Magda Mozes Herzberger was born in Cluj, Romania, in 1926 and grew up enjoying long summer days on a nearby farm, picking flowers and raspberries, playing with her many cousins, hearing her mom sing joyfully on a hillside. She would later cling to those happy memories to help sustain her after being forced into the Cluj ghetto, and then in May 1944, deported to Auschwitz when she was 18 years old.
Herzberger survived the initial selection, and then endured horrors. After seven weeks in Auschwitz, she was shipped to a slave labor camp in Bremen, Germany. As Allied bombs fell in the city, the Germans forced the prisoners on a death march to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Herzberger’s job was to dispose of thousands of corpses in and around the barracks. Magda was near death and collapsing from exhaustion when, on April 15, 1945, the camp was liberated by British soldiers. One of the soldiers discovered Herzberger alive, albeit barely, among the corpses.
Today, Herzberger, who turns 91 next month, lives in Arizona with her husband of 70 years, a retired neurosurgeon. She is a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother, a poet, a former long-distance runner and mountain climber. She is also a tireless Holocaust survivor speaker who will present the keynote address on Jan. 22 at an annual Holocaust Remembrance event in Atlanta called “Fortitude and Endurance,” which is free and open to the public. (See details in Event Preview box.)
While in Atlanta, Herzberger will also participate in a special planting of daffodils in Hammond Park in Sandy Springs as part of the Daffodil Project. Am Yisrael Chai, a local Holocaust awareness and education organization, hopes to build a Holocaust memorial by planting 1.5 million daffodils around the globe in memory of the 1.5 million children who perished in the Holocaust. (Read more in About the Daffodil Project, based in Atlanta, in the box.)
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently interviewed Herzberger by phone.
Q: At a young age, your uncle encouraged you to take up fencing, which you believe helped you survive in concentration camps.
A: My uncle was a fencing champion of Romania. He was a very outstanding athlete. He didn’t have any children of his own and I was like his little girl and naturally, his little girl had to know how to fence, so he took me fencing when I was barely 5 years old and I didn’t realize what he did but I inherited his talent. I put my heart and soul into fencing. I was passionate about it. At the beginning, I complained about pain, and he said pain increases your endurance, you have to tolerate pain, and I became a fierce competitor and I competed against boys since fencing was not popular among girls at that time. So when I got to the camps, I was a very strong 18-year-old. I was muscular, so that helped me. I was strong emotionally. I felt I am going to fight this battle, I am going to face the biggest opponent in the camp: death. I had this kind of psychological approach to the camps. Nobody is going to kill me.
Q: What else helped you survive?
A: Another one of the roots of my survival was my deep faith in the Almighty. I grew up in the Orthodox Jewish religion and my whole family was religious, and ever since I was a young child, my parents instilled in me my faith in God. My trust in God in the camps gave me hope, and somehow miraculously, I survived. I was taught to have love in my heart and respect in life and to be kind and to be forgiving, and at age 18, I had all of these beautiful principles and I was in a place where it was nonexistent. But in the camps, I knew they were not going to demoralize me, and not take away my identity. And despite everything that happened to me, I have love in my heart.
Q: We are living in uncertain times with increasing violence and terrorism around the globe. What is your main message for people today?
A: What I say is please keep hope in your life because hope is the best friend of life. And also, don’t let hatred overcome you. Also, keep the flame of love in your heart. Don’t be an unforgiving person and don’t judge and don’t say never forgive. Forgiveness is very important because all of us make mistakes in life. You should have modesty, compassion and understanding in your heart. And if you have that, the light of hope will always be with you. Have courage, understanding and not fear. Fear is a very, very negative thing. In the camps, I lived in fear every single day, and I couldn’t let fear make me think everything is dark. No, nothing is always dark.
In the camp, I would see some people who would say tomorrow is going to be horrible and I am not going to survive and think every day I am going to die, they actually died. They stopped fighting for their lives because they had no hope. We always have to have hope that something good is going to happen. Have hope that things are going to get better and have the belief this year is going to be a lucky one and a good year instead of thinking it’s going to be a bad year.
Annual Holocaust Remembrance event: “Fortitude and Endurance”
Jan. 22. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Holocaust exhibit, 6-7 p.m. “Fortitude and Endurance” event, 7-8:30 p.m. Free and open to the public but RSVP is required at www.2017remember.eventbrite.com. The Westin Atlanta Perimeter North Hotel, 7 Concourse Parkway N.E., Atlanta. For more information, go to www.amyisraelchaiatlanta.org.
ABOUT THE DAFFODIL PROJECT
The Daffodil Project, based in Atlanta, was started in the fall of 2010 with a planting of 1,800 at Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs. About 390,000 daffodils have been planted locally and around the world, including Israel, Poland, the Czech Republic and Germany.
About 250,000 daffodils are planted in downtown Atlanta and include a stretch from the Center for Civil and Human Rights to the King Center. Daffodils also have been planted along the Beltline, in Piedmont Park and at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. For more information about the Daffodil Project, or to make a donation, go to www.daffodilproject.net.