Stories from heaven and hell and heaven |

Stories from heaven and hell and heaven

Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger's newest book is available at The Bookworm in the Edwards Riverwalk. She's giving a presentation 10 a.m. Monday at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy. This portrait of Magda and her husband was taken by a photographer taking pictures of Holocaust survivors.

Magda Herzberger has lived through hell and heaven.

Heaven is better.

She survived three Nazi death camps, she and her husband Eugene fled the communists in Romania, fought Israel’s first war, immigrated to America with no money and a couple suitcases.

Now they live quietly here in the valley. He’s a retired neurosurgeon. She writes books – poetry and stories.

Lives in progress, a thing to behold.

They have some stories to tell, and she tells them expertly in her autobiographical new.

Know this: No matter what bumps you may hit in your life’s road, your resume does not include, “Corpse collector in Auschwitz.”

Magda’s does.

A survivor’s story

“Once an idea is born, it doesn’t leave me,” Magda says.

She writes constantly because she has so many stories to tell. This book follows several works of poetry and prose, and precedes the first of three books of poetry scheduled to be published next year.

“I want to bring poetry to the young. It’s dying out,” Magda says. “Big publishers don’t support poetry. It’s like a contagious disease to them.”

The new book “Transcript of Magda Herzberger Interview 1980,” comes with a CD of her voicing a gripping account of her life.

Years ago, when she was 54, the Wisconsin Historical Society interviewed 22 Holocaust survivors.

The interviewer told her to answer everything in great detail. Magda’s interview took three days.

It had been closed 31 years. Now it’s open and you can open it, too.

It was a long series of spontaneous stories, and that made the editing an enormous undertaking, Magda says. She worked on it two years, helping transcribe her oral history to the printed page.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever worked on,” she said.

This book starts in her early married life, her second year of medical school. Eugene had finished medical school and wanted to leave Romania as communism became more oppressive.

The signs were clear of what was to come.

“They confiscated homes and land, instituted censorship of all sorts. They hired informers to lurk around public places and homes,” Magda said. “You did not dare any disagreement or you were branded.”

“We Jewish people were robbed,” Magda said emphatically. “The Germans, the Romanians, the Hungarians. They took away our freedom, we lived in fear of terrorist governments.”

She and Gene saw people hauled from their homes at 2 a.m. who never came back.

So they left.

“I had to abort my dreams of medical school I’d had since I was 12 years old,” Magda said.

Of love and war

Two of Magda’s cousins were with the Jewish underground and the Mossad. Their underground government convinced the Soviets to let the Jewish people go, and 16,000 other Jewish people fled.

IN 1947, wounds from the Holocaust still healing, they piled onto two ships, 8,000 people per ship, and left Bucharest. They slept on boards, packed in like sardines. After weeks at sea they approached Palestine’s territorial waters where they were met by seven British warships. The message was clear: If they sailed into Palestine your ships will be blown from beneath you, Eugene says.

All 16,000 were dumped on the island of Cypress where they lived for more than a year in an internment camp, Eugene practicing medicine as one of the camp’s only doctors, she working as his nurse as she carried their first child. People who tried to escape the camp were shot.

It was horrible, and yet …

Their tent was next Dr. Walter Dandy’s, the doctor credited with developing modern neurosurgery. Eugene learned all he could as fast as possible.

Eventually, Eugene followed Dandy to Israel where he worked brutal hours in an 800-bed hospital, slept in a blood bank and waited for his wife and newborn son to immigrate.

And let’s not forget the war. On May 14, 1948, Israel was recognized as a sovereign nation. The surrounding Arab nations declared war and invaded.

“Five hundred thousand Jewish people of Palestine fought them off,” Gene says.

He was quickly named chief of neurosurgery and collected years worth of surgical experience in just a few months.

“I had lots of practice taking care of gunshot wounds to the brain,” Eugene says.

Wars provide that sort of opportunity.

That war ended, but there was no peace. They kept a bag packed by their apartment’s front door in Israel. If a bomb hit they’d be ready to flee. They needed it with unnerving regularity.

Finally, they left Israel for America, Eugene working two jobs for years and Magda taking care of their children, learning English and beginning her prolific writing career.

They both ran marathons, training in all their spare time. Magda has run three and won them all.

A poet’s soul

With it all, the stories and poems pour out of her.

The Lakeside is a happy lyric poem.

One poem took her all the way back to Bergen Belsen, the Nazi detah camp where she was dying, and how sad she was that she’d be dragged off and tossed into a mass grave. As she lay near death, she created in her mind her funeral. A huge Gothic cathedral in the Middle Ages. The door was ajar.

There’s “Practical Advice, “Introspection,” “Transformation, “Fantasies” … Her poems will fill three more books. When she’s done she’ll write more.

She’s getting more and more demands on her time and is happy to accommodate them, as long as Eugene accompanies her.

It takes about an hour for her to work through the 54 slides in her Holocaust presentation. More and more people are asking that she spend a little time with them.

She’ll speak to the Virginia Military Academy, colleges up and down the East Coast and in the southwest, where they spend their winters.

She’s telling her story today for the students at the Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy, at Maloit Park in Minturn’s Maloit Park.

It’s a story worth telling, and hearing.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or

Support Local Journalism