Story by Jeannette Cruz
Photos by Travis Neely
GCU News Bureau
Magda Herzberger had a very unusual way of telling a tragic story.
“Do you like my outfit?”
Grinning from ear to ear, the Holocaust survivor introduced herself with that question to an overflowing crowd of students Tuesday on the fourth floor of the Grand Canyon University library.
“Let me tell you – this outfit is many years old,” she said. “You may ask, why don’t you pick something new? Because this represents something. It’s black and white, just like the two parts of my life.”
At 92, Herzberger is a whimsical, optimistic woman, full of faith, who believes there must be a reason for her survival against all of the darkness.
“The Holocaust should never be forgotten and all of the victims of persecution who were silent forever should be honored, respected and remembered,” she said. “I respect the silence of those who have survived, but I cannot be silent.”
Herzberger began her talk by recounting in great detail the pain and constant danger during the Holocaust when she was 18, while still retaining her faith.
Around 1940, as she was preparing for high school, Hitler’s Nazi empire had begun construction of Auschwitz, and the gestapo started identifying, imprisoning and murdering Jews and other minorities in multiple countries. As the Nazis seized control of most of Europe, Jews soon were ordered to register with the local government and to tag the yellow star of David (to mark the “dirty Jew,” Herzberger explained) to their clothing.
It was April 1944 when a group of local gendarmes, Nazi sympathizers at the time, herded Herzberger and her parents — and other Jews from their neighborhood in Cluj, Romania — onto trucks bound for a ghetto that served as a staging area for deportations to the death camps. There, millions of Jews and other minorities were systematically murdered during World War II. For nearly a year, Herzberger experienced the torture in three of Adolph Hitler’s concentration camps where she served as a corpse gatherer. She knew she had to make it out alive.
Herzberger shared that story in a most heartfelt way – by telling it with compassion, humor and grace.
“I was a fighter and at 92 years old I am still a fighter,” Herzberger said. “Look at me. Would you say I am aggressive?”
The audience nodded, laughed and cried as Herzberger walked them through a mostly harmonious childhood in Transylvania to her battle to victory. Her uncle, an Olympic athlete, trained her to become a junior fencing champion who beat out the boys. From time to time, Herzberger would complain to her uncle about her hard work, sweat and sore muscles.
But one day he posed a question to Herzberger: “Don’t you want to become a champion like me?”
Herzberger talked of the special strength that fencing would teach her to have – trust in oneself. She urged the hundreds of students in the audience to recognize the bad breaks in their lives and pray expectantly for God's intervention in the present.
“Do you know what I see in life?” she said. “Never take it for granted.
“I have seen disrespect for life and cruelty, and I am surprised that I didn’t lose my mind.”
She talked about how after one year of sickness and starvation, she and other prisoners were evacuated and forced on a death march, where some of the extremely weak and sick prisoners would die. Only half of them would survive.
“We didn’t look well anymore,” said Herzberger. “The lack of food and bad living conditions took a toll on us – we were considered not useful anymore.”
It was at that moment in her captivity when she felt at her lowest point. But instead of stopping, she imagined her home.
“In my mind, I was daydreaming," she said. "I was at home and I was tasting my favorite food – stuffed cabbage. I was with my parents. I created this beautiful world. Although I was half asleep, my feet were marching. ”
Herzberger was at her physical peak when she entered the Bergen-Belsen camp, and by April 1945 she was exhausted. She collapsed into a pile of corpses and felt she might die.
“I was lying there at age 19½ waiting for death,” Herzberger said. “I couldn’t talk and I couldn’t move anymore.”
In her mind, she started to create a beautiful funeral for herself at a cathedral. She even pictured angels flying.
She told of how the strangest thing happened when she decided to accept death – a British soldier found her, barely alive, during the camp’s liberation.
“I don’t know what he saw, but he realized that I was alive and he lifted me up and I was like a ragged doll in his arms … he was crying … and as I barely looked down at the ground of Bergen-Belsen I made a promise to God,” Herzberger said.
That promise is:
“To keep alive the memories of all of the victims of the Holocaust for as long as I live.”
Herzberger, also a poet and author of 13 books, clearly has lived up to her promise. She wishes she could live to 120 so that she can keep telling it again and again.
“I will settle for 100 in the worst case – so we will see what happens,” she said, smiling.
Students found hope and understanding in Herzberger’s message.
Freshman Hannah Friesen said, “You can see a lot of different portrayals in movies, but nothing comes close to the real thing. It’s inspiring to see how loving and passionate Magda continues to be. There’s a lot to learn from other generations who have gone through horrible experiences.”
Junior Justin Ortega expressed his appreciation for life.
“Growing up, you read about the Holocaust, but this is an actual survivor who lived through the tragedies of these camps," he said. "It’s a reminder to be grateful for what you have.”
Contact Jeannette Cruz at (602) 639-6631 or [email protected]