72 Valentine’s Days later: a soldier and the wife he saved from hell on earth

Edith Steiner, 93, and her husband John Mackay, 97, recently celebrated their 72nd Valentine’s Day together. That’s quite an achievement, but the harrowing story of how they met is far more remarkable. It was in 1945 and at a place called Bergen-Belsen.

Earlier in the war, in 1941, John was in the British army fighting in North Africa. At Tobruk, in today’s Libya, he was taken prisoner along with thousands of other British soldiers. But he wasn’t in captivity for long. He managed to obtain an Italian uniform and successfully escaped. By 1945, John was serving in a commando unit as the British army pushed into northwestern Germany. On April 15th, the concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen was liberated. The horrors discovered there made the place a byword for evil. This is where John met Edith.

After falling into the clutches of the Nazis — marked for death simply because they were Jewish — Edith and her mother spent a hellish six weeks at the Auschwitz death camp in what is today southern Poland. With the Soviet army steamrolling inexorably closer, the Nazi authorities began moving camp inmates further west. Against the odds, Edith and her mother survived being marched all the way to Bergen-Belsen. Both were still alive when the camp was liberated.

At a dance celebrating the liberation, John was feeling shy and had a friend ask Edith if she’d join him. She insisted that he come over and ask for himself. Summoning up some courage, he did and after a whirlwind romance, they married in July 1946. Back home in John’s native Scotland, they ran a hotel and raised two children. As an employee of the retirement home they later moved to noted, “John is a true gentleman. He’s always checking in to make sure Edith is happy and the pair still refer to each other as ‘sweetheart.'”

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