wonders how a culturally advanced country like Germany ” the culture of Beethoven, Mozart and Einstein ” could perpetrate a highly organized genocide and build the gas chambers.
“They established killing factories … in the gas chambers, 3,000 people were killed time and time again in five minutes,” she said. “This was a terrible thing and nobody came to our assistance until it was too late. By the time the assistance came, many of us were killed.”
Assistant Editor for Local News Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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