Remembering the past, transforming the future
On Magda Brown’s 17th birthday, June 11, 1944, she and her family were forced onto a railroad boxcar with 80 other people.
For the next three days, with no food or water, they were transported from a Jewish ghetto in Hungary to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in Poland. The day they arrived was the last time Brown saw her parents — they, along with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends, immediately were sent to the gas chambers.
Now, 88, Brown travels the country sharing her story as a member of the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center’s speakers bureau. She’ll speak April 17 to April 19 in Cedar Rapids and Mount Vernon as part of the Thaler Holocaust Memorial Fund’s Holocaust Remembrance events.
For years, she had recurring nightmares about her experiences. It’s hard to relive that part of her life, but Brown said she takes the Illinois museum’s motto very seriously: “Remember the past, transform the future.”
And she is inspired by the reactions of students she speaks to.
“By talking to the children, each and every time, I remember my dear loved ones. And I feel I have to be strong and not break down, because if I cry the child will cry, too,” she said. “I cannot bring back the dead ones. I cannot re-create history. But if the child learns something from it, I feel I have accomplished something.”
Born Magda Perlstein in Miskolc, Hungary, Brown’s childhood was peaceful. Her parents owned a butcher shop, and she grew up in a safe, loving home. All that changed when World War II broke out and Hungary allied with Germany. One by one, the Hungarian government adopted the anti-Jewish laws of the Nazi government, each one stripping the Hungarian Jews of more rights and freedoms.
“I want you to understand that until now the police protected me as well as any other Hungarian citizen. My family goes back at least five generations living in the same community,” she said, speaking by phone from her home in Illinois.
Eventually the family was forced into a Jewish ghetto, where government agents made them turn over all money and valuables. The money was used to build the railway that would be used to ship them to the concentration camps.
“The Holocaust was a premeditated, scientifically coordinated mass murder,” Brown said. “Genocide doesn’t happen from one minute to the next; it builds gradually.”
In 1944, the slow build reached its horrifying apex. The Nazis marched into Hungary unopposed and set about their “Final Solution.” In less than two months, nearly 440,000 people — nearly half the Jews in Hungary — were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Three out of every four people were gassed immediately on arrival.
After two months, Brown and about a thousand other Jewish Hungarian women were sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp in Allendorf, Germany, the site of one of Germany’s largest munitions factories.
Building bombs for the Nazis, they handled highly poisonous chemicals without any protective gear. Their hair turned orange, their skin yellow, their lips deep purple.
“The chemicals started invading our bodies. Thank God the war was reaching the end,” she said.
Sent on a “death march” as Allied forces approached at the end of 1945, Brown and several prisoners decided to attempt escape. They crawled on the ground and hid in a nearby barn for a day and a half, knowing they would be shot if they were caught. Two American soldiers discovered them there and liberated them.
Out of her extended family of 70, only six cousins had survived. Brown searched unsuccessfully for her brother Miklos, who served in the Hungarian military’s Jewish labor force and had been captured by the Russian army.
After the war, Brown’s aunts and uncles in the United States sponsored her immigration to America. In 1949, she married Robert Brown, and they raised two children. In 1962, Magda finally was reunited with her brother, nearly two decades after the war’s end.
In her talk, Brown said she emphasizes three points.
“The first is, protect your freedom. Slavery is reducing you to the lowest form of life,” she said. “The second is, think before you hate. I am not telling you to hate or not to hate; that is up to your conscience. But all types of genocide stem from hate.”
The third thing she emphasizes is the importance of standing up to those who doubt the reality of the Holocaust. She references a Catholic bishop who spoke on television in 2008 denying the existence of the crematoriums — she said she shares her message in part to counter him and those like him.
“I have more power, because I am speaking in one year to between 7,500 to 8,000 listeners. I am the winner,” she said.
She recalled letters students have sent her after her presentations.
“A child puts themselves in the position of how it would be if it happened to them. They always promise to remember what I have said,” she said. “One said, ‘I’ve read about a hundred books about the Holocaust, but not one was as close to as moving as hearing you. I thought no longer about what I don’t have, but rather how lucky I am to have what I do.’”
7 p.m. April 17
Christ Episcopal Church
220 40th St. NE, Cedar Rapids
7 p.m. April 17
6:30 p.m. April 18
Hedges Conference Room
Thomas Commons Building
600 First St. W, Mount Vernon
7 p.m. April 19
Mount Mercy University
Chapel of Mercy
1330 Elmhurst Dr. NE, Cedar Rapids
Find out more information about the Holocaust at:
Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center