Photo by Jason Wheeler.
Originally Published: March 20, 2016 6 a.m.
In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, Holocaust survivor Magda Herzberger shared her life’s story at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on March 16. She also read excerpts from her book, “Survivor” and shared her poetry.
A survivor of three death camps, one of Herzberger’s missions in life is to keep alive the memory of the six million Jewish victims, as well as the memory of all the other victims of the Holocaust, she said.
“Many of my family members were among the victims, including my beloved father. My mother survived miraculously,” Herzberger said. “The Holocaust should never be forgotten and all of the victims of persecution who were silenced forever should be honored, respected and remembered.”
Herzberger was born and raised in Transylvania, which was a part of Romania when she was born and became a part of Hungary by 1940, she said.
Even at a young age, Herzberger was a fighter, working hard and fighting for her education as well as becoming a junior fencing champion at age 15 following instruction in the sport from her uncle.
The Germans occupied Herzberger’s city in March 1944 and forced Jewish people to wear the yellow Star of David, Herzberger said. In May of the same year, they were forced into the ghetto and at the end of May, were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau Concentration Camp, she said. After arrival, they were forced to undergo selection headed by Josef Mengele, who Herzberger said she saw every single day.
“At the selection platform, my father and uncle were at my side. Both of them wanted to give me some guidelines of principles and behaviors should we be separated. My father reminded me to follow the path of love, forgiveness and tolerance,” Herzberger said. “My uncle advised me to try and maintain my emotional and my physical strength, even if he wasn’t around. Pain increases our endurance and we have to tolerate pain in order to survive and not fall apart under any adverse situation which we may encounter in our lives. I have lived my life living up to that promise.”
Selection was at the end of each week and Mengele took pleasure in selecting people for the gas chambers, humming his favorite opera arias while selecting, Herzberger said. Those selected were those not considered useful, such as children up to age 14, the old, the sick, pregnant women, invalids and mentally disturbed, she said.
What Herzberger was selected for while in Auschwitz was corpse gatherer, hauling bodies to the pits they dug and incinerating them. The gas chambers were working full time and the crematory ovens could not keep up, she said.
After seven weeks, Herzberger was selected for her second camp in the city of Bremen. She and 500 other women were taken for slave labor in order to clear the city and people who were hit by the bombs. By the end of 1945, Herzberger had lost a great deal of weight due to the hard work, lack of food and harsh winter.
“For the first time, we were declared not useful anymore,” she said, stating she was taken to the extermination camp Bergen-Belsen and forced to march 30 kilometers on foot without food or drink and those who couldn’t go any further were shot by the SS guards. “Imagine what it means to see your fellow prisoners shot in front of you and you never know when you are going to be next.”
It was the end of her third week in the camp when Herzberger could hardly walk. She dragged herself to the trunk of a tree and collapsed next to the corpses, she said. Barely able to move or speak because it was too exhausting, she felt it was time to accept death as her inevitable fate.
However, on April 15, 1945, the day Herzberger thought it would be her last, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops. One found her lying among the corpses and carried her to help.
“As he carried me, I looked at the bare ground of Bergen-Belsen, littered with the corpses of my fellow prisoners. I was thinking that so many of us were crushed and struck by the unkind hand of fate,” she said. “I made a promise to the Almighty that day, I said ‘Almighty God, if you give me a second chance, I make a sacred vow, a promise to you that I will keep alive the memory of all these victims left behind as long as I live.”
After the liberation, there was an outbreak of Typhus, which Herzberger survived and later on in life, she wrote her “Requiem” poem for all the victims of the Holocaust. She also went to medical school on a full scholarship where she met her husband. They are in their 70th year of marriage.
Herzberger said her faith and trust in God, instilled in her since she was a little girl, is what kept her alive throughout all her circumstances as did her love for live and her family.
“I am very grateful that my life was spared and I could return from the camps so I can talk about the unjust suffering and death of all those who perished there,” she said.