Holocaust survivor recalls time at Auschwitz

It was an unimaginable horror, millions of people killed during the Holocaust. Some lived including a woman who now lives in Phoenix, who survived the Nazi's most notorious death camp, Auschwitz.

Magda Willinger remembers all of what happened at the camp.

"You can't forget, you can't forget those things, it's so traumatic," said Magda Willinger.

Like countless victims she suffered unimaginable loss, she survived the death camps and now spreads a message of tolerance by re-telling her story.

"It's emotional every time I do it," said Willinger.

Magda grew up in a small town in what was then Czechoslovakia, her mother and father owned a grocery store and her family of five lived a comfortable life.

But it all changed in 1939 when her country was invaded by Hungary with the help of Hitler. The family business was taken away, and her father was forced to work for the Nazis.

"Gradually things got worse. We were no longer allowed to go to public schools. In 1942 were ordered to wear a yellow star on our clothing blatantly recognizing us as Jews," she said.

With little money, her family had to get creative to survive. She would go to a town where she knew there was a soap maker, and she would buy some soap, and she would bring it back and sell it at a profit. It was really black marketing, but that was the only way she could feed her family.

Magda's father would occasionally be allowed to visit the family at home, but eventually, the visits stopped, and the family was moved to a Jewish ghetto.

"We were not provided any provisions; we were scrounging for food. The only good thing was that the entire family was together," said Willinger.

But that did not last forever. Soon the family was loaded onto a rail car and taken two days to an unknown destination.

"We were hoping for better conditions, so we went willingly. When the train would stop, we would beg for water. But the only answer we got was shooting in the air letting us know that we better calm down. Most people didn't know what was going on, the only time when we arrived, and the door was unbolted we saw the signs, Birkenau Auschwitz," she said.

At the sprawling notorious concentration camp, the Nazi's largest killing center, the guards wasted no time.

"They came up to me and asked me how old are you, and I said 15, and he said no tell them you are 18, tell them you are 18-years-old," said Willinger.

That guard saved her life. Magda and her mom were grouped together. Her grandmother, 7, and 2-year-old sisters were put in a separate group. As they approached a Nazi doctor, the doctor didn't say a word. "He just pointed left, right, left, right, that's all. "

Magda and her mom were sent in the opposite directions of her relatives. She never saw them again. Other prisoners would later explain what the Nazi's were up to at the camp.

"They were telling what was going on here can't you smell the burning flesh? And we still could not accept that. How could that be happening? A cultured nation like Germany, how could that be happening? But the longer you stayed in Auschwitz, the more you realized that is exactly what was going on," she said.

When the Russians liberated Auschwitz the horrors of the Holocaust were fully realized. Piles of glasses, shoes, and clothing are all that remained of more than 1.1 million people systematically murdered there.

"In the camp there were times I was like a zombie, I just didn't want to see or hear anything. There was a survival method, just to survive," Said Willinger.

Thankfully Madga and her mother only stayed at the camp for four weeks. They were moved to a work camp where they spent the rest of the war. Once freed they made their way back to their hometown, but there wasn't much left.

"We walked to our previous home where we lived and found it completely abandoned. even the door jambs and the window jambs were gone," she said.

But they found a photo album found in the trash. That's where a photo of Magda survived, in front of her family's home before the war. Now 70-years later she lives at Terraces Senior Living Community in Phoenix. When the war ended, she and her mom followed relatives to the United States. She moved to the Valley from Chicago in 1958, and her late husband started a sod business. She even wrote a book called "The Enduring Spirit."

"I am very grateful to this country where I had a good life," said Willinger.

She's never gone back to Auschwitz or her hometown and doesn't want to. Instead, she's focusing on talking to young students in the valley knowing that history books cannot compare to the real-life story of loss and survival.

Magda's father survived the war but died from an illness shortly after. He never knew his wife and one of his children were still alive.