If Margit Buchhalter Feldman had not lied about her age to the Nazis, the 15-year-old would have been murdered with her family at Auschwitz.
In fear of joining her parents and nearly 70 family members who died in the gas chambers, Feldman, a Hungarian teen known only to the Nazis by the “A23029” tattoo on her left arm, told them she was 18 and was assigned to forced labor. After she was liberated in 1945, Feldman, who could still picture “big heaps and mounds of dead bodies laying all around,” moved to the U.S., where the Holocaust survivor made a life of her own in New Jersey. Years later, she eventually turned to teaching young people about the millions who died during the atrocities of the Holocaust.
“It is important for me to remember that 6 million of my fellow Jews were slaughtered, and a million and a half of those victims were children,” she said in a 2017 interview. “I am here and I firmly believe it is because God wanted me to survive and be here and tell the free world what an uncaring world did to its fellow human beings.”
Feldman, who dedicated her life to educating children about the Holocaust, died of complications from covid-19 this week, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced on Thursday. The 90-year-old Holocaust survivor of Somerset, N.J., died on Tuesday, one day before the 75th anniversary of her liberation.
“Her legacy is best captured in her work to ensure that the world never forgets the horrors of the Holocaust,” the Democratic governor said at a coronavirus press briefing. “Margit gave us so much hope over her 90-plus years.”
Murphy added that her husband, Harvey, remains hospitalized for covid-19. The governor said Feldman’s son, Joseph, is a doctor working on the front lines of the pandemic in New Jersey, which has more than 75,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and over 3,500 deaths.
Born in Budapest on June 12, 1929, the same birth date as Anne Frank, Feldman was the only child of Theresa and Joseph Buchhalter. In 1944, Feldman and her family were taken from their home in the small agricultural town of Tolcsva, near the Czech border, and imprisoned in a nearby town before heading to Auschwitz.
She bounced around a series of concentration camps, ending up in Bergen-Belsen. In the 2016 documentary, “Not A23039,” Feldman remembered being surrounded by death. She said she could still taste the horrible soup that was served – often with worms swimming around the bowl.
“You were put into a barrack, where people died,” she recalled in the documentary. “The straw that you laid down was full of whatever came out of their bodies – vomit or discretion. It didn’t take 24 hours for your body to get covered with lice.”
By the time she was liberated by the British on April 15, 1945, Feldman was all alone and in bad shape. She was suffering from pneumonia and pleurisy, and was injured by an explosive set by the Germans who were trying to destroy the camp, according to research collected by Raritan Valley Community College.
After recovering in Sweden, Feldman moved to the U.S. in 1947 when she found out she had an aunt living in New York, and became an X-ray technician. She met her husband, Harvey Feldman, while recovering from tuberculosis at a New York hospital, according to her obituary. They married in 1953 and had two children, Tina and Joseph, who were each named after her parents, and three grandchildren.
It would take decades before Feldman would even agree to open up about what she went through during the Holocaust. But when a grammar-school student from her neighborhood in Bound Brook, N.J., asked her to tell her story as part of a class project, she allowed the boy to record her story on tape.
“I rose from the ashes of Auschwitz, Krakow, Greentsery, Bergen-Belsen as a child of 15 years of age from the Holocaust to rebirth and a new life,” she once wrote.
The response from the class was overwhelming, and it inspired her to keep going. In 1991, Jim McGreevey, then a Democratic state assemblyman who would eventually become governor, worked with Feldman in forming the Holocaust Education Commission to promote education in New Jersey. He described her to NJ.com as a teacher “filled with a sense of compassion and kindness” who never showed any bitterness for what she had experienced.
“She was just an extraordinary human being, to have lived through all that, to have lived that life and to have suffered through those camps, yet to be grateful for life, to see the promise of tomorrow, she was just such an exceptional person,” he said.
Her work continued in the state, as she helped pass a bill that mandated a Holocaust and genocide curriculum in New Jersey public schools. She spoke to classrooms of children for years and released a book in 2003 about her life as a survivor, “Margit: A Teenager’s Journey Through the Holocaust and Beyond.”
“Margit devoted her life to telling her inspiring story and touched the hearts of thousands of students, educators, and members of the community,” her obituary stated. “Her goal was to inspire people to stand up for one another and fight against all forms of prejudice and hate.”
McGreevey told NJ.com that he was struck by how Feldman would tell him to let go of any feelings of anger or distress. Knowing what Feldman went through as a young girl, how could he not listen to his friend?
“After living through that hell, she was blessed with the gift of authenticity. She lived fearlessly and she loved fearlessly,” McGreevey said. “It’s like there was nothing that the world could do that would cause Margit to live anything less than with full authenticity and the full measure of her being.”