To those who have ever doubted there was a Holocaust, Magda Schaloum has news for them.
Every terror, every faded photograph, every recollection whispered in a tear-roughened voice.
“Unfortunately, even today there are people who say the Holocaust never happened,” said Schaloum, now in her 80s, but buoyant with life.
To describe those years of dehumanizing treatment and fear is her way to countering the lies that the Holocaust never was.
“I think it is my obligation,” she told the gymnasium of students and staff at Meridian Middle School.
Schaloum, who survived the Nazis and went on to marry and raise a family with a fellow death-camp survivor, is a speaker with the Washington State Holocaust Resource Center, a Seattle-based organization dedicated to assisting educators in teaching about the holocaust, and in connecting local survivors to speak publicly about their experiences.
Schaloum was present at the request of Meridian teacher Debbie Carlson. She spoke Jan. 27, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day. Her presentation that day also was a key part of studies for Meridian’s eighth-graders, who are learning about the Holocaust in class.
Schaloum wasn’t much older than a teenager herself when the Nazis turned her life, and that of her country, upside down.
Born 1922 in Giyor, Hungary, to a close-knit family, Schaloum was just 21 when the Nazis occupied Hungary March 19, 1944. With assistance from the Hungarian authorities, the Nazis immediately began separating the Jewish men and boys out, to be processed for slave-labor camps. Magda’s own father was sent to a coal mine, but not before Magda, her mother and her brother were shipped out in April via rail car for another city.
One of her most wrenching memories was seeing her father outside of the train, from where she was in the rail car.
She called out “DAD!” through the window, and saw him struggling to get to her, bearing a box of food. But the guards beat him, pushed him back.
“They pushed him until I did not see him anymore,” she said.
Her mother’s health in those early days of occupation was a constant source of worry.
“She couldn’t eat non-Kosher food,” Schaloum said, noting her mother became weak with starvation because the only food they could find was non-Kosher (not prepared to the dictates of Jewish dietary laws.) Finally a desperate Schaloum found some flour and with a little water, made some flat cakes that she baked and seasoned with salt. It helped, but “every day my mother grew weaker and weaker,” Schaloum said.
At one point, Schaloum had the opportunity to escape the Nazis and hide in a neighboring village, but she could not face abandoning her family, especially her mother. “I just could not leave her, because she needed me,” Schaloum said.
In June, Schaloum, her mother and her 15-year-old brother were shipped out with other Jews in cattle cars for points unknown. After several fetid days, their train arrived at its destination, the notorious death camp of Auschwitz, in Poland.
“As we got out of the train, we saw a huge chimney billowing soot and smoke,” Schaloum said. “It smelled horrible – like burning flesh.”
Their Nazi captors informed them that was just what it was – the flesh and ashes of Jews.
“You couldn’t believe how cruel they were to say that,” Schaloum recalled.
Schaloum was separated from her brother and her mother. Her mother was shoved into one line by the notorious death-camp director Dr. Mengele, and Schaloum ran to her. She was told not to worry, that her mother would be taking a shower, and pushed into another line. She yelled goodbye to her mother, telling her she loved her and would see her soon.
“I never saw my mother again,” Schaloum said.
The rest of the families on the train were separated as well. Mothers were told to give their infants and toddlers to older women who were working at the camp, so the mothers could take showers.
It was a lie.
“The old ladies had the children and toddlers taken to the gas chambers,” Schaloum remembered.
Schaloum’s time at Auschwitz was brief (a few weeks) but excruciating. In addition to the loss of her family, she was hungry, thirsty and terrified.
Her first full day at Auschwitz began with a 5 a.m. head count that involved standing at attention in front of the camp guards. She had been “processed,” her head shaved, her clothes replaced with camp-issued rags.
Lunch was a potful of soup for eight people.
“It would feel like sand in our mouths,” Schaloum said, of the weak broth they had to consume, composed of grass that had been boiled with a little salt, the Auschwitz water heavy with a harsh mineral.
People who were sickly at Auschwitz had even more reason to be fearful.
“If you were skinny, the S.S. would ‘send you to the doctor,’” Schaloum said, echoing what prisoners were told as they were taken away by members of Schutzstaffel, a Nazi paramilitary group who oversaw the camps and many of the atrocities. “There was no doctor. Just the gas chamber.”
Later in June, Schaloum was sent to the slave-labor camp Plaszow, located near the Krakow industrial area, where the now-famous German industrialist Oscar Schindler operated his factories. Plaszow did have inmates saved by Schindler, who risked his life to get them out of the death camps.
“Krakow is the place where Schindler had his factory, but unfortunately I was not one of those people,” Schaloum said.
But she did eventually work in another factory, with a comparably better standard of living than in the camps.
“I was lucky, lucky, lucky that I worked in the factory,” Schaloum said, noting they had bunk beds and straw mattresses.
But even there the Nazis instituted a perverted form of suffering. Schaloum and her factory mates, fighting lice and bites from bed bugs, were taken to the showers to clean off. They were informed the soap they were using “had Jewish fat,” in it, she said, presumably fat rendered from corpses.
With the Nazi war machine grinding to slow halt in 1945, the factory no longer needed the workers, and Schaloum was sent to another camp, Muhldorf, in Bavaria. She was there approximately one month when the guards loaded her and the other inmates onto a train, ostensibly to a spot where they would be forced to dig ditches and then shot.
But the advancing Allied troops stopped the train before it could reach its destination.
Now liberated, Schaloum was sent to a displaced-persons camp in Germany, and it was there that she met her husband, Izak Schaloum, a native of Salonika, Greece.
When they first met, neither of them knew much German, or the other’s language, for that matter. But he asked her on a date in what few words they did understand together.
“He said, ‘rendezvous?’ And I said, ‘Okay!’” Schaloum told the Meridian students. She married him a month later, she said. In spite of the language barrier.
So began a long road to recovery for Schaloum, who in 1951 emigrated to the United States with her husband, raising a family of three children. Izak went on to become a Seattle businessman. He passed away in 1995, one month before their 50th anniversary.
One thing that rankled Schaloum was the encouragement she received afterward, telling her to simply put the past behind her and not reflect on it.
How could she do that?
“Even the American Jewish people said, ‘forget about what happened and just enjoy your life,’” Schaloum said.
But that wasn’t for her – she joined the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center’s bureau of speakers, and has been making the rounds through state schools.
For teacher Debbie Carlson, watching Schaloum interact with her students last week, Schaloum’s determination to bear witness to the Holocaust is a gift to students – and to humanity.
“We had kids still hanging around (afterward), who were talking to her – they wanted to interact with her,” Carlson said. “I think for some of them, they just wanted to be close to her. What was so neat about that, was that these were not our most visible kids. They were kids who were (often) in the background.
“We just kept telling them how lucky they were,” Carlson added, of all the students who got to hear Schaloum speak, and the fact that the Holocaust happened more than 50 years ago.”Time is running out, and then there will be no more first-person stories anymore. I hope for each year (until then) we have someone come, for as long as they can.”
Meridian Middle School students were given much to ponder during Holocaust survivor Magda Schaloum’s presentation Jan. 27.
“It amazes me that I’ll be one of the last people to meet a survivor,” said Ariel Gire, 13, reflecting on how many years ago the Holocaust was, and how there continue to be fewer and fewer living witnesses to it.
“She is still crying about this,” Gire added, noting she was moved by the emotions Schaloum went through during the presentation.
Franceska Curry-Edwards, 13, said Schaloum’s story made her think of her own history – and to be proud of it, in spite of her initial pause about it because it was different.
“I found out I was an eighth Jewish, and I was embarrassed, but I came from here today thinking I shouldn’t feel bad.
“I’m proud to be Jewish.”
Nate Iriumi, 14, said Schaloum’s story made him think of his own mother, who survived Cambodia’s severe repression and human-abuses, to come to the United States.
To learn more about student responses to Schaloum’s presentation, or to learn more about the Washington State Holocaust Education Resource Center, visit www.wsherc.org.