Finding our way back to the light

When tragedy strikes home, we find moments of healing where we can—often in encounters with one another. 

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Magda Brown shares her life story to a group of Pittsburgh high school students at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, one day after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue.

When tragedy strikes home, we find moments of healing where we can--often in encounters with one another. On the Friday after the Pittsburgh massacre, just a few hours before Shabbat, I found comfort in my conversation with Magda Brown.

The day we spoke, she had just returned from speaking at a local Catholic school about her survivor experience. "I knew they were listening," she told me, "because they asked good questions…and they weren't looking at their cell phones."

For those of you who haven't met 91-year-old Magda, she has that spark--a joie de vivre--but one you might not expect considering her early years of life.

Growing up in Hungary, Magda enjoyed a happy childhood. Until everything changed when the Nazis invaded Hungary. Then, on June 11, 1944--Magda's 17th birthday--she and her family were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was the last time she would see most of her family, including her parents, who were sent directly to the gas chambers.

After two months of torture at Auschwitz, Magda was transported to a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where she worked in a munitions factory. She and several other women prisoners escaped the camp by hiding in a nearby barn in piles of straw. Two American soldiers discovered them there and liberated them.

After the war, Magda immigrated to Chicago to live with her American relatives, and she eventually reunited with her brother, who survived a Russian labor camp.

In Chicago, she met a Jewish man named Robert Brown, who she married within the year. Robert gave her space to heal from her trauma, and she was able to pursue her own interests--taking night classes in English and history and working for more than 40 years as a medical assistant in a physician's office. With the hole in Magda's heart from losing most of her loved ones in the war, Robert's family treated her like one of their own. Magda and her late husband, Robert, had two children--a son and a daughter--and eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Like many other Holocaust survivors, Magda didn't share her story publicly at first. But then, in 1977, when neo-Nazi "punks," as she calls them, attempted to march in her hometown of Skokie--home to the largest survivor population in the country--she felt compelled to speak out.

Since that time, as a speaker on behalf of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center as well as for JUF, she has traveled the world bearing witness to the Holocaust. She has spoken face-to-face to more than 100,000 individuals, most of them students. 

Which brings us back to the present.

On that horrible Shabbat morning in late October, we will never forget where we were when we got news of the Pittsburgh attack. For Magda, she was riding in a car to O'Hare. She was about to fly in for a speaking engagement at a few local schools in--of all places--Pittsburgh. Hearing the news, her daughter, who acts as Magda's publicist and accompanies her on trips, asked her mom if she wanted to cancel.

"No, I am going," Magda insisted. "They need my story now more than ever."

With that, she and her daughter flew to a city in mourning.

So, what can Magda's past teach us about the present?

A day after the worst mass shooting of Jews in American history, she taught the Pittsburgh students several lessons from the darkest chapter in Jewish history--as relevant today as ever: Keep the faith. Don't teach your children to hate. Stand up to bigots and deniers. And protect your freedom at all costs.

In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, it would be easy for the Jewish people to quake in fear, but we should take a cue from Magda. What I find so extraordinary about Magda is her sense of resilience.

How, I asked Magda, did you recapture your joy after the war? "God gave me a special gift--I am a very positive person. I [have always] believed that tomorrow will be better."

If Magda can heal, the rest of us can too. As Chanukah approaches, we remember the Jewish miracle of light. Through more than 4,000 years of peril and persecution, we the Jewish people always make our way out of the darkness. We will once again find our way back to the light.

Magda's story of her trip to Pittsburgh was covered in The Washington Post and then picked up by many other publications around the world. These articles have been shared nearly 26,000 times on social media and the original story got more than 25,000 likes and 800 comments on Facebook.

"For those of you who haven't met 91-year-old Magda, she has that spark-a joie de vivre -but one you might not expect considering her early years of life.  "

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