After a gunman shot 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, Magda Brown refused to allow the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history stop her from speaking out against hate and bigotry.
She was a 91-year-old Auschwitz survivor from Skokie who’d lost all but six of 70 family members in the Holocaust. At the time of the 2018 mass shooting, she was heading to Pittsburgh to give a speech after being invited by the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh.
“Here was the amazing Magda Brown and her daughter getting on the plane in Chicago, and we actually had to catch her at the gate to tell her this is happening,” said Jessie Ramey, an associate professor who helped co-host the program at Pittsburgh’s Chatham University.
“We were in shock,” said Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh. “She arrived with so much warmth and grit. She was a tough woman, but that was coated in this veneer of kindness and compassion. And it showed us we shouldn’t cower, and we shouldn’t be fearful. And life would go on.”
Mrs. Brown, known as “Grandma Magda” for her motherly hugs and kisses, died July 7 at the Morton Grove home of her daughter Rochelle Brown-Rainey. She was 93.
She was a popular speaker for the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie whose speeches, over the years, reached an estimated 100,000 people in person and remotely. Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, she continued reaching audiences via Zoom and Facebook Live.
“My mission,” she used to say, “is to tell the audience that, if they ever meet a Holocaust denier, that I am a proof that it was very real.”
In 2017, she fell just before boarding a flight to Storm Lake, Iowa to speak about the Holocaust at two schools. When she landed, “They brought her straight to the E.R.,” said her granddaughter Amy Rainey.
Tests showed she’d broken part of her spine. So the tech-savvy grandmother gave her speech via Skype from her hospital bed.
“I think she refused pain medication so she could be lucid enough to do this talk,” her granddaughter said.
At the 2009 opening of the Illinois Holocaust Museum, she was accompanied by two German college students who’d volunteered to come to Skokie and help victims of Nazi oppression.
“These are my boys,” she said, introducing Gregor Darmer and Tobias Etzel, both then 21. At the time, Etzel said he knew of people linked to his family who’d been involved in the SS and Wehrmacht.
“She is my American grandma,” Darmer said.
The young men, concerned about rising neo-Nazism, became docents at Skokie’s original, far smaller Holocaust museum and assisted survivors seeking restitution from the German government.
On the day of the new museum’s opening, Mrs. Brown said: “By my 17th birthday, I had lost my home. I had lost my country. I had become an orphan, a slave laborer, a refugee. The Germans of the 1940s, I can’t possibly forgive for all the things they have done to me. However, when I meet the third generation, and the third generation is helping me, doing volunteer service for our benefit, I can totally love them.”
Mrs. Brown maintained a sense of hope and gratitude that inspired others, her granddaughter said.
She never forgot an older German man who smuggled food to her and other Jewish prisoners doing forced labor. “He would bring apples and sneak them in for the girls at the factory,” her granddaughter said.
“You don’t forget that you can always find the good people,’’ Mrs. Brown said.
Young Magda grew up in Hungary, the daughter of Regina and Jozsef Perlstein, who operated a butcher shop. When she was 16, they were ordered into the Jewish ghetto in Miskolc.
On her 17th birthday, she and her family were put on a train with no food or water for a three-day journey to the Auschwitz concentration camp. In a cattle car that fit 20, she jostled with 80 others.
“In order to allow my dear parents to sit on the floor,” she said in a speech, “I stood three days.”
Some didn’t survive the journey, she said: “I vividly remember one young woman who was huddled in a corner with her baby on her bosom, but that poor baby was already dead.”
At Auschwitz, she was separated from relatives and friends. She never saw them again.
Soon, she was sent to a sub-camp of Buchenwald, where she and other prisoners had to work with munitions chemicals so hazardous that they “turned their skin yellow, their hair orange and their lips purple,” according to her online biography.
In 1945, while on a death march to Buchenwald, she and some other prisoners plotted to escape. They fled to a barn and hid under the hay for a day and a half until they were found by American soldiers.
She immigrated to Chicago, where she had relatives, and met Robert Brown, who used to make special trips to a spice shop to buy Hungarian paprika for her. They were married for 52 years until his death in 2001 and raised their daughter and their son Bruce Brown in Skokie.
Mrs. Brown became a certified medical assistant and president of the Illinois chapter of the American Association of Medical Assistants.
In addition to her daughter, son and granddaughter, she is survived by grandchildren Michael, William and Norman Rainey, Jessica Matas; Jennifer, Rachel and Robin Brown and Philip Ide, nine great-grandchildren and three great-great grandchildren.
Her brother Miklos did not get sent to Auschwitz because he was serving in a Jewish labor force in the Hungarian military. But when the postwar Iron Curtain came down over Hungary, he couldn’t leave. Mrs. Brown had to wait 20 years before they were reunited when he immigrated to the United States.
A few years ago, Mrs. Brown asked, “Why do all the kids keep asking to take ‘sophies’ with me? What’s a sophie?” Her family explained the kids were asking for “selfies.”
A private funeral is planned Friday.
“I’m so grateful that she came” to Chatham University after the Tree of Life tragedy, Ramey said. “It was a very important part of Pittsburgh healing and starting to move forward just a few hours after the horrible event. We will miss her forever.”