Leaving eternal memories of tragedy
September 5, 2006
EAGLE-VAIL ” In May 1944, when the Hungarian police came to take Magda Hertzberger and her family from their home and send them to a concentration camp, an 18-year-old Hertzberger quickly grabbed a book of her short stories.
“I was holding it to my breast,” Hertzberger said. “It was a part of me ” my spiritual self.”
The smiling police officer asked to see the book, and Hertzberger obliged.
“He took my little book and tore it into pieces,” Hertzberger said. “I felt like a part of me was torn out. I was smart enough not to say anything, but I felt the pain. I thought, ‘You can tear up my book, but you can’t tear out my thoughts ” you can’t take that away.'”
After surviving the Holocaust, where Hertzberger saw horrors she never imagined, she had more thoughts and pain. It wasn’t until 1963, however, that Hertzberger began to write.
“One day the writing came back to me, but in a different form,” Hertzberger said. “It was lyrical poetry, and nothing about the Holocaust. But the shadows of the Holocaust wouldn’t leave me alone.”
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Hertzberger began to write several poems telling of her Holocaust experience, but she had trouble finishing them.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to write anymore about the Holocaust.’ I did not want to evoke those horrible shadows,” Hertzberger said.
For a while, Hertzberger put her early Holocaust poems in a suitcase and locked them up.
After several speaking engagements in which Hertzberger spoke of the atrocities she witnessed in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, she felt more comfortable and continued to write.
Over the years, Hertzberger has created volumes of poems, about the Holocaust as well as everyday life. Hertzberger’s newest book, “The Waltz of the Shadows (second edition)” gives readers a look into her life through her narrative poetic style, while her other new book “Devotional Poetry,” is a collection of her prayers and hymns.
Hertzberger, whose vivid memory recalls the jingle of the bells on the boots or the feathers on the caps of the Hungarian policemen when they came into her house, is a wonderful storyteller. Her poems put you in the time and place, and show you what she saw, smelled heard and felt.
“I don’t want to write poetry that only I can understand,” Hertzberger said. “I like directness, clarity and sincerity.”
And even though Hertzberger’s writing may have evolved over the years, the 80-year-old can transport herself back in time.
“I keep this 18-year-old, this 5-year-old and 3-year-old inside of me, just as much as the 50-year-old or 60-year-old,” Hertzberger.
While Hertzberger has spoken countless times in front of audiences all over the country, she feels the written word is essential to her mission.
“When I was liberated and I saw all those dead bodies … I promised God I was going to keep that memory alive,” Hertzberger said. “I think God has a purpose for me. I went through the ultimate suffering. I was dying, so I know exactly how my fellow prisoners felt who went all the way. I feel a strong responsibility towards them. I’m afraid that if none of us will talk, it will be forgotten. The young generation has to know. The written word stays.”
Not only does Hertzberger have vivid memories of her poems, but she also enjoys the times when she lived her poetry.
One summer day, Hertzberger and her husband went for a swim in a lake in Wisconsin. While swimming to the middle of the lake, Hertzberger began to recite her poem “The Lakeside.”
“I felt like a water lily,” Hertzberger said, giving a good laugh.
In the next few months, Hertzberger hopes to publish two books that showcase her more cheerful work: a book of love poems to commemorate her 60th wedding anniversary with her husband Eugene, a retired neurosurgeon, as well as a book of fairy tales, some of which make illusions to the Holocaust.
“I branched out because I think I have a humanitarian mission,” Hertzberger said. “That was a natural progress in my writing career. I love poetry, lyric poetry, which is not the subject of the Holocaust, and I have Holocaust poetry. You’ll feel my experiences with the stories.”
In one of the fairy tales, Hertzberger presents a beautiful and charming witch, who earns the trust of a village, but eventually takes advantage of the village. The witch, for Hertzberger, was a good-looking female guard at concentration camp, who despite her pleasant facade, facilitated the death of countless Jews.
“But in the end it’s good because god interferes,” Hertzberger said.
Herzberger will be speaking Thursday at the Eagle River Presbyterian Church at 6:30 p.m.
Staff Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.