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Obituaries

Magdalena E. Gilbert, a Holocaust survivor who immigrated to Baltimore and became a concert pianist, dies at 100

Magdalena E. Gilbert, a Hungarian Jew who survived the horrors of Auschwitz and rebuilt her life after immigrating to Baltimore where she became a piano teacher, died of undetermined causes Oct. 15 at Sinai Hospital. The Mount Washington resident was 100.

May 22, 1944, was a date that Mrs. Gilbert, then 22, would never forget and would haunt her for the rest of her life.

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It was on that day that she and her parents, Lajos and Ilona Elefant, a sister, Edith, and their grandparents, arrived at the dreaded Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland.

“When we arrived at the death camp, there was music playing, and my father said that it probably won’t be that bad as long as were together,” Mrs. Gilbert wrote in a petition to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.

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The conference, whose headquarters are in New York City and was founded in 1951, represents Jews who were victims of Nazi persecution during the 1930s and World War II in seeking compensation and restitution.

Standing and watching the new arrivals as they climbed off the transport was Dr. Josef Mengele, the feared SS officer and physician, who was known as the “Angel of Death,” and for his medical experiments which he conducted on prisoners. He was also a member of a team that selected those who were to be gassed.

“First, my father was taken away. Dr. Mengele was standing there and separated my mother from us by sending her to the right. That was the last time I saw my parents,” she wrote. “They told us to undress and they shaved our heads. We were walking among men, and I was mortified. We saw the smoking crematoriums. I finally realized that this was a concentration camp where they were killing people and the music was still playing.”

Magdalena Elefant, whose father was a clothing designer and mother was a homemaker, was born and raised in Kosice, a city in what is now eastern Slovakia near the Hungarian border.

Magdalena Gilbert was a highly skilled concert pianist and a piano instructor in Baltimore.

It was called Kassa by Czechoslovakians and Kaschu by the Germans. In 1920, Kosice became part of Czechoslovakia, which in 1938 was occupied by Hungarian forces which were allies of the Nazis. Jews had lived in Kosice since the 11th century, and with the coming of the Nazis, the city’s Jewish population of more than 12,000 were beginning to be deported to the death camps.

Mrs. Gilbert was a graduate of the Gymnasium, a high school, in Kosice.

“Magda spoke Hungarian and understood what the police were shouting when they came to her door in the summer of 1944, but she did not know the meaning of the crowded railroad car’s destination ... Auschwitz,” according to a biographical profile submitted by her family. “The deportation of 440,000 Hungarian Jews had begun.”

“At the age of 16, in the spring of 1944, I was living with my parents and two older sisters in Kassa, Hungary,” said Dr. Edith Eva Eger, now a world-renowned psychologist, who is Mrs. Gilbert’s sister, in a 2020 interview with The Daily Mail.

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“Despite the signs of war and prejudice around us — the yellow stars we wore pinned to our coats; the newspaper accounts of German occupation spreading across Europe; the awful day when I was cut from the Olympic gymnastic team because I was Jewish — I had been blissfully preoccupied with teenage concerns,” she explained. “I marked my progress in the ballet and gymnastics studio, and joked with Magda, my beautiful eldest sister, and Klara, who was studying violin at a conservatory in Budapest.”

In April of 1944, the Jews in Kosice were being rounded up and imprisoned in an old brick factory at the city’s edge, where they remained for several months before beginning their fateful journey by railroad to Auschwitz.

“My parents were murdered in the gas chambers the first day we arrived,” Dr. Eger said in the newspaper interview. “My first night in Auschwitz, I was forced to dance with SS officer Josef Mengele, the man who had scrutinized the new arrivals as we came through the selection line that day and sent my mother to her death.”

The two sisters spent six months in Auschwitz.

“One day in Auschwitz, the Germans selected me, my sister, and other prisoners to go somewhere in Germany to work in a yarn factory,” Mrs. Gilbert wrote in her petition to the claims conference. “We were in the yarn factory for a couple of months and then taken in boxcars and on foot from place to place. The boxcars were carrying ammunition, and when the Allies were bombing the boxcars one Wehrmacht opened the door and I fell out and landed on a big stone, and split my chin open. I still have a scar under my mouth with debris in it.”

As the Allies entered Germany and the surrounding occupied countries, concentration camp prisoners were moved from place to place and the sisters were incarcerated at Mauthausen in Upper Austria, with their final destination being Gunskirchen, a subcamp of the Mauthausen concentration camp.

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“From Mauthausen we were taken on foot to Gunskirchen Forest were I witnessed cannibalism,” Mrs. Gilbert wrote. “We were liberated by American soldiers on May 4, 1945. My life story is in the archives of the Yale University Library on a videotape, and my sister, Dr. Edith Eger, who was with me from the beginning through to the end, is an internationally known lecturer on experiences in the Holocaust.”

After spending time in a displaced persons facility, Mrs. Gilbert joined her sister Dr. Eger who had emigrated to the Bronx, New York, and who years later chronicled their World War II experiences in a 2017 memoir, “The Choice.”

In the early 1950s, Mrs. Gilbert, who was conservatory trained, moved to Baltimore where she became a highly skilled concert pianist and then a piano instructor. Her students “thrived under her nurturing instruction and moreover enjoyed her unique larger than life personality, one that was unafraid to speak her mind, or phone calling at all hours to perform her uniquely accented interpretations of holiday songs or birthday greeting,” according to the family biographical profile.

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Mrs. Gilbert enjoyed swimming daily, singing, dancing and following a strict diet. She was a stylishly dressed woman who could not resist telling a good joke, family members said. She also was a bridge Life Master who competed in regional and national events.

When she celebrated her 100th birthday on Jan. 23, 2022, she received a governor’s citation from Gov. Larry Hogan. The citation read: “In recognition of your life’s extraordinary journey, love of family and the wisdom, knowledge and success you have achieved along the way.”

Colette Avital, executive vice president of the claims conference, seeking to honor Mrs. Gilbert on her gaining centenarian status, called for the flying of an American flag of the Capitol in Washington in her honor adding that it “commemorates your extraordinary valor and your tenacity in rebuilding your life.”

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She had been a member of Beth El congregation and Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

Services were private.

Her husband of many years, Theodore Gilbert, a retired University of Maryland pharmacist, died in 2013.

Mrs. Gilbert is survived by her son, Louis Shillman of Austin, Texas; a daughter, Ilona Shillman of Los Angeles; her sister, Dr. Edith E. Ever of La Jolla, California; a stepson, Mark Gilbert of Amherst, Massachusetts; a stepdaughter, Lynn Lempel of Daytona Beach, Florida; and a grandson, Grant Nathaniel Garson of Los Angeles. Her sister, Klara Korda, who became first violinist with the Sydney Symphony in Australia, died in 2005. An earlier marriage to Nathaniel Shillman ended in divorce.


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