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On Holocaust Remembrance Day, a daughter will retell her father’s story of struggle and survival

Joseph Magier survived Nazi concentration camps in Poland and made it to the United States, where he married, raised a family in West Roxbury, opened a business, and thrived. Only three out of 11 siblings in his family survived the camps: (left to right) brothers Irving, Mendel, and Joseph.
Joseph Magier survived Nazi concentration camps in Poland and made it to the United States, where he married, raised a family in West Roxbury, opened a business, and thrived. Only three out of 11 siblings in his family survived the camps: (left to right) brothers Irving, Mendel, and Joseph.Helayne Magier

Helayne Magier tells her father Joseph’s story of surviving the Nazi concentration camps in Poland because she knows there are people who either don’t know about the Holocaust and its horrors – or don’t believe they were real.

And knowing the truth about the systematic persecution and murder of 6 million Jews is vital to preventing the history from repeating, she said.

“I know it happened,” the Stoughton resident said in a recent interview. “I saw my father’s number – 133150 – on his arm every day,” tattooed there by the Nazis at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.

Magier will share her father’s story April 8 at an online Holocaust Remembrance Day event hosted by Ahavath Torah Congregation of Stoughton and co-sponsored by congregations from Canton, Sharon, Easton, and Brockton – including B’nai Tikvah, Temple Adath Sharon Sisterhood, Temple Beth David, Temple Chayai Shalom, Temple Israel, Temple Sinai, and Young Israel.

The Zoom event also will feature local teenagers talking about people who risked their lives to save Jewish children during the Holocaust, as well as music and reading of names of Holocaust victims. Information about participating is available at www.tisharon.org/event/Yom-Hashoah-Observance.

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“It is a pretty solemn service,” said Magier, who works for the Sharon public schools and belongs to the Stoughton congregation. “Sadly, there are less and less survivors.”

Her father died in June of 2018, and rarely spoke about his experience when she was young. But he opened up with his grandchildren, and about 10 years ago sat down with a friend and with Helayne to record his story.

Joseph Magier was 12 years old and the youngest of 11 siblings living with his parents in Bedzin, Poland, when a police officer came to their door and ordered them to leave. The officer was one of Joseph’s older brothers, who said he’d been told his wife and children would be killed if he didn’t deliver the message.

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His father’s grocery store had already been confiscated, and Joseph, his parents, several siblings, nieces, nephews, and an aunt and uncle left the city for a small village, where they hid in a barn for several months.

“My Dad said it was like living like animals, but [they] were fortunate [they] were together and made the best of it,” Helayne Magier said.

Because he was blond and blue-eyed “and didn’t look like what they thought a Jewish person would look like, he would sneak out and try to find food and bring it back to his family,” she said. But the Nazis found them and herded them into railway cars bound for the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps.

At the camps, they were forced into lines, and that was the last time Joseph saw his father; he was separated from his mother, forever, shortly afterward. He managed to change lines to join a brother – escaping the line that led directly to the gas chambers.

“It was horrible,” Helayne said of her father’s four years in the camps. “People were being stripped, being hit constantly. They worked from early morning till late at night. It was cold. They got a piece of bread two by three inches and maybe a bowl of soup if you were lucky.”

She said her father saw a man he believed was Josef Mengele – the infamous “Angel of Death” who conducted gruesome medical experiments on the camp inhabitants – and saw prisoners carrying out bloody body parts and mutilated bodies.

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“He kept going because he was young and strong and got a little extra food from a solider who said he reminded him of his son or nephew,” she said.

Her father was sent to Buchenwald camp toward the end of the war. One day, he later told his family, the gate opened and Russian soldiers swarmed around yelling “the war is over.” He and a friend made their way back to their hometown, but left when the man in charge of their old apartment building yelled anti-Jewish insults at them. Her father was 16 years old.

Joseph Magier found an organization that helped survivors reconnect with family, and he found the only two of his brothers who survived. He moved to Paris, where he briefly went to dental school and played soccer for a semi-pro team called Hakoah, comprising mostly Holocaust survivors. Eventually, he and his brothers made it to the United States, where Joseph worked in the garment industry, played soccer, learned English, and served in the Army in the Korean War.

After the war, Joseph and one of his brothers moved to Boston and married twin sisters, living a block apart in West Roxbury, summering in Hull, and reveling in their shared family life.

The brothers opened a handbag factory together in Neponset Circle and learned several more languages so they could communicate with their multi-national staff.

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“My father was grateful for every little piece he had of anything,” Helayne Magier said. “He was caring and loving, and family was everything. We always felt we were very special growing up because our fathers were survivors and came with nothing, and provided us with so much.”

She said she feels compelled to tell her father’s story because “we have to make people realize how bad things can be – and how everybody can make a difference, and how caring we have to be with each other.”

Johanna Seltz can be reached at seltzjohanna@gmail.com.