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Meeting Magda

Mike Espinosa, Magda Herzberger and Moi
I know that the purpose of my blog is predominately to focus on anything to do with France.  Today, however, I must make one of my rare exceptions as I have met an exceptional woman about whom I want the world to know. 
In September, a wonderful woman from the Office of Jewish Life at neighboring Bucknell University emailed me to let me know she had a speaker coming in November and might I be interested in having her visit my high school? She informed me that the woman's name was Magda Herzberger and that she was a Holocaust survivor. Naturally, I jumped at the chance to create such an amazing opportunity for my students. Little did I know that I was about to meet my new hero.
I have immense respect for all survivors of the Shoah, and especially toward those I have met or about whom I have read. I know that none of them would feel comfortable being called a hero for surviving what six million other Jewish people did not. Verbose as I am, I cannot seem to find any other word to reflect my immense respect and admiration toward Magda.
She was born Magda Mozes in 1926 in Cluj, Romania, which was in the region of Transylvania (which was, she reminded the sophomore class, the land of Dracula...so if they did not behave she would appear in their rooms in the dark of the night and take a big juicy bite!) She was only 18 when her nightmare began.
I won't go into too much detail about her story (but I will give you the link to her autobiography, Survival, at the end); however, I will say that she survived not one, not two, but THREE death camps. Her ordeal began in the ghettos, then moved to Auschwitz-Birkinau, then to Bremen, then to Bergen-Belsen. Because she was taught fencing by her dear uncle (an Olympian fencer), she was strong and in good physical shape. As a result, she was consistently "selected" to work. Her main duties, she said, were to drag the corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria, and to dig graves. She lost the better part of her family, including her father and her dear uncle who perished at Dachau. Miraculously, her mother survived and they were reunited several months after liberation.
Magda went on to marry the love of her life (they will celebrate their 66th wedding anniversary on 21 November!) and have two children. It took some time to heal, but she eventually found a way to tell her story - not just in her autobiography, but through her poetry and musical compositions. I attended her poetry reading this week, as well, and let me just say that at 86, she is as sharp as a tack. She recited poem after poem, and might I add, quite beautifully. She painted for us a picture with her emotions and words. Some pictures were dark shadows of the Shoah. But more were about her deep love and devotion to her husband and about gratitude in general. She said that unless you have almost died, you cannot understand how truly precious life is...that every little tiny thing you see and experience is a joyous miracle and worthy of celebration. 
What makes Magda my hero, is not simply her surviving such horror, but that she survived it and never questioned her god and more astonishingly, never lost her faith in humanity. She imparted upon us such great wisdom and shared with us a message of love, forgiveness, and kindness. She has done what I perceive as the impossible - forgiven those who wronged her in the most cruel and unfathomable of ways. As I reflected on my own life, it made some of my own grudges - some legitimate, some petty - seem trivial and insignificant.
Sometimes, especially as a Master's candidate in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, I get so hung up on the damage that hate and ignorance inflict. But Magda reminded me that she was living proof of what I call the Harry Potter life-lesson. It is one that both Dumbledore and Magda know to be true - that the power of hope and love are stronger than hate and will always triumph over evil in the end. 
She willingly reopened her wounds and graciously invited us into the deepest and darkest corners of her soul, and for that I will be eternally grateful. She touched each and every one of my students and gave to them a priceless gift that I know they will never forget, for in their lifetime, all survivors of the Shoah will be gone.
With her message, she has passed the torch to us, and the least we can do for her and all others who lived and died during the Shoah, is keep their plight on the front pages of history now and always. With her message, Magda Herzberger made me want to be a better person, and to me, that is what a real hero does.

Want to learn more about Magda Herzberger? Click here
You can find a list of her books here, as well. They are available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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