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Magda Brown, Holocaust survivor, relentless optimist

Magda Brown was indomitable, relentlessly optimistic—and determined to tell her story.

Magda-Brown image
Magda Brown (left). Photo credit: Scott Edwards. Magda (right), as a baby before the war.

A survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Brown was a longstanding member of the Illinois Holocaust Museum's Speakers' Bureau, on a mission to share her survival story with as many people as possible.

By the time of her passing on July 7 at age 93, Brown had reached over 100,000 people around the world, from one-on-one interviews to speeches in packed auditoriums.

She was born Magda Perlstein. On her 17th birthday, she was deported from her home in Miskolc, Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where her parents and most of her extended family died in the gas chambers. She was among 1,000 Jewish Hungarian women from Birkenau chosen to work at one of Germany's largest munitions factories.

In March 1945, she was sent on a death march to Buchenwald concentration camp. Brown and several prisoners were able to escape, hiding in a nearby barn. She was eventually liberated by the Sixth Armored Division of the U.S. Army. After the war, relatives in the U.S. sponsored her immigration to Chicago.

For 40 years, Brown worked in a physician's office as a Certified Medical Assistant. She was the beloved wife of the late Robert Brown, mother of Rochelle and Bruce, and the adored grandmother of many.

Although it was painful to remember her horrendous experiences, Brown believed her story-as well as the stories of other survivors-must be told. In October 2018, she was scheduled to speak at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. The tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue took place the day before, but she didn't hesitate to board the plane, saying, "Now the world needs to hear the message even more. Let's go."

Despite the horrific experiences of her formative years, Brown was known for her sunny disposition as well as her determination.

"There was nothing better than when Magda walked into the Museum and gave you her signature 'grandma hug & kiss,'" said Susan Abrams, CEO of the Illinois Holocaust Museum. "And everyone knew better than to try and talk her out of something. Nothing was going to keep her away from a speaking engagement, not weather, her health, or even an act of terrorism."

The Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center has posthumously given Magda Brown the 2020 American Association for State and Local History Award of Excellence, an award that recognizes leaders in collecting, preserving, and interpreting history to make lessons of past more accessible and meaningful to all.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested donations to the "Magda on a Mission" fund at Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, a donation for a brick in her honor on the Museum's tribute pathway or to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS).


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