With this column, and continuing biweekly, The Jewish Journal will be profiling some of our region’s Holocaust survivors, honoring them and revealing the challenges they still face.
Margaret Liebenau celebrated her 18th birthday in Auschwitz. It was Sept. 20, 1944, and she spent the day, like most days, sweeping dirt outside her barracks, overseen by a female SS guard and a dog. For lunch, her only meal, she ate dark, watery soup with a bit of potato, a sliver of bread and some cheese. “We saw worms walking in the cheese, but we had to eat it because we were so hungry,” she said.
Born Margit Cohen in the small, picturesque city of Papa, Hungary, she had lived a comfortable life with her father, mother and three younger siblings. Her father was a plumber, and her mother, a seamstress, made her many beautiful dresses. They celebrated the holidays and observed kashrut but were not religious.
Everything changed when the anti-Jewish laws were enacted in 1938 and her father was taken to a Hungarian labor camp. Then the Germans marched into Hungary on March 19, 1944, and all the remaining Jews were confined to a ghetto. A couple of months later, they were taken to a warehouse, where a Hungarian soldier ripped Margaret’s earrings, gold with sapphire-blue pearls marking her birthstone, from her pierced earlobes. “Don’t take them!” she yelled. Still, she was excited as the soldiers told them they were boarding a train and going to work. The train, however, stopped at Auschwitz, and Margaret never saw her mother and siblings again.
After three months in Auschwitz, she was transported to a work camp in Silesia, in southwestern Poland, where she stood from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., with only bathroom breaks, in front of a big machine cutting metal strips for airplane parts.
She always believed she would one day be free and always did what she was told. Still, to this day, she refuses to wear anything brown, the color of the shapeless, oversize dress she was forced to wear, with no underwear, in Auschwitz and the labor camp.
The camp was liberated by Russian soldiers in June 1945, and she set off for Hungary a few days later. In Papa, she found only a cousin and uncle had survived from her large family. It was very difficult, especially when, in the house of an anti-Semitic neighbor, she saw a large, decorative pillow her mother had sewn. She lived with her cousin and soon met her future husband, Martin Liebenau, whose wife and daughter had been murdered in the Holocaust and who himself was returning from Mauthausen.
Martin opened a delicatessen with money sent by his sister, who was living in Beverly Hills. When Martin decided to leave for California, with his brother, the brother’s fiancé and two cousins, Margaret asked to come along.
Martin bribed some Russian soldiers to drive the group to the Austrian border. After three days, they traveled to a displaced persons camp in Ulm, Germany. There Margaret and Martin, as well as Martin’s brother and fiancé, in borrowed clothing, amid paper decorations and balloons, were married by an Orthodox rabbi.
A few years later, they moved to another displaced persons camp in Ludwigsburg, Germany, where their son Thomas was born in 1949.
Finally, in 1951, they sailed for the United States, arriving in Los Angeles in December. Martin delivered furniture and then worked in a cologne factory. Their second son, Gene, was born in 1953. When the factory closed, Martin worked for a sportswear company until he became sick and went on disability in 1968. Margaret worked as a cook, full and part-time, for six years after that, until she couldn’t stand on her feet. Martin died last May, at age 97.
Martin’s reparations payments ended at death. Margaret’s tiny income, including Social Security and some reparations, covers food and utilities in her small West Hollywood home. “I don’t buy new clothes,” she said.
She has had her share of medical problems, including a broken arm, shoulder and hip as well as a heart attack. “Superwoman — that’s what the doctors call me,” she said. Jewish Family Service provides a caregiver eight hours a week.
Margaret’s telephone rings often, and friends and neighbors stop by to visit. “I can make friends in five minutes,” she said. She enjoys watching television and sitting outside reading a magazine. Her son Gene, who is single, lives nearby. Her son Thomas died in 1992.
Margaret never returned to Hungary because of the bad memories. And she never looks at the tattooed number on her arm. “Nobody believes it. Only a person who was there,” she said.