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We Were Strangers

The true story of Magda Preiss

Category: Book, Memoir



We Were Strangers is the true story of Magda Preiss, a breathtaking masterpiece of Holocaust literature, composed in her own words upon arriving in America in the 1940s. Lived and told by a beautiful young bride with fearless defiance, Magda’s harrowing experience reveals a character who is larger than life and death. Hers is a love story more complex than any happy-ever-after tale. It recounts the love of culture, beauty, and life itself that fueled Magda’s will to survive; the love for her husband that made her stay to face Nazi horror instead of escaping with her parents and siblings; and her love for strangers, whose humanity amidst the most inhumane circumstances illuminates every page through Magda’s heroic voice.

From an idyllic childhood in Czechoslovakia through the hells of Auschwitz, Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen, Ravensbrück, and Beendorf, Magda shows what it means to be a stranger at home and in foreign lands, to be estranged from loved ones and even from oneself as the world goes insane. In devastating sentences as sharp as barbed wire, Magda uncovers universal truths from her experience as a woman in the Holocaust. Then in words as sweet as an unexpected smile, she redeems our love of life. Dreamlike but all too real; dripping raw passion but unsentimental; righteous without moralizing—they don’t make books like this anymore, yet we need books like this now more than ever.

Read about how bioGraph restored the original manuscript.

USC Shoah Foundation Testimony

Interview of Magda Riederman Schloss (1995) is from the archive of the USC Shoah Foundation. For more information: http://sfi.usc.edu/

The Story Behind the Story

Foreword by Bill Schloss

The rebirth of Magda’s story began at Kol Nidre services on September 18, 2018 when I ran into my former neighbor, AJ Greenberg. He and his brother Aaron had recently started a storytelling and publishing business called bioGraph. I mentioned that my mother had written her story after the Holocaust and it was saved, precariously, on my cousin’s virus-ridden computer. Intrigued, they requested a copy. Despite a sad comedy of technological glitches, we successfully retrieved the story: a 328-page PDF, each page a JPEG of the original typewritten manuscript. The yellowed pages were torn and wrinkled, yet Aaron and AJ were awestruck by the story and its relevance today. They urged me to preserve Magda’s words in a book. The project unfolded, and we all realized our obligation to share this story with a wider audience.

“Do you want to know how this book came about?” asks Aunt Vivian at a meeting at my home on March 31, 2019, just under a century after my mother Magda was born. Aunt Vivian is my mother’s youngest sister, and while contemplating the publication of my mother’s story, I needed my aunt Vivian’s perspective.

Vivian reminisces about her older sister playing wonderful Hungarian folk tunes on the family’s baby grand piano in Uzhhorod (also known as Ungvár) before World War Two. She’d play piano and sing with the windows open and people would gather outside to hear. As you’ll read, my mother was the only member of our family trapped in Europe during the war.

My mother’s family in America spoke of Magda constantly and never gave up hope that she would survive. Until one Sunday morning, soon after the war, a letter came from her husband with a devastatingly brief message: “I cannot find Magda.” Now the family was scared and prepared for the worst.

Before long, my other aunt, Susan, had a dream. She woke up in the morning and said to my grandma, “I dreamt that Magda is still alive.”

“No!” my grandma wailed. “There’s no way she could have survived.” 

But that very day, a policeman knocked on the door and asked, “Do you have a daughter named Magda Riederman?”

“Yes,” my grandmother replied.

“Well,” the policeman cleared his throat. “She’s alive!”

After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, my mother reunited with her family in Rock Island, Illinois. She had this great need to tell her story, and so my grandmother took my mother to Pioneer Women and Hadassah, where they listened to her tale between the songs she sang at the piano. At home, Magda would tell her story to whomever would listen. It got to the point where she needed to write a book. It was an outlet for her. She tried to publish at a few places but dropped it after being rejected. This was in the late 1940s.

There are too many similarities between the Holocaust and events in the world today. My mom always said, “Billy, just remember. This can happen again and probably will.” Anti-Semitism, or any form of hatred, is too dangerous to ignore. People ignored Hitler and look what happened. We must take the warning signs seriously.

Everything happened gradually for my mother. First, she couldn’t wear a fur coat, then she had to wear a yellow star, and the next day she had to surrender her jewelry and travel with a special permit. Before you know it, people are dragged out of their homes and forced to sign away all possessions. “It was all so legal and strictly within the law,” my mother coldly reflected. It was a gradual erosion of human rights. By the time you realize what’s happening, it’s too late.

My wife Leslie has read many Holocaust books, but she insists that this book is “a whole different way of telling the story.” My mother was kind of a romantic, and this book is a love story. But don’t get me wrong—my mother was really tough. She wouldn’t have survived otherwise, I would never have been born, and this story never told. 

This book is addressed to future generations. By having the courage to read and share Magda’s story, you are preserving the legacy of the Holocaust and helping to create a better world where all people can live free from fear and free to love.

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