November 16, 2018

Magda Kahan: Saved, ‘because I had somebody’

“Give us your jewelry.” The two Hungarian men startled Magda Kahan — then Meisels — and her mother, who were standing in the kitchen of a small house they shared with another family in the Munkacs ghetto. It was a late morning in April 1944, and they had been living in the ghetto only a day or two. Magda, then 18, handed over her small diamond ring, and the men led her and her mother outside to a horse-drawn carriage. They rode in silence, unaware of their destination.

“It was just terrible,” Magda recalled. Plus, she knew her mother was worried about her older brother. They pulled up to the Great Beit Midrash, and the two women were taken to the basement, where Magda saw shoes and clothing strewn everywhere, and splattered with dried blood. The Hungarians locked them in the basement and left them alone with no bathroom and no food. “It was so frightening. We didn’t know what was going on,” Magda recalled. 

Magda was born on Feb. 9, 1926, in Munkacs, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacheve, Ukraine), to Helen and Isidore Meisels. Her older brother, David, was born in 1923. 

Isidore ran the family business, which sold Persian carpets and some fabrics. The family was comfortable, moving into a new and larger apartment when Magda was 12. “I had everything,” Magda said. “I was spoiled.”

The family was conventionally Orthodox, celebrating Shabbat and Jewish holidays. “We had the beautiful-est family. We were very, very close with all the aunts and uncles and cousins,” Magda said. 

She attended Czech public schools and then Hungarian schools after November 1938, when the Hungarians occupied Munkacs. Her father soon had to relinquish his business to a non-Jewish friend, though he continued working there. Other restrictions followed.

Then, on March 19, 1944, Germany occupied Hungary, entering Munkacs the following day. Isidore, who had always been a community leader, was appointed to the Judenrat, the Jewish Council.

Soon after, two German soldiers moved into the Meisels’ apartment, the officer taking over the living room while his assistant took the maid’s room. “They were gentlemen,” Magda said. Still, when the family conducted a seder in the bedroom on the evening of April 7, they had to be very quiet. “It was very short and very sad,” Magda said. 

On April 19, Magda and the other Munkacs Jews were relocated to the ghetto, and a day or so later, she and her mother were kidnapped. 

But after spending less than an hour in the temple basement, they saw Isidore at a window. “David is hiding. They didn’t get him,” he told them. “And don’t worry. Wherever they take you, you won’t be there long.” 

An hour or two later, the Hungarians returned, transferring Magda and Helen to the Kallus brick factory. There they met three women whose husbands were also members of the Judenrat. Magda learned that they were all being held hostage until the wall around the ghetto, which ghetto residents had been ordered to construct, was completed. 

Three or four days later, they returned to the ghetto.

Then, on May 17, the ghetto was liquidated and the Jews were marched to the Sajovits brick factory, a two-hour walk. “That was a horrible thing,” said Magda, who recalls sleeping on the ground in an open shed. 

Finally, on May 23, 1944, the extended Meisels family was loaded onto the last transport leaving Munkacs. Because Isidore was in the Judenrat and another cousin was a pharmacist with some influence, the 32 relatives were allotted half a cattle car. Three very pregnant women occupied the other half.

On May 26, the train arrived at Auschwitz. “Heraus, heraus” (out, out), men in striped uniforms shouted, ordering the prisoners to line up, men on one side and women and children on the other. As the Munkacs Jews hurried out into the cold morning air, Magda was holding her mother’s hand. Then she dropped it. “I’ll see you later,” she said, running to catch up with her cousins and young aunts who, she figured, were headed to work. “I didn’t even kiss her,” Magda recalled.

The young women were taken to a huge room, where they were ordered to undress and then shower. Afterward, they entered another room, where they were shaved. “When will I see my parents?” Magda asked the man shaving her. “If you’re lucky, tonight,” he said. 

The women then stood naked for several hours before being given dresses. Finally, late in the afternoon, they were taken to Lager 24, where they slept on wooden planks with no blankets. 

Two days later, Magda lay in her barracks. She knew it was Shavuot, and the enormity of her circumstances hit her. “I started to cry and cry and cry, and that’s when I knew I lost everybody,” she said.

Meanwhile, Magda, her two aunts — her father’s younger sisters, Petyu and Serene —- and her two cousins — Maca and Petyu’s daughter, Baba — made a pact to stick together. “I think that’s what saved me, because I had somebody,” Magda recalled. They also decided that they had to leave Auschwitz or they would die. 

Sometime in August, the five women volunteered for a work detail. They were taken to a building where they changed into pajama tops and skirts. They then waited and waited while rumors circulated that no trains were available, and the kapos finally ordered them to again undress. “We figured we are going to the crematorium if we are naked. We were just very sad. It was too late to cry,” Magda said. But soon they were handed striped uniforms and loaded into open cattle cars. 

After a two-day ride, on Aug. 21, the women arrived at Unterluss, a subcamp of Bergen-Belsen that held about 600 women. They slept on bunk beds with a blanket, and each received a small dish and spoon. 

Once, suffering from a cough, Magda was told to stand on the sideline during appel (roll call). A female guard came by, a woman Magda described as “so mean and so beautiful.” “What are you doing here?” the woman demanded. She then slapped Magda across the face. “Go back to work,” she ordered. That was the only time, Magda said, that she was struck.

In Unterluss, Magda worked cutting down trees, which she and three other women had to carry to a designated spot. Other days, she moved large rocks from one place to another, or pounded wood into smaller pieces with a mallet. “For nothing,” Magda said. “Meaningless work.” 

Whenever the prisoners heard airplanes overhead, which happened occasionally, the Germans locked prisoners in their barracks and fled to their bunkers. “We were happy. We were begging God to send the bomb here,” Magda said.  

Then, on the morning of April 12, 1945, they heard a big explosion. A prisoner’s German boyfriend unlocked their barracks door, and they were liberated. But after celebrating only a few hours of freedom, German civilians from the village approached with rifles. “You are liberated, but we can’t leave you here,” they said, cramming the approximately 500 women into trucks.

Arriving at Bergen-Belsen — “a place no one should know about,” Magda said — they saw dead bodies lying everywhere, which they were ordered to remove. The women refused, knowing that the corpses were disease-ridden. They were then put in a barracks where people were dying all around them and where Magda’s stockings immediately filled with lice. “This is it. I’m just dead,” she told herself. 

But on Sunday morning, April 15, Magda was outside the barracks when she heard loudspeakers announcing, “You are liberated.” The British army had freed them.

That first night, Magda and her cousins slept in a clean German barracks, and her aunts, who had contracted typhus, were hospitalized. A month later, the five of them traveled to Prague.

At one point, Serene and Maca decided to go back to Munkacs. Magda declined to join them. “I had such a beautiful memory of my hometown. I just didn’t want to lose that,” she said.  

Magda went to Sighet, where most of her surviving relatives convened. (Of Magda’s 32 relatives who boarded the train to Auschwitz, 12 first cousins and two aunts survived.) But after seven months, she returned to Prague in preparation for moving to the United States, where three uncles and one aunt had immigrated before the war.

Magda arrived in New York on March 24, 1947. She attended school in Williamsburg to learn English and also worked in a candy shop owned by her mother’s brother.

In April 1948, Magda met Jerry Kahan on a blind date, and they married on Dec. 5, 1948. Then, in January 1951, they moved to Los Angeles, where Jerry had a cousin.

Magda and Jerry had three daughters: Monica, born in February 1951; Susie, in November 1953; and Debbie, in October 1955. Jerry died in January 2011. Magda now has five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. 

“I always knew I’m going to be liberated. I just felt it,” Magda said. “Only in Bergen-Belsen for two days, did I think I’m going to die.”