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Auschwitz Survivor | Magda Hilf

Magda's warm, welcoming nature makes you feel right at home, like you're sharing the afternoon with your grandma. Kind, cheerful, and immensely hospitable, you would never guess the incomprehensible tragedies she lived through as a young woman except if you happen to see the numbers marked on her left forearm: A-12743. 



Shortly upon arriving at her charming home with the Crestwood Oral Histories Project team, Magda showed us her family photo album that miraculously survived the war. She slowly turned the pages, sharing the names and photos of relatives who were murdered in the Holocaust. Photographs of her beautiful sister and darling niece and nephew stared back at me, three lives that were taken in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. 




At twenty-two years old, Magda was deported along with her parents, siblings, and extended family from occupied Hungary in an area formally part of Czechoslovakia before the war. They were marched to a railway station and crammed into a cattle car on May 28th, 1944. Seventy-five to eighty people were shoved into each car with one pail of water for drinking and one pail for their toilet. Magda remembers the harrowing journey marked by the cries of children and the suffering of the elderly. It took two days and two nights until they arrived at Auschwitz.

"As soon as the train stopped and the doors were opened, we immediately heard orders in German – “Out! Out! Fast! Fast!” These orders came from S.S. officers, and we also saw men in strange looking stripped pajamas and hats, as well as many dogs. Once we were off the train, we began to be separated – teenagers and young adults to the right, and young children, mothers and older people to the left. I began to panic when I saw that I was separated from my family, and plead to the guard to let me join them. He said no repeatedly, and eventually threw me back and told me to stay there. I did not ask again to join the other group, and it saved my life. I never again saw my family."


Magda later discovered that the SS officer making the selections was the infamous Dr. Mengle—the Angel of Death. 


Selections at Auschwitz via Facing History

She was then forced to shower, was shaved, and her clothing was taken away to be replaced by a rough, striped dress. Magda was taken to a barracks along with one thousand other women, and the barrack supervisor gave the cold, cruel facts of life in Auschwitz. 

"After we arrived, our Jewish supervisor, Sara, gave a speech that I will never forget. She said, 'Girls, you are in Auschwitz. Did you see the crematorium outside? Your parents and sisters and brothers went out the chimney. They were gassed, they are no more. You don’t have much chance to get out of Auschwitz in a different way, so you better get used to this idea.' After this, pandemonium broke out, and we started to scream and cry. We could not understand what was happening to us, and where we were. Sara told us to try to get some rest, since we would need it. Eventually, we fell asleep from exhaustion. We were soon woken up by a whistle at dawn, and were forced to stand for hours doing role call. We looked around for the first time and saw a hell on earth."


A group of women and children going toward Crematoria IV and V via Facing History

Magda found herself surrounded by electric fences, watch towers, and the stench of burning flesh that permeated the air. The camp was covered in smoke. She remembers seeing the flames from the crematoria reach into the black sky at night, a horrifying image that is indelibly stamped in her mind. 

She soon become like a skeleton, starving and exhausted. Every week there were selections to determine who was strong enough to live and who would be taken to the gas chambers. Magda knew her time was numbered. There were only so many selections she could withstand before her body could no longer support her. 

Then in October, the barrack supervisor told them that the SS were looking for two-hundred volunteers to work in an airplane factory. Magda volunteered along with five of her close friends and they were selected to work near Leipzig in an area called MarkkleebergShe was forced to work twelve-hour shifts with little to eat. 


Magda at age 20 (Via Crestwood)
"If anyone was caught to be sneaking extra food from the kitchen, the SS women beat them mercilessly. Once, I received one of these terrible beatings from an SS woman whom we nicknamed 'Lucifer'. She beat me nearly to death for hiding a teaspoon of salt, and I have never felt such rage in my life. After this, she forced me to stand outside in the freezing cold for six hours, in nothing but my overalls. My friends greeted me warmly when I finally returned, as they were nervous that I would freeze to death."

As the Allies drew closer in January 1945, Auschwitz prisoners were evacuated and forced on a death march.

"We were taken immediately on a march that seemed as though it was leading nowhere. SS officers constantly surrounded us, and dogs were always chasing us. No food or shelter was provided at all, and we walked all day and all night. I felt as though I would die at the side of the road."

Magda and four friends decided they were going to escape. "We tried several times, and the dogs always chased us back, until one time we succeeded in escaping to a courtyard and hiding until the group passed us by. We huddled together day and night in the freezing cold, and went to houses to beg for food. Sometimes they would give us a piece of bread, but often we were just chased away."

Then one day an SS soldier spotted them in the streets. He led them out of town and into a forest. Magda recalls hugging her friends and crying. They knew they were about to be executed. "We said goodbye to each other," she told me. 



Just as they were led into the forest, another SS officer drove up on his motorcycle. "What are you doing?" he asked the SS officer who had discovered Magda and her friends.

"I came to shoot some Jews."

"Oh come with me,” the other officer said, “You’ve shot enough Jews already.” 

"And with that, the two of them mounted the bike, and my would-be murderer drove off. After this truly miraculous escape, all five of us were in true shock. We hid in a forest for five days, living off stolen potatoes. We eventually encountered a group of Christian labourers, and joined with them along the road. One night, we were in a town called Michelsdorf, and we fell asleep in a barn. The next morning, May 8th, 1945, we awoke to find that the SS guards who had been patrolling the town had been replaced with soviet soldiers. It finally dawned on us – we were liberated!"


Magda after the war
Story after story, I marveled at her perseverance despite the unspeakable horrors and conditions she lived through. Magda survived the Holocaust not just in body, but also in spirit. For over twenty years she's been sharing her story so that future generations will truly know what happened during the Holocaust. She doesn't seek revenge for the family members she lost. She seeks remembrance and education so people will never forget and so it won't happen again.


-Emily

(With thanks and gratitude to Scott Masters of the Crestwood Oral Histories Project for making this interview possible and a shout out to Arielle Meyer for all her help!)

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