Judith Magyar Isaacson, Holocaust Survivor and Best-Selling Author, Dies at 90

Nov 12, 2015

This week, the world says goodbye to Judith Magyar Isaacson, the Maine-based author and teacher, whose memoir "Seed of Sarah" detailed her journey from childhood in Central Europe to the realities of life under Nazi rule — and ultimately to the notorious death camp, Auschwitz.

Unlike so many, Isaacson's story didn't end there — the woman who would become an important figure in Maine education passed away at the age of 90 this week, surrounded by children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and her husband of 70 years by her side.

To a generation of scholars at Bates College in Lewiston, Isaacson was a popular math teacher and educator, and the school's first dean of students back in the 1970s. Forty years before that, in Hungary, she was the smartest kid in the room and the class valedictorian. To her friends, she was "Jutka."

"This was a true lady," says Sharon Nichols. "Gracious, she was beautiful. Inside and out."

Nichols, speaking from her home in Florida, says she first met Isaacson in 1989, when Nichols was director of the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine.

"She was working I think on her book at that time, and we just traveled a lot together," she says. "She was very candid when she spoke about her experiences, and she didn't have a lot of bitterness, which I always found amazing."

"I was born in Kaposvar Hungary, that's the southwest of Hungary, a very assimilated area, in July 3, 1925," Isaacson says in a 1993 recording now part of the archives at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Born Judith Magyar to a middle-class family of Hungarian patriots, she was a star pupil who dreamed of going to college. Her parents kept up with the world news through BBC radio reports. And her childhood was an active, happy one, but she got her first taste of racism in the late 1930s, when she was chosen to perform at a school recital.

"And during my recital — I was a little girl of 13 — there were hisses and Nazi calls against me," Isaacson says. "And that was the first moment that I had to use some courage. I went on anyway and finished the recital."

And it wouldn't be the last call for courage. Instead of heading to university, Isaacson at the age of 19, along with her mother and her aunt, were transported to Auschwitz, where they were stripped of their clothes, their heads were shaved and they were sorted like livestock.

Isaacson says when she saw her mother was being sent to another part of the camp, she defied a guard and went after her.

"So I just walked after her, naked, and I expected him to shoot me in the back," she says. "And I still remember that feeling, to expect that bullet to come, and it didn't."

All three women survived for nearly a month in indescribable conditions until liberation.

One of Judith Magyar's liberators was a soldier from Lewiston, Maine — Irving Isaacson. In what Nichols describe as a fairytale romance, Judith and Irving were married days later. The couple returned to Maine where Nichols says Judith — now Isaacson — got busy with the rest of her life.

"She still had her dreams and she pursued them," Nichols says.

Isaacson went and got the university education that the Nazis had interrupted. Armed with an undergraduate degree in math from Bates College, then a masters in 1969 from Bowdoin, Isaacson taught mathematics at both the high school and college level. Then, in 1975, she was invited to apply for an important position at Bates.

"She once told me that when she was interviewed to be the dean of students, the interviewer said to her, 'Well did you ever live in a dorm?'" Nichols says. "And she said, 'Only Auschwitz.'"

She got the job.

Isaacson went on to hold a number of posts on numerous nonprofit and education boards, received honorary doctorates from several universities, and of course published her best-selling memoir, "Seed of Sarah" in 1991. Next month, she and Irving would have celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary.

Isaacson will be remembered with a service at 11 a.m. Friday at Temple Shalom in Auburn.