This past week, I, along with my fellow members of Congregation Beth Abraham in Bergenfield, New Jersey, experienced the great loss of Magda Burger Sternbach, z”l, 90, a builder of this community who moved here from the Bronx in 1972 with her husband, Max Sternbach, z”l, who passed away in 2005. A refined, regal woman of immense warmth, Magda was among the great majority of Holocaust survivors who did not appear to dwell on, or at least did not speak of, their experiences during the Shoah, in public fora. There is no record of her in Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, and no public memorials to her status as a survivor.
Magda is, then, remembered not for the horrors she most certainly witnessed as a forced laborer in three camps, but for the strength she applied to her survival; for the gentlewomanly life she lived and the friendships she made, the relationships she forged, and her natural simcha, gevurah (heroism) and emunah.
“Our community brought Magda to her eternal rest in this world on a day when the receding happiness of the holidays prevent us from delivering eulogies. Yet that very palpable silence was the most eloquent tribute for Magda,” said Rabbi Yaakov Neuburger, her rabbi, who also serves as a Rosh Yeshiva and instructor of Talmud at Yeshiva University. He also noted that she and her husband Max were genuinely embarrassed by any focus on themselves, and perhaps Magda’s burial on Motzei Yom Tov was therefore appropriate to have occurred in the month of Nisan, when traditional eulogies are not made.
“They showed our community how deep roots of faith and fervor could prevail over the torment of losing all but life itself. We witnessed with awe and disbelief how the courage to become givers—natural and unconditional givers—could emerge from suffering the greatest indignities known to mankind,” said Rabbi Neuburger.
This week, I spoke with many of my fellow community members to cull bits and pieces together of Magda’s survival story, which is by no means complete, and for that I apologize. The only known recorded interview Magda did was with Rebecca Klamen, then a student of 17, who is now 20 and a student at Baruch College. The interview, which was beautifully written, focused most on Magda’s grave feelings of loss of her immediate family in the Holocaust, but it was telling in that she repeatedly expressed gratitude that she had cousins and friends with whom to forge a life afterward. It was this compassion, grace, and joi de vivre that seemed to inform all of her relationships since the terrible years of the war.
Magda almost never spoke of her liberation by English troops after having been a forced laborer at Auschwitz, Dachau and Bergen-Belsen. She rarely spoke of marching, while carrying her lifeless mother, Yuta, who had died just hours before their liberation, for three days, until Magda could ensure her mother would be granted a proper burial. (The first day of Shavuot is when Magda observed the yahrtzeit of her mother.)
Magda did not generally speak of how she had to hear from others that her father, Yehoshua, and her brother, Yehuda (a poet, musician and talmid chacham), so weak that they could hardly stand and were attempting to hold each other up, were shot and killed by the Nazis, point blank, in a lineup in the slave labor camp Mauthausen, in Austria.
However, Magda often spoke to friends of the city of her 1927 birth, in Nyíregyháza, Hungary, where her father was a wealthy whiskey distributor with an open, warm and welcoming home known for tzedakah and chesed. However, during World War II, Jews were used as forced laborers from this city by the Hungarians, and 6,000 of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were deported to Auschwitz when the Nazis invaded. Today, that city, the seventh largest in Hungary, has no Jewish community at all. Magda apparently spent two weeks in the ghetto in Budapest before being transported to Auschwitz, the first of the three camps she endured.
Magda only briefly told her daughters, Judy and Florence, about the lice, the typhus and the tuberculosis she was plagued with and recovered from after the war in a sanatorium in Malmo, Sweden. Her daughters told me the only mementos Magda had of her mother were a letter, written in a beautiful, calligraphy-like hand, that her mother had written to someone in Israel some years before the war, and a picture of her mother with her mother’s sisters.
Max, a decorated American serviceman who left Romania for the States before the war, traveled to Sweden to meet Magda on the advice of a matchmaker. They were married in 1948; Magda was 20 or 21, and Max was 11 years her senior. They settled at first in the Bronx and their daughters were both born and grew up there. The family moved to Bergenfield in 1972, and Judy and Florence now both live in Brooklyn.
During their active work careers, Max worked in the butchery business in New York and owned a variety of businesses, including meat departments of supermarkets with his brothers, and Magda, ever-stylish and exotic, worked as a saleswoman and assisted with directing style alterations at the legendary B. Altman and Saks Fifth Avenue department stores.
In Bergenfield, On Shabbat afternoons while Max was alive, Magda would create a spread of homemade baked goods and other delicacies at their home. “Every week there was an open house… and an entire generation of children grew up visiting the Sternbachs on Shabbat afternoon, playing in their house and yard,” neighbor Dovid Schild told me. “At least 100 people visited every week,” added Lydia Sultanik, who now lives in Englewood.
“They didn’t have grandchildren, so they adopted all the community’s children as their own grandchildren,” added Sharon Schild.
“My son Alan, when we lived next door, would knock on the side window and ask Max if he was ready to play army soldiers on the floor,” former neighbor David Katz told me. “Then, when it was time for Alan to leave, he would say, ‘Max, I’m going to just leave the soldiers here in case you want to play with them while I’m gone, OK?’” Katz explained: “It was a sweet, sweet time, and a wonderful place for our children to spend their formative years. We’d eat Shabbat lunch and then go over to Max and Magda for dessert, and spend time with them while the kids played on the floor,” he added.
“Their house was like the Jewish community center. They would go to Costco every Friday morning, and it was their greatest pleasure to make a beautiful kiddush for the community every week,” recalled Judy Reisman, who considered Magda a surrogate mother, and Magda certainly served as a surrogate grandparent to Judy’s children. “When my son Chaim ‘Kenny’ Rosenberg died two years ago, I would go over to Magda’s and cry, and she would cry with me,” Judy told me. Judy added that when her first husband fell ill, it was Magda and Max who helped her and her children get through that time.
“People should to know what they did for us, in addition to all that they did for the community,” said Rebbetzin Peshi Neuburger. “Magda knew that I worked late on Wednesday nights in the city, sometimes not getting home until 11, and it was a problem for me to get home for my family. For years, she prepared a full dinner; fruits, vegetables, blintzes, salmon… She did this for us for years,” she recalled. The rebbetzin added also how much she and Rabbi Neuburger depended on Max and Magda when her children were young, even leaving the older children when she went to the hospital to have a baby. “She was probably the first person who knew what is was [whether it was a boy or girl],” she recalled.
The death of Magda is palpable throughout the community, in many different households and at different times of the day or evening. Naomi Charnov, after leaving shul this past Shabbat, noted that it was her time when she would generally visit Magda. “I felt the loss. I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she told me.
“Friday night Magda would be in her makom kavua, her white chair in the corner with the lamp beside her and her ever present siddur on the table. She loved music and loved to hear Joy Sklar’s daughters sing her Lecha Dodi, rejoicing in the silly “ballet” dancing of the younger girl.
For now, as community members pass by the twin cherry blossom trees now bursting into bloom at the entrance to Pall Park, opposite the shul, neighbors Zvi and Chaya Bernstein noted that those seedlings were funded and personally planted, just there, by Max and Magda, where today they flourish with beauty and grace, in a neighborhood known for its vibrant yiddishkeit and active, ever-growing Jewish community.
By Elizabeth Kratz