Magda Waller (née Roth) was born in the town of Ibrány, Hungary, in 1926. She was raised in a Chasidic home and was the eldest of her four siblings.
In April 1944, about a month after Germany had invaded and occupied Hungary, Magda and her family were taken to a makeshift ghetto on farmland in Simapuszta. At the end of May, they were briefly sent to a ghetto in the city of Nyíregyháza, from where they were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. After a short time, Magda was sent on to the Stutthof concentration camp, where she worked under brutal conditions. In January 1945, Magda and other inmates were forced on a death march. Magda was soon liberated by the Soviet army, and she returned to her hometown to find that she was the only survivor of her immediate family. Magda left Ibrány and eventually arrived in the city of Sátoralijaújhely, where she met her husband, Zev Volvi Waller. They married in January 1946. Magda and Volvi left Hungary and lived in displaced persons camps in Austria and Germany before leaving for the Netherlands in 1948. In 1951, Magda and Volvi immigrated to Canada with their two children. They settled in Toronto, where they had a third child, worked and raised their family. Magda Waller passed away in 2022.
There were about thirty-five Jewish families in the village of Ibrány, Hungary, where I grew up. Most of the families were Chasidic. Even the Jewish families who were not Chasidic were Orthodox and kept kosher and observed Shabbos. We were not poor, and we always had something to eat. In the big yard next to our house, we grew tomatoes, peppers and onions, and we raised chickens. We also had pear, plum, peach and apple trees. We bought extra plums, and my mother would make plum lekvár (jam). In the summer, my father bought white and red cherries. This was a treat for the children. From all the different fruits my mother made delicious jams, compote and preserves, which we saved for the winter.
We also owned a very large piece of fertile farmland not too far from our house. There we grew wheat, corn, watermelon and herbs. When the wheat was ripe, my father hired some workers to help him cut it. He would very carefully separate some wheat and make sure that no rainwater touched it. He would bundle it up and put it in a box in the attic of our house to make shmurah (guarded) matzah for Pesach. Then he took the rest of the wheat to the mill to be ground into flour.
My father was a good businessman and worked very hard. He planted herbs in a big field that we owned. When the herbs were ripe, he dried them on the roof of our house. After that he bundled them into packages and then went to Nyíregyháza to sell them as medicine. He got a good price for the herbs in the city.
We had a general store in the big main room of our house. There was a separate door near the backyard for the customers to come in. We sold candies, petroleum, sugar, flour, rice, salt, herbs, spices, oil, pots and pans, some material, buttons, threads and needles. My father organized the store very neatly. The customers liked him because he was honest, friendly and hard-working. He also gave people credit when they didn’t have money to pay, which was very often. They knew that the store was closed for Shabbos from Friday evening until Saturday night. The goyim, non-Jews, would wait patiently in our yard on Saturday evening until it was dark and they could count three stars. They knew that Shabbos was over then, and they could shop in our store again.
The Yomim Tovim, holidays, were very special for us. Before every Rosh Hashanah and Pesach my mother took all the children to the shoemaker, but not to fix our shoes. My mother wanted each of us to have custom-made shoes from soft leather. The shoemaker measured our feet carefully and told our mother to come back for the shoes, but she said she would wait in the store until the shoes were ready. She knew that the shoemaker would get busy with something else and she wanted us to have those shoes in time for Yom Tov. She was very determined. And what gorgeous, elegant shoes I had, with black bottoms and grey tops.
For weekdays we had one or two dresses, rather than many schmattes, poor quality clothes, like people have today. At night we would wash our clothes by hand and hang them on a rope to dry so we could wear them in the morning. My mother washed the linen, diapers and underwear by boiling them in a big pot in the fireplace. She starched the clothes and curtains and then ironed them. This was very hard work. My father hired a woman from the village once a month to help my mother with the big laundry. My mother was a very clean and perfect balabusta, homemaker. She tried to teach me to be like that. I helped with the baking, cooking and cleaning. My mother was teaching me how to do everything in the house so that I would know for when I married and was on my own.
We had special food on the holidays. For a few weeks before Chanukah we stuffed a goose. When it was fat enough we took it to a shochet, a ritual slaughterer. I remember one time the goose almost died because we fed it so much. We had to run very quickly to the shochet so he could shecht, slaughter, it before it died. Otherwise it would be treif, non-kosher, and we wouldn’t have our delicious Chanukah meal. Ta’anis Esther was the hardest day for me. We baked many different delicious cakes all day, and the house smelled so good, but we couldn’t taste anything because it was a day of fasting.
On Purim we sent mishloach manos, slices of beautiful cakes and treats, to all our friends and relatives in the village. We put the food on porcelain dishes that we only used for Purim. During the year these plates were lined up on top of the dresser and we didn’t touch them. The plates had painted flowers on them, and on top of the plate my mother put a hand-embroidered cloth napkin. Then the family that received the plate with my mother’s cakes would wash the plate and send it back with their own special cakes. My mother was smart. She knew what to send to which family.
For Shavuos my mother made kreplach, dumplings, and cheese delkelech, buns. We made the cheese ourselves from the fresh milk I brought from a neighbour’s cow. We used the fresh eggs from the chickens in our yard and flour from the wheat in our fields. Every step was done by hand, homemade. It was very hard work, but I can’t remember tasting anything so good as these cheese kreplach and cheese delkelech.
I was a lively child and tried to be good. I helped my mother by taking the chicken to the shochet and by bringing a pot to a farmer who gave us milk from his cow. It was my job to go with a pail every day to get fresh milk. I would watch as a girl milked the cow to be sure that the milk was kosher, chalav Yisrael. Before Pesach I asked the girl to wash the cow’s udder before she milked the cow. We were very careful about kashrut. We bought a cow in 1943, and it would have been able to give us milk in a few months. But in 1944 were taken away from our home, and so we never had milk from our cow.
Long before the war started, we felt antisemitism in our village. Even though our customers were polite to us, we felt that underneath the surface they hated us for no reason — except that we were Jewish. My parents always tried to be nice to the goyim. My father sold things in the store on credit to his customers. My mother cooked chicken soup for some neighbours because they had two sons who were sick with tuberculosis. We always said hello, good day to our non-Jewish neighbours. I think some goyim showed the hate and others kept it inside, but it was still there.
I tried to be friends with the goyim in school. Maybe they seemed to like me because I was smart and helped them with their schoolwork. Maybe they seemed to like me because I didn’t look Jewish with my light hair and blue eyes. My little brothers were afraid to walk the three kilometres to school because the goyish children would throw things at them, scream “dirty Jew” and pull their payos, sidelocks. I stole candies from my father’s store and gave it to the non-Jewish boys so that they would leave my little brothers alone. I stole money from my father’s store and bought cookies for the non-Jewish children at school so that they would like me. Even today, so many years later, I still feel guilty that I stole candies and money from my father’s store. Even today, even here in Canada for over sixty-seven years, I still feel afraid that underneath the surface, all the goyim hate us.
In 1944, Pesach was over in the middle of April, on a motzei Shabbos, Saturday night. My mother was about to wash the Pesach dishes and put them away for next year when Father came home from shul. “Don’t be in a hurry,” he said. “I just heard that starting tomorrow we won’t be able to leave our yard.” When we woke up the next morning, we saw that the entrance to our yard was blocked and we couldn’t leave. Soon people from the village gathered around, curious to see what would happen next. None of them said a kind word or was willing to help.
One woman in the crowd, Mrs. Zirosh, whose daughter I used to play with, was a religious gentile Hungarian. She passed me a note. It said that there was no need to be afraid because God never gives people more trouble than they can bear. She had always been kind to everyone. For a moment I thought maybe she would have hidden me, but her husband hated Jews and would never have let her. In those days, the husband was the boss of the home. Besides, there was nowhere for me to hide in their little house, and I wouldn’t have left the rest of my family. After the war I thought about her note — how during my time in the ghetto and concentration camps it felt like what we went through was much more than anyone could bear.
That afternoon, Hungarian gendarmes who collaborated with the Nazis ordered us to pack some clothing and food in a small bag and walk to the shul. I was with my mother and father, my three brothers and my sister. At seventeen, I was the oldest, and my little brother was only six. As we walked through our village, all the other Jewish people in the village were picked up, including all my Roth and Goldner aunts, uncles and cousins. We had very little food and no bread to take with us. Pesach had just ended, so we had no yeast with which to make bread. The non-Jews just stood there staring at us as we walked through the village. I can’t remember how they looked, if they felt sorry for us or not. I don’t remember what I felt.
We got to the shul, where we were forced to stay for about two days. Guards with guns were outside the doors, so no one tried to run away. There was very little food left. The thirty-five Jewish families were very crowded in the little shul. I found a bottle of strong stomach medicine there and wanted to swallow all the medicine. I was a teenager and wanted to live a normal life, and I felt very desperate there. My cousin Adolf Goldner, the father of ten children and a very kind man, took the bottle out of my hand. He didn’t say a word because he understood how I felt. I think about it now, and realize that he saved my life.
After about two days, the Hungarian police drove us by horses and wagons to the Simapuszta ghetto. Simapuszta used to be a tobacco farm. Many, many families were squeezed into tiny houses that were meant for one family. It was very crowded. The officers in charge shaved off my father’s beard and payos. When I saw my father, I could hardly recognize him. My mother and father got what little food they could, and my mother cooked outside. Our family was still together.
I remember the hunger. I will never forget the hunger. I don’t remember how we got water, but we must have because we survived. We were always hungry, dreaming of food, thinking about food, talking about recipes. Every day we were given a slice of bread. Some girls hid small pieces of bread to eat later. Some girls stole from them. Everyone was so hungry. Bread is still very precious to me. In my retirement home, every morning for breakfast I could eat other foods like cereal or a muffin. Instead, I wash, eat a slice of bread and bench, say the blessing after eating bread. People today don’t realize how precious a slice of bread is.
I was in the barracks once when I heard a girl call my name, “Roth, Magda!” “That’s me,” I said. “Come out! Someone is looking for you!” I went to look, and who did I see? My father! He was part of a group of men who had come to clean the latrine. “You look good,” he told me even though I had no hair and was already skinny. Maybe he said that to give me hope. I stared at him in his striped shirt and pants, his thin face. First, he asked me if I had seen Mother and the children. I said no. Then he gave me advice that he probably learned from men who were in Auschwitz before him. He told me that I should raise my hand to volunteer to do work, especially if it was farm work, because then I would get food. He told me to eat whatever they gave me and not to look to see if it was kosher or not. “When you’ll be back home, you will eat kosher again,” he said. Then he took a slice of bread from under his shirt, broke it in two and gave me half. He put the other half back under his shirt. I knew he needed that bread, but I grabbed it and ate it right away. I was so hungry.
While my father and I were standing there outside in the camp, he said, “Wait a second.” He noticed a pink schmatte hanging from the barbed wire fence. He walked to the fence and brought the rag to me. He said that if I ever had an earache, I could put it around my head to protect my ears and it might help. He remembered that when I was a young child, I had trouble with my ears. Then he had to rejoin the men he was working with. I can’t remember my feelings at the time. I didn’t have any feelings. After that, I never saw my father again.
People today don’t realize how precious a slice of bread is.
During that time in Stutthof, my work was to dig foxholes, small pits, that the Germans would use to shoot at their enemy. We also had to dig thinner trenches for cable wires. That was harder work. In the camp, if you could keep working hard, you had a chance to survive. To get to the place where we dug the trenches, somewhere in a pine forest, we had to walk through many different villages and fields. People stared at us as we walked in their towns. Sometimes Polish women threw small parcels of food at us. Some girls were lucky enough to pick up a parcel of food. I was never lucky enough to have one land near me.
When we walked through the fields, we searched for food. Sometimes we found a potato that a farmer had left behind. If we were really lucky, we found a turnip. The problem was that the SS didn’t let us eat it or take it back with us. At the end of our walk home, we had to line up straight and were searched and patted down. If they found food hidden in our clothing, they took it away and punished us.
We did that walk every morning and every night. Some of the girls sang in Yiddish, “Alta vet zeyn iber, alts geyt far” (Everything will be over, everything passes) as they walked. I remember thinking that it was strange that on the way back, when we were so tired, freezing and starving, they could still sing. I never sang with them. When we were in our bunks at night, one girl walked up and down the long aisles singing a Russian-Jewish folk song. “Tumbala, tumbala, tumbalalaika, tumbala, tumbala tumbalalaika,” she would sing in her sweet voice. Those Jewish girls wanted to bring life and hope to our desperate situation. I don’t know if that girl who sang to us every night survived the war.
I worked digging foxholes for many months through a hot July, August and September. Fall was coming. The weather was cooler. Then it would be Yom Kippur. Somebody in the camp was smart enough to figure out when it was Yom Kippur. We kept working and working, exhausted and very hungry. I was a country girl used to hard physical work in the field and a lot of walking. Some of the women were from Budapest; they were delicate because they had an easier life before the war. I tried to help them dig whenever I could. Each person had to dig a certain number of trenches every day.
In late fall, as the winter and snow were coming, we were still in the forest digging, but the ground was harder. If we took a large rag to wrap around ourselves to try to keep warm, the SS soldiers took it away from us. I remember one day a woman from Budapest was working next to me, and she couldn’t dig anymore. Another girl and I helped her dig. Then we took her to lean against a tree so that she could rest a bit, but she froze to death standing up. It’s hard to believe it, but that is exactly what happened.
It’s also hard to believe that I volunteered to join the guard whose job it was to bury the dead woman. I dug the grave. I tried to make the grave nice for her, so I gathered some leaves and put them in the bottom of the grave. I did this not because I thought it was a nice thing to do, but because I knew that I would get a piece of bread in the evening for the extra work. That slice of bread meant so much. Even all these years later, for me, a slice of bread is everything.
One day after the war in Sátoralijaújhely, I went for a walk with my girlfriend Henchu. She liked a certain young man, and as we walked down the street, whom did we meet? This young man! She introduced Zev Volvi Waller to me. The next day he asked me to go for a walk with him, so I went. Every evening we went for long walks or to cafes and talked about the past and the future. There was no entertainment. We talked a little bit about the war. He told me that he was first in Auschwitz then in Mauthausen subcamps, working in the mines, and was not released until the Americans freed him in May 1945 from Ebensee. This was many months after I was freed. I saw how thin he looked and how poor he was. He was only twenty. I was not yet nineteen, a young girl who had gone through many troubles, so I dreamt that after the war I would find a rich man to marry. Still, Volvi was handsome, religious and kind and seemed to like me, so I continued to meet with him every evening.
As religious Jewish people, before even thinking of marrying someone, it is important to get background information. At this time, when so many Jews had been killed, information about someone’s family and character was harder to find. What kind of yichus, family background, were we looking for anyway? One evening, when Volvi and I spoke about the war, Volvi mentioned that when he was transported in a wagon, one of the men in the wagon kept learning Mishna, Gemara and halacha, Jewish law. There were no seforim, holy books, from which to learn. This man knew everything by heart, and even in this terrible situation, he was still learning! Volvi was so impressed, he asked the man for his name. The man answered that his name was Yoel Roth from Ibrány. That was my uncle, my father’s brother! This was my yichus. Volvi now knew that I came from a God-fearing, fine, honest family.
A few weeks later, Volvi asked me to marry him. I didn’t know what to say, so I said that I would think about it. I came home that evening and I laughed as I told Hershel Klein that Volvi Waller asked me to marry him. “Isn’t it silly that Volvi asked me to marry him?” I asked. Hershel Klein said, “Why are you laughing? Volvi is a fine young man who comes from an honest, religious, hard-working family. Don’t laugh.” We continued to see each other, but I still didn’t know whether to say yes or no.
About a week later, I dreamt that my father and Volvi sat together at the head of a long table that was covered with a white tablecloth. It looked as if they were at a simcha, celebration. I was sitting in the next room with the ladies, from where I could see my father. My father didn’t say anything in the dream. He simply looked at me and nodded, as if to say that he approved of Volvi for my husband. The next evening when I met with Volvi, I said yes, I would marry him.
When I was a child at home, I didn’t always listen to my parents. At least now I would listen to my father’s wishes. I also missed my parents very much, and now I felt that my father was with me and still part of my life. This dream was very important to me.