I would like to introduce you to someone. Her name is Magdolna Hercz, but she goes by Manci. I’ve never met her, but I know she is someone special.
I read her book, Through Darkness: Love and Remembrance, which was recently privately published by her family for her 95th birthday. The handwritten content had been left untouched for almost 70 years.
We remember The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. To many, her hiding from the Nazis was our school age introduction to the horrors of the Shoah. First-hand memories can be so revealing and so powerful.
Manci Hercz was a young woman in 1944 when the Nazis stormed through Hungary. Her husband, Tibi, had already been sent to a forced labour camp. She subsequently went to a much worse hell, but survived and celebrated by writing. In 1945, with pen in hand, Manci wrote about what happened to her and her family.
The text is finely tuned. Page after page of lined paper without a word or a phrase scratched out. Personal, detailed and visceral, it was written in Hungarian in postwar Romania. It was translated into English only 10 years ago.
Manci begins her memoir on August 15, 1945. In her opening paragraph, she sets the parameters of what she expected people to understand.
“I shall try to write the truth about what I have lived through, but I know that if someone actually reads it, they will not be able to feel it the way it happened.”
A true voice describing life in an overcrowded, disease-ridden Jewish ghetto provides feeling and precision that history books lack. The richness and simplicity of her description is so striking.
“We heard that two gendarmes and one civilian came at 5 am in the ghetto and asked for our money down to the last penny, and took away the beautiful candelabra, and the food ration tickets.
“They sent 40 people to live in our two bedroom apartment, and of course the only way to sleep was to have everyone lie on the floor. It would be nice to forget the chaos in that building.”
Manci writes that, two days after Shavuot in 1944, her family was transported to Auschwitz, 80 people to a cattle car. Her words bring you there.
“Then the door closed … All of a sudden darkness fell upon us. For a minute we didn’t know what to do, but a moment later, instinct awakens to try to get your family as comfortable as possible under the circumstances … We used our bags to sit on … Space was tight, just enough to sit down, but no room to stretch, just enough to put your legs under you.”
Manci arrived at Auschwitz on Shabbat and she recalls a moment she would remember every day of her life.
“As we slowly pushed on, I suddenly felt a hand separating me from my mother, me to the right my mother to the left. I let out a horrified scream and sobbed. Looking back I saw mother again – for the last time – holding her hand to her mouth to hold back her loud wailing. Oh my God if only this had not happened, I would have been able to handle everything else easily.”
Manci lost so much and so many, but her husband, Tibi, also survived and they were reunited in Romania after the war. Persevering through a long difficult struggle, they eventually got exit visas for themselves and their two sons and they moved to Israel in 1961. Two years later, they came to Canada, determined to start over yet again.
In 1994, 50 years after Manci wrote her story, a new section was discovered in which she reveals raw emotion.
“On those rare occasions when I laugh, I take notice of myself and stop, because in those moments, I remember what I went through. It was not for nothing that Hitler said, ‘I shall wipe the smiles off the Jews faces.’ Even today I ask how I was able to experience this and stay alive.”
At 95, Manci Hercz is the matriarch of a family of two sons (Lawrence of Ottawa and a younger son in Toronto), five grandsons, and three great-grandchildren. She will leave a printed version of her Shoah story for future generations.
She will also leave her strength, survival and lifetime commitment to her family.