The most amazing person I’ve ever met in decades of interviewing people — easily thousands of people; astronauts and farmworkers, scientists and salesmen, doctors and lawyers, tons of professional athletes, and at least one real life cowboy — was a 93-year-old woman with a beehive hairdo who could talk the hair off your head and a bee out of a hive. Sweet, exasperating, and determined, with a love of performance and everything good in life, and a horrible life story that she was compelled to share, Magda Herzberger was a lot to handle. Above any of that, above it all, she was unforgettable.
I never met Magda face to face, though I would have loved to have had that opportunity. Instead, I called her one day for a story that I was doing on a related subject, and that singular hour-plus conversation turned into a handful of hourlong talks — I think I mentioned that she could talk — and, eventually, another story or two.
Magda would, without any hint of hesitation, break out into poetry on our calls — her poems. I can remember thinking, in one of our first talks, that a better interviewer than I might interrupt her, shut down the rambling right then and there and get to the questions that I needed to ask.
But it’s hard to stop a 93-year-old on a roll. It’s just not right. It’s not respectful. And Magda, who was always on a roll, and probably always right, demanded respect.
She and her husband of 70-something years sat in their living room in Fountain Hills, Arizona, outside of Phoenix, and Magda would talk about her work. She wrote 13 books. She had a fledgling website. She lectured in places across the country. We’d discuss her upcoming book. She was constantly working on another book.
Everything in our talks returned, eventually and always, to her life story, to her childhood in Romania, and to a devastating period in her life that would mark her and anyone she ever came in contact with forever.
Magda was 18 years old in 1944 when the Nazis stormed through her hometown of Cluj. There, as she and thousands of other Jews were herded onto trains for Auschwitz, she saw her father for the last time. And for the next year, this young woman — 18 years old! — was subjected to unimaginable horror.
Hers is a story that needed to be told — still needs to be heard, maybe more so now than ever — so Magda told it. Hundreds of times over the years. Through her books and poems and talks, to young people and old. And in a handful of long, memorable phone conversations with me.
“Mister Donovan,” she would begin, in a voice filled with the conviction of her life story.
“I have seen the flames bursting from the high chimneys of the crematories, and I have breathed the air, the odor of sweet burning flesh. I have seen the big flames belching from those chimneys,” she told me in one of our conversations. She talked like that — that’s an exact quote — in a way that would be almost beautiful, if not for the terror it conveyed. “The Holocaust is burned into the depths of my soul. All these horrific memories, they burn.”
For years after being liberated from the Bergen-Belsen camp in northern Germany at the end of World War II, Magda couldn’t bring herself to speak of her experiences. But eventually, a promise she made to herself while at Bergen-Belsen — to honor those who died there, to never forget, and to make sure, as long as she breathed, that no one could forget — pushed her to eventually relive and relate the atrocities she suffered. It became her life’s work. It became her life.
God chose me to return/To remind the world/Of your agony, she wrote.
In any lifetime, you don’t meet many people, on the phone or otherwise, like Magda. She was a woman who somehow retained her faith in the decency of humans despite being living proof of the opposite. She spoke of the unspeakable, and in doing so showed us what true decency and compassion is.
More than 75 years have passed since the end of World War II, since a weeping British soldier plucked Magda from a sea of the dead and near-dead at Bergen-Belsen and set her on the path to the rest of her life. By now, the number of Holocaust survivors number only a precious few. The voices, like Magda’s, are fading away.
About three months ago, I came across an article in The Fountain Hills Times announcing her death. She was 95. She left behind children, grandchildren, her husband (now somewhere around 100 years old), and a life worth celebrating, worth remembering.
Her stories remain, too, in her books and poems, in video form (for example, here), and in oral histories (including here and here.). A transcript of a 10-hour interview with the Wisconsin Historical Society can be read here.
Three sessions, 10 hours of interviews. Magda certainly could talk.
I’m glad I got to listen.