Judith Magyar Isaacson’s smile – brilliant in family photos before the Holocaust, resilient ever after – helped set in motion the decision to write “Seed of Sarah,” her 1990 memoir of the months following her 19th birthday when she was packed into a cattle car and deposited at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
In 1976, Mrs. Isaacson was dean of students at Bates College in Maine when she spoke to an audience at Bowdoin College, 20 miles away, during a Holocaust documentary presentation. As the event ended, a young man grabbed her arm and asked: “After all you’ve been through, how can you smile? So freely? So often?”
The past returned in dreams that night and Mrs. Isaacson awoke “at five in the morning, sleepwalked to the typewriter and started to write,” she recalled in her memoir. Though many books had been written about the Holocaust, and hers was not the first by a woman who survived, her frankness “really forged a path for memoir writers and scholars,” said Steve Hochstadt, a professor of history at Illinois College who formerly taught at Bates.
The story of a young woman suddenly immersed in the horrors of slave labor, starvation, and the constant threat of violence, Hochstadt added, raised an important question: “What do we want to think about when we think about gender in the Holocaust?”
Mrs. Isaacson, whose memoir, she once told the Globe with a smile, “came out the year I officially become a senior citizen,” died in her Auburn, Maine, home Nov. 10. She was 90 and her health had been failing.
Among Holocaust memoirs by females, said Hochstadt, “there were very few that really dealt with what it was really like to be a woman in a camp.”
“That really made her book an important addition to the literature: talking about menstruation, talking about fears of rape, talking about worrying that she would never be able to have a child,” he added. “That, I think, has given her book a lasting value. Every survivor’s memoir has lasting value, but some end up being more important than others.”
Unflinching in her recollections, Mrs. Isaacson wrote that while packing in 1944 for what turned out to be the transport train to Auschwitz, “I feared rape more than death and I decided to take some poison with me.” Her captions could be just as haunting. Under a 1939 photo of Mrs. Isaacson in a boat with her father and three others, she noted: “Of the group, I was the only one to survive the Holocaust.”
In the book, and in the 70 years she lived after being liberated from slave labor at the Hessisch Lichtenau, Germany, munitions factory, Mrs. Isaacson had a luminous dignity.
“My mother really had an unusual capacity for radiating warmth and empathy,” said her daughter, Ilona Bell of Williamstown. “To me it was always amazing that she had such a gift for happiness and love, given the horrors she’d been through.”
During her frenzied arrival at Auschwitz, the Nazis neglected to tattoo on Mrs. Isaacson her concentration camp number. “But much more importantly the Nazis also failed to put their brand on her spirit,” said her younger son, Mark of Cumberland, Maine. “Unlike most of the survivors I have met, my mother harbored no desire for vengeance or spirit of despair. Somehow the experience of the Holocaust reinforced her natural tendency toward hope and joy rather than diminishing it.”
As a wife and mother, a high school teacher and college professor, a dean and memoirist, “it was never about her. She was the one to attend to us all,” said her older son, John of Cambridge. “We owe our empathy and our spirit of generosity to her. I know that when I rise to my better self I’m always calling on her.”
Judith Magyar was born in Kaposvar, Hungary. An accomplished student, she would eventually become fluent in Hungarian, German, French, Latin, and English, and as a teenager she wanted to go to Paris to study literature at the Sorbonne.
Photos in her memoir show that she inherited her smile from her mother, with whom she survived Auschwitz and Hessisch Lichtenau, along with an aunt. In a 1993 oral history interview conducted by the Holocaust Human Rights Center of Maine, Mrs. Isaacson said she heard from those who were with her father when he starved to death in another camp that “the last night before he died, he recited poetry to entertain his fellow prisoners.”
In her memoir, she wrote about watching helplessly at Auschwitz as her grandmother “hobbled on alone, bent and stiff-legged” in a queue that led to death, while Mrs. Isaacson, her mother, and her aunt were shoved into another line that brought months of terror.
Later at Auschwitz, the three faced another set of lines: “Straight ahead – slave labor,” Mrs. Isaacson wrote. “To the left – death. To the right – mass rape at the Russian front.” As women filed toward their fate, Josef Mengele stood deciding where each would go. He waved Mrs. Isaacson to the right, but she defied him and instead hurried to follow her mother toward the slave labor train, along with her aunt. For a moment, Mrs. Isaacson thought Mengele might shoot her: “How easy it is to face death, I thought. In the middle of my back, a tiny spot began to tingle, expecting the bullet.”
He didn’t shoot, though, and she, her mother, and aunt went on to survive the labor camp as well. After the camps were liberated, while awaiting transport to Hungary, she met Irving Isaacson, an Office of Strategic Services officer who was a lawyer from Maine. In a storybook romance that belied their circumstances, they fell in love and married in Nuremberg’s city hall on Dec. 24, 1945.
Their son Mark called their relationship “magical,” and his brother, John, said: “They made sense together. They were a great romance, one of those funny accidents that you couldn’t possibly imagine.”
In Maine, Mrs. Isaacson was watching a math program on public television one day when she decided to go to college, once her youngest child was in school. She received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bates and a master’s in math from Bowdoin. She taught high school math before teaching at Bates, where she subsequently was dean of women and dean of students.
Mrs. Isaacson, who served on Bowdoin’s Board of Overseers, was honored by many Maine organizations and received honorary degrees from Bates, Colby College, and the University of New England.
“At our lobster bake to celebrate mom’s 90th birthday and dad’s 100th, mom said, ‘I had the worst possible life, but that was only for a year. Except for that I’ve had the happiest life imaginable,’ ” Bell said in a eulogy.
A service has been held for Mrs. Isaacson, who in addition to her husband and three children leaves eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
As Mrs. Isaacson spent time with her grandchildren, it “was her nature to throw herself into activities and into the present moment and enjoy and revel in whatever she was doing,” said her granddaughter Kaitlin Bell Barnett of Troy, N.Y.
“I think so many Holocaust survivors live in the past and can’t get past the past, and end up bitter and closed off. That wasn’t my grandmother at all. She excelled in so many realms and did so with great joy.”Bryan Marquard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.