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Who was Magda Gerber?

Magda Gerber was a world-renowned pioneer in the field of infant care who had a profound influence on setting the standards for high quality daycare in the United States. She developed a revolutionary philosophy of infant care based on treating infants with respect and co-founded Resources for Infant Educarers, an organization to help parents and professionals. Without a doubt, her life was extraordinary and her impact considerable. She’s been described as uncompromising in her standards, a charismatic speaker, a patient and gentle teacher to say nothing of being “intimidatingly gorgeous.” Like many who are familiar with her work, I’ve been very curious about the details of her life. How did she come to the United States? How did she develop RIE? What did she hope for the future of her organization? The bones of her story are relatively easy to find, however details are harder to come by.

My research, still in its infancy, has been helped immensely by the interviews I was fortunate to have with Magda’s children Mayo Nagy and Bence Gerber as well as with Ronda Garcia who participated as an intern in the Demon Demonstration Infant Program in 1974. An interview with Daisy Gerber is on the horizon and I’ll certainly update this piece as I learn more. My goal is to give as robust a picture of her personality and life as possible so if you knew Magda and have a story to share, please e-mail me.

EARLY YEARS

Born to a well-to-do family sometime between 1910 and 1915, Gerber was raised in Budapest, Hungary. Her parents had high ambitions for their only child and to that end, they hired a German nanny and a French nanny as well as various tutors. As a child, Magda loved ballet and dreamed of becoming a prima ballerina, a pursuit her parents discouraged. Magda went on to pursue her advanced education at the Sorbonne in Paris where she studied Linguistics, became fluent in French, German and English and was enthralled by the work of Sigmund Freud. Returning to Budapest for holiday, Magda, met the handsome and ambitious textile engineer Imre Gerber. The two instantly fell in love and soon wed.

Not long thereafter, Gerber gave birth to their first child Erica Mayo—whom everyone simply called Mayo. As a new mom, Magda felt overwhelmed and wondered why no one had prepared her for the challenges of motherhood. She’d later recall, “I thought I was the only one who didn’t know what to do with babies and somehow in my education someone had forgotten to tell me.” Four years later, she gave birth to Daisy. Like her mother before her, Gerber employed a nanny. That is until one day, she came home and found the nanny forcefully feeding Mayo. Magda recalled, “I got deeply upset. I pushed her and said, ‘Leave! Leave! And don’t touch her again.’”[i] She surprised Imre by announcing that from then on she alone would care for their children.

“AN EYE-OPENING EXPERIENCE”

The seminal moment in Gerber’s life came quite unexpectedly. When Mayo was six, she was sick and their pediatrician was unavailable. Mayo recommended that her mother call her school friend Anna’s mother, who she knew to be a pediatrician. Enter Dr. Emmi Pikler. When she arrived at the Gerber’s door, Magda started to explain her daughter’s condition when Dr. Pikler motioned for her to be quiet.

“Dr. Pikler then asked my little girl when her throat started feeling sore and how she felt now. My child answered so intelligently, so politely that I was surprised. The doctor then asked Mayo if she wanted to ‘look in her [the doctor's] throat’ and afterward she asked permission to look into Mayo’s throat. ‘Open your mouth wide,’ she told my daughter ‘and I won’t have to use the tongue depressor.’ The cooperation Dr. Pikler elicited was so striking. . .What struck a deeper chord was the realization that she related to children in a more honest, respectful manner than I’d ever seen.”[ii]

Dr. Pikler was no ordinary pediatrician. An Austrian born Jew of both Austrian and Hungarian descent, she received her medical training in Vienna from two remarkable pediatric doctors Clemens Von Pirquet and Hans Salzar who were known for treating even their youngest patients with the utmost respect. The “first commandment” of Dr. Salzar was that his staff take the time and care to enlist a child’s cooperation in whatever exam or treatment that was taking place. At the time Dr. Pikler met Magda, she had only recently moved to Hungary with her husband, a mathematician and progressive educator, and their daughter. While Dr. Pikler was building her practice, she was also on a mission to free babies from their parents’ good intentions.

After years of visiting her young patients in their homes, Dr. Pikler had observed a disturbing trend. More and more parents were training and exercising their babies to get them to achieve developmental milestones as soon as possible, as if turning over by three months was critical to success later in life. Dr. Pikler also noticed that babies were rarely given time to explore on their own. Instead, they were constantly being fussed over, held, talked to, cuddled and passed around to family members. Her intuition told her that this was stifling the physical, emotional and cognitive development of the children and so began her years of meticulous research.

Dr. Pikler observed that if a child was “helped,” their drive to experiment would diminish and along with it the joy inherent in making a discovery. Physically speaking, she observed that the movement of a child whose development had been rushed was less secure, more clumsy and stiff-looking. She also discovered that babies who were overly-fussed over would come to need this level of attention and lose the ability to play on their own. From these core observations, Dr. Pikler’s philosophy of raising babies grew.  In her practice she would carefully guide new parents in how to care for their babies respectfully while lecturing around the country and working on her first of many books pointedly titled “What Can Your Baby do Already?” (1940). In it’s pages you can literally feel the pain Dr. Pikler vicariously feels for the babies subjected to their parents overbearing ways:

How do we generally treat a child? Usually the child is seen as a toy or as a “doll”, rather than a human being. It is surrounded by people passed around, touched, kissed, rocked, carried about. One whistles at the child (plants a kiss on his cheek) smack’s one’s lips together, babbles at him, dances around him. Later on, one tries things out with him “What can baby do already?” They try out what the baby hears when they talk to her. Whether she sees all the different shiny, gleaming objects. Whether she follows a moving object with her eyes. Whether she laughs when tickled. As though none of this could be seen in the course of the child’s daily life.  Something is going on with the child all the time. She doesn’t have a minute of peace.  There is always a fuss being made over her. She is the center of attention. All sorts of impressions are being forced on her, her attention is being constantly directed at something else. People are always gathered around the child. “How sweet!” — “How cute!”  ‘he is just the image of his father”— “his mother!” or “neither of them!”…Talk, talk talk, right in front of a child. Talking past the child, not to her. About everything she does, about every movement, every sound she makes. The attention paid her is exaggerated, everything is discussed aloud. Each word she utters is repeated in her presences a hundred times….

At first she just tolerates the overwhelming impressions, then gets used to them and begins to enjoy being in this state. She feels at home in this atmosphere. Later she cannot live without all this….Nothing else interests him anymore….It is most characteristic of such an infant that she will, in time, become increasingly whiney and cling to adults in an unhealthy way. She is only interested in the adults, in having them around her, talking to her, doing things with her. None of this, however gives her a feeling of joy and satisfaction—at least not one of lasting duration….When he is alone, he sinks into himself, unable to help himself….The child loses naturalness, the unconscious gracefulness which was her most attractive quality. Because she literally clings to them, she has become bothersome to the adults. They, of course, are not aware that they themselves are responsible for the child’s having become like this….It’s already too late to undo what has happened. The damage is done…The child can’t cope with having less attention; she makes demands, she wants to rule the family.”[iii]

Dr. Pikler’s observations and philosophy for caring for children with respect resonated deeply with Magda. In Dr. Pikler, Magda found life-long mentor. As she’d later explain, “So profound and far reaching was Dr. Pikler’s influence upon me that I decided to make the study and care of young children my own life’s work…To be trained directly by Dr. Pikler cannot be compared with other kinds of training.”

WORLD WAR II

It is unclear if Dr. Pikler’s husband was already in prison for “political reasons” at the time Dr. Pikler met Magda. What is known is that he would serve a nine-year sentence from 1936 – 1945.

At the onset of  the Holocaust, Hungarian Jews were spared the wrath of Hitler due to Hungary’s alliance with Germany. Nonetheless, Dr. Pikler must have been concerned about her own well-being. It was in 1943, before the Germans would invade Hungary, that Magda gave birth to her son Bence and was able to raise him guided by Dr. Pikler’s core values:

I experienced first hand how to raise a Pikler baby from scratch when my son was born….Pikler babies are brought up under special conditions. They each develop without interference at their own rate. No one worries about the date of the “milestones.” No one places them in a sitting position before they’re ready to sit up alone. No one tries to teach them to stand or walk. No rattles or other object are put in their hands. Not even a pacifier is put in the mouth. Are they abandoned? Neglected? Ignored? By no means.

Ronda Garcia, an early student of Magda’s in Northern California, remembers Magda talking about raising Bence in a basement with Dr. Pikler. This was likely in 1944, after Hitler discovered Hungary’s secret negotiations with the United States and Britain causing the Nazis to invade Hungary in March of that year. Within two months 450,000 Jews were deported, mostly to Auschwitz and all Hungarians found to be harboring Jews were executed. Certainly by hiding Dr. Pikler in her basement, Magda certainly risked her life. Remarkably, The Gerbers and The Piklers made it through the war alive.

LÓCZY

In addition to the extermination of a half a million Hungarian Jews, approximately 300,000 Hungarian soldiers and 80,000 non-Jewish civilians died during World War II. Budapest was severely damaged as were other cities throughout country. Nonetheless, at the end of the war a feeling of euphoria swept Hungary.

It was at this time, in 1946 that The City of Budapest asked Dr. Pikler, whose excellent reputation preceded her, to run a local orphanage housing 70 children ages birth to three. Officially known as The National Methodological Institute for Infant Care, it was simply referred to as “Lóczy” for the street on which it sat. As the new medical executive director, a position Dr. Pikler would hold until 1978, she revamped every aspect of life at Lóczy. Dr. Pikler believed that infants living in an institution would derive security from a predictable schedule that they could come to count on. Within this predictable rhythm of daily life, the infant has time for uninterrupted play.She also believed they needed one special caregiver with whom they could attach. This attachment would be fostered during caregiving times—when a child’s diapers were changed, when they were bathed, dressed and fed.

It was here, working in this living laboratory alongside Dr. Pikler, that Magda received the education no university could ever give. Later, Loczy’s reputation would grow and it would be hailed as a model for the highest quality institutional infant care.

LIFE BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

During the war, Imre sensed that the worst was yet to come and wanted to leave Hungary but Magda was reluctant to leave her beloved homeland. Later Bence would explain her desire to stay: “People don’t like to leave their country unless they really have to.” Certainly the Gerbers could not foresee the Communists ascent to power in 1949. Once Magda saw the writing on the wall, it was too late.

Mayo, then a young teenager, had dreams of being a doctor but knew that because her family was part of the bourgeoisie (and not a member of the Communist Party) that she would be denied the chance to further her education. So when in 1952 she met a family that had plans to escape, Mayo seized the opportunity to join them. She remembers the night she told her parents of her plans, “And so I went as a kid to my parents, I can leave the country right now with this family…I said your option is if I don’t leave with them I will go alone. I was really a tough cookie.…they were very shocked.”

And so Mayo joined the family but they were caught at the border, arrested and tried as enemies of the state. Mayo was sentenced to eight months in prison and spent her days in jail sewing peasant blouses.  After her legal term was over, Mayo was escorted her to the KGB where she spent 37 more days in jail, five of which were in solitary confinement in a tiny cell with no windows. What Mayo didn’t know was that soon after her arrest, her father was captured during one of the State Security Police’s thrice weekly routine “social purges” of non-party members, intellectuals, free thinkers and members of the upper class. Mayo explains, “In those days you were guilty before proven innocent.” Vans would then transport these enemies of the state to labor camps and prison. Others were killed. Branded a spy, Imre was jailed for over a year and tortured.

When Mayo eventually returned home, she was a changed person. Magda was shocked to see her daughter transformed into a tough girl who cursed and was proud of it. From then on, Mayo remained under the surveillance of the secret police. “They treat you worse than a serial killer when you want to leave the country.”

By 1953, the number of citizens captured by the Secret Police swelled to 700,000. The families of these so-called “enemies of the state” were suspect. As a result, it was the policy of the government to move them every couple of years, lest they stay in one place long enough to influence their neighbors. And so a couple of months after Mayo’s return to Budapest from jail, the State Security Police arrived at the Gerbers home one evening to inform them to pack their things because they’d return for them within hours. Magda was out attending to matters related to Imre’s imprisonment so Mayo frantically scrambled to get their things together. Magda returned not long before the police were at their door. Recalls Mayo:

“They came with big guns and took us to a train, not saying where they are taking us…the train ride should have been about two hours but it took two days and the windows were covered so we had no idea where we were landing….they took us to a tiny hamlet to the home of a peasant family who had to make one room available for us and another one to an older couple. We stayed there for twenty-six months. Daisy worked laying bricks and I worked at a place where I had to hammer nails and make them straight. Mother was home. She didn’t have to work. She almost had a nervous breakdown at the time. It was very hard because my dad wasn’t with us and this whole thing came suddenly really without rhyme or reason.”

After two years, The Gerbers were allowed to leave the hamlet. Imre, Magda and Bence lived in an apartment about eighty miles out of Budapest while Daisy and Magda lived in another town and went to Budapest to work at various jobs. They were not allowed to be in the city after 10pm.  It’s unclear if Magda was able to work with Dr. Pikler at Lóczy at this time.

ESCAPE FROM HELL

On October 23, 1956 a peaceful student demonstration in Budapest against the Soviet policies spontaneously became a full-blown revolution known as The Hungarian Revolution of 1956:

A student delegation entering the radio building in an attempt to broadcast its demands was detained. When the delegation’s release was demanded by the demonstrators outside, they were fired upon by the State Security Police (ÁVH) from within the building. The news spread quickly and disorder and violence erupted throughout the capital.[i]

Remarkably quickly, the revolt spread across the country and the government fell. Daisy was in Budapest when it was all happening and she immediately left the country with a group of friends and was able to reach Vienna. She called her parents and spoke in code about a wedding she was attending in Vienna. (A brief video of the events of the revolution can be watched here.)

“We’ll come to the wedding too,” Magda told her and it was decided that they would leave. Remarkably, over the course of five days, roughly 200,000 Hungarians left their country. On foot. Once they’d reached Vienna and found some housing, remarkably quickly, Magda, who was fluent in English, French, German and Hungarian, was able to find work as translator for the United States Embassy.

Unfortunately, Mayo was away visiting a cousin in Romania when the revolution broke out. As a result the trains stopped running and she was stranded in Bucharest. Her parents called her and said, “I hope you can come to the wedding too.’ Recalls Mayo, “I knew what they were talking about. We were pretty streetwise by that time. I said ‘Don’t worry, just go and I’ll see you at the wedding.’ I didn’t want them to wait for me because I had no idea when I’d be able to get back. So they left. When I got back to Budapest they had left me…maybe $100 to pay somebody to help me go through the border.”

By November 11th Soviet-backed forces had crushed the Uprising. Mayo would once again, have to risk her life to escape her country. Finally, in late December, just days before a new Soviet-installed government would officially take power, Mayo and a friend hired a guide and set out for Vienna. Mayo remembers, “We were walking for hours in knee-high snow. Without having the proper shoes or anything. I had a feeling we were going round and round. I was sick. I had a fever. We were cold. Miserable. We didn’t eat. We didn’t drink.”

The man they’d hired would eventually take off with their money, leaving them broke and stranded at a peasant’s home somewhere in the countryside. The next morning, rather miraculously a man showed up and offered to take them across the border. He showed them his Canadian passport, explained that he’d been taking people over the border, that he’d come to pick up his sister, that this would be his final trip and that he would take them with him if they wanted. With no other options, they chose to trust him.

So we went with him and we had to duck in the snow because the Russians were shooting de facto. It took us probably another day and we finally saw the border….I saw the German sign and I said Thank God and I sat on the street and I said “That’s it. I cannot make one more step.”

As it turns out, it was Christmas day. The hitched a ride to the tiny apartment of friends of their guide which was too small to accommodate them. The man invited the girls to stay with him at a hotel and the next day he took them by train to Vienna. When they arrived the police station was closed because of the Christmas holiday. Mayo had the number of a couple who had once visited them in Budapest and looked them up. Fortunately they were able to take them in. Thee next day they returned to the police station.

I was sitting there with this girl, arguing, because she said ‘You know we want to go to college…let’s see what we can do’ and I said, ‘I have to find my parents first.’ All of the sudden my brother and my dad walked in.

Mayo remembers that story as being her father’s favorite. Certainly it was a day she’d never forget.  And finding Mayo Bence remembers like looking for a needle in a haystack, “We were looking for her amongst the thousands and thousands of Hungarians running around Vienna.”

Many Hungarian only briefly stayed in Vienna before going on to settle in of the five countries that were welcoming Hungarians. The Gerbers however were getting somewhat settled in large part because Magda thought she was so fortunate to have a steady job that paid so well (She was making approximately $3 a day). Mayo, however, wasn’t comfortable being so close to Hungary. People were getting kidnapped back to Budapest for ransom money, she was frighted and was have nightmares. And she said to her mother, “If you want to stay that’s okay, but I have to go on.” Mayo would later explain, The good news is that by then we had nothing. So there was nothing holding them back.”

And so Magda and Imre secured visas for the family and on one day in March, 1957 they boarded an military plane and took off for America, their future entirely uncertain.

FROM HELL TO HEAVEN

“Coming to the United States was like a dream come true. Like from going from hell to heaven. Anything and everything about America was wonderful. That actually stayed with my dad forever. America was perfect.” — Bence Gerber

The Gerbers landed at a military base in New Jersey. Recalls Mayo:

“We were in Camp Kilmer for three weeks which to me was absolutely heavenly. There was delicious food, wonderful soldiers, very friendly and kind. And we were able to get two dollars a week spending money which to me sounded like thousands would be today. Also they allowed us to dig in to big cabinets of nice used clothes. They advised my Dad, he was a textile engineer, to go to Boston…So we went to Boston and three weeks later everyone was working.”

But they wouldn’t be there for long. Six months later, Imre received a job opportunity on the west coast and soon they were residing in the east side of Los Angeles where a Hungarian community had formed.  Once settled in an apartment near 8th Street, Magda looked for opportunities to continue her work with infants but none existed. And so she found a position as a therapist at Children’s Hospital working with older children afflicted with cerebral palsy. A year later, she began working with emotionally disturbed and autistic children at the Dubnoff Center for Child Development in North Hollywood, where she earned the nickname “Madge with Magic.”

to be continued…


[i] Wikipedia, The Hungarian Revolution of 1956

[i] Woo, Elaine, Obituaries; Magda Gerber; infant education expert advocated respect for babies Los Angeles Times, May 3, 2007.

[ii] Gerber, Magda, Your Self-Confident Baby 1997.

[iii] EMMI PIKLER 1902 – 1984, Sensory Awareness Foundation Bulletin #14, Mill Valley, CA 11994. pp.18-19

[iv] Wikipedia, The Hungarian Revolution of 1956