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For 65 years, Leslie Schwartz kept silent about what happened to him when he and his family were sent from their home in Hungary to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. The year was 1944 and Schwartz was 14 years old. He was the only member of his family to survive.
After he was liberated, Schwartz kept in touch with the German women who threw bread to him over the fence of the work camp where he was sent after Auschwitz. It was during one of his visits to Germany to see these women that he met another survivor he knew from the camp, who was telling his story to German high school students.
That was three years ago, and since that time, Schwartz, who is now 84, has broken his silence and visited almost 90 German schools. He joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to share his story.
On the decision that saved him from the crematorium at Auschwitz
“The line was moving slowly. There was a lot of screaming, where babies were immediately taken away from the mother’s arm — which, of course, my poor mother’s 6-month-old little girl was taken — and screaming and carrying on, and that kind of frightened me. And when it came my turn, [Josef] Mengele asked me, ‘How old are you?’ I suppose, looking back, it was a form of protecting myself by saying I was 17 when, in fact, I was 14.”
“My best friend’s brother, who was five years older, I went to him, and I said to him…’Do you mind if I go with you?’ He says, ‘Come.’ And that saved my life. I did not stay with the children, and all those children, of course, wind up in the crematorium.”
Why he waited 65 years to tell his story
“When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had two uncles of mine living in Los Angeles, and they said to me, ‘You are now living in the United States. Forget everything that happened to you.’ I was 16 years old.”
What inspired him to break his silence
“The gentleman that I was reunited, his name is Max Mannheimer. I was 14 when I was in Dachau, and Max was 25. And Max Mannheimer has been doing this since 1946. He’s 94 years old. I have no idea how many schools he has visited, but he’s constantly on the go. And I visited Max, and the way he greeted me — are you familiar with the shofar that they blow on the religious Jewish holidays, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur? That’s how he greeted me in his beautiful house. And I decided, then and there, that I am going to do what Max is doing.”
On the treatment and reaction he gets from Germans
“The new generation of Germany, they have been treating me royally, and I call it the healing process. And that was something extremely important for me. Suddenly, to be accepted and loved and cared for, where prior to that, I was nothing but a piece of dirt. That’s all we used to hear in concentration camp. And suddenly, they have built me up to the point where I feel really great. It’s amazing what people can do to people.”
“I find this among the girls, many of them cry. And when I am finished, they all congregate and embrace me. It is a feeling that I wish more of my Holocaust survivors would experience.”
What sharing his story has done for him
“Emotionally, feeling satisfaction of bringing me to a point where I am now kind of pleased, the way my life is coming to an end. I feel at ease. You know, it took 65 years.”
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, now to the story of a man who kept his story secret for 65 years and has decided to start telling it. Leslie Schwartz and his family were sent from their home in Hungary to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944 when Schwartz was 14 years old. He is the only member of his family to survive.
He's now 84, and has broken his silence and visited almost 90 German schools to share his story. Leslie Schwartz joins us now from his home in Boynton Beach, Florida. Welcome.
LESLIE SCHWARTZ: You're welcome.
HOBSON: Take us back to the moment when you and your family were brought to Auschwitz.
SCHWARTZ: We arrived midnight in Birkenau, and the SS came up, everybody out, everybody out, leave everything behind. And I was confused. My mom was holding her six-month-old little baby, Eva, and my sister was next to her. And I did not know what to do. Shall I go with my stepfather, or shall I go with my mom?
HOBSON: But when I looked up, and I saw this fire burning in front of me, coming out of a chimney, it was a very frightening thing for me to see. So, the line was moving slowly, and where the ladies were, there was a lot of screaming, where babies were immediately taken away from the mother's arm, which of course, my poor mother's six-month-old little girl was taken, and that kind of frightened me.
So I decided to stay with the grownups, and I was in Auschwitz approximately 10 days, and life was unbearable, the daily seeing all these people, they were carried, the dead ones, sick ones. And we had access to go from one barrack to the next. And my best friend's brother, who was five years older, I went to him, and I said to him: Chandor(ph), do you mind if I go with you? He says come. And that saved my life.
But you did not see your family again.
SCHWARTZ: I did not stay with the children, and all those children, of course, wind up in the crematorium. My fortune was that by volunteering, you know, they were selecting people to leave Auschwitz, and that was my good fortune, and I wind up in Dachau.
HOBSON: But that was the last time that you saw your family.
HOBSON: So tell us about the day that you thought that you had been freed, the following year, 1945?
SCHWARTZ: On April 25th, we were put on these wagons, cattle cars, and this journey lasted from April 25th to April 30th, no water, no toilet, no anything. Starvation, of course, was to the point where I don't know if I would have endured much more of it. We came to small town called Poing. And I noticed some of our guards, they were removing their uniform and putting on civilian clothes.
And one waved to us (German spoken), which means you are free. So I noticed that this Poing is a farmland, and I said to my two friends: Let's go and see, maybe we can get something to eat in this farm. So I walked in, and the lady, she was a very religious woman, a Catholic lady, and she hugged me like a mother, gave me a glass of milk and a delicious piece of bread with fresh butter that she had just made the old-fashioned way.
Suddenly, I hear hands up. I said, my gosh. I came this far to be killed. So I jumped over the fence. I don't know how I did it. And I kept running and running, but he got me. A bullet went in my neck and exited on my cheek. I fell, and he said, I see you're still alive. Either you get up, or I have to give you another bullet. I said no, I get up.
SCHWARTZ: So, I got up. I was thrown back into the wagons with dead people, wounded people, and I was in terrible, terrible agony. And finally, we were liberated next morning at 10 a.m., a town called Tuching, which is near Munich.
HOBSON: We're speaking with Leslie Schwartz. We'll continue our conversation in a moment. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOBSON: It's HERE AND NOW, and let's get back to our conversation with Leslie Schwartz. He was telling us about his experience during the Holocaust, an experience he kept to himself for 65 years. But now at the age of 84 he is spending a lot of time in Germany telling young people there about what happened to him and his family.
And Leslie, before the break you were telling us about how you were shot in the neck right before you were liberated. You did survive, obviously, and moved to the U.S. Why did you keep your story quiet for so many years?
SCHWARTZ: When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had two uncles of mine living in Los Angeles, and they said to me you are now living in the United States. Forget everything that happened to you.
HOBSON: They told you to forget everything.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah. I was 16 years old, and you know, I was a kid, and the lady who used to give me a piece of bread when I was near the concentration camp Dachau, a camp called Allach(ph), she would throw me a piece of bread from time to time, and after the war I went to visit the family, and I kept in touch with them until she died, Frau Riche(ph), and I kept in touch with her, and we corresponded. She called me my son, and I called her my mother.
But the lady who gave me the glass of milk in 1945, I went back to that village and I was not able to find her. And for 65 years, that bugged the hell out of me. It was an obsession with me almost daily. Why can't I find this woman?
HOBSON: So after all that time, you spent many, many years not talking about your experience, and now you have toured dozens of high schools to talk about it. Why did you decide to do that?
SCHWARTZ: The gentleman that I was reunited, his name is Max Mannheimer, he is 94 years old, and Max Mannheimer has been doing this since 1946. I have no idea how many schools he has visited, but he's constantly on the go. And there was - I was 14 when I was in Dachau, and Max was 25.
And I visited Max, and I decided then and there that I am going to do what Max is doing.
HOBSON: Why? What was it about that that made you decide that?
SCHWARTZ: Well, number one, the new generation of Germany, they have been treating me royally, and I call it the healing process. Suddenly to be accepted and loved and cared for, where prior to that I was nothing but a piece of dirt, that's all we used to hear in concentration camp, and suddenly they have built me up to the point where I feel really great. It's amazing what people can do to people.
HOBSON: Do the children that you're talking to now, do they understand what you're telling them about what happened to you? Do you think that they recognize the realities of the Holocaust?
SCHWARTZ: Very, very much so. And I find this among the girls, many of them cry. And when I am finished, they all congregate and embrace me. And it is a feeling that I wish more of my Holocaust survivors would experience.
HOBSON: To tell their stories?
HOBSON: Well, what do you get out of it?
SCHWARTZ: Emotionally, feeling - it's a satisfaction of bringing me to a point where I am now kind of pleased the way my life is coming to an end. I also had the privilege of meeting Chancellor Angela Merkel, who wrote the most beautiful letter to me on the official stationery from the parliament, and she included an English translation. So I don't have to tell you, suddenly this 14-year-old kid is being showered with all these honors that I've been going through.
HOBSON: When you go to Holocaust Memorial - for example, the one that's in Berlin - does it feel like it strikes the right tone to you? Does something like that, that the rest of us who didn't experience what you experienced, the images that we see, does that tell people the story, do you think?
SCHWARTZ: I think so. I feel at ease. You know, it took 65 years.
HOBSON: Well, Leslie, for those listeners that we have who have not heard your story and are hearing it for the first time, what would you like to leave them with?
SCHWARTZ: I want to leave a permanent legacy about my life, that such a thing should never occur, and we must be diligent about something that no one ever should experience what I have experienced as a 14-year-old kid.
HOBSON: Yeah, it's hard to even hear, especially the story of you standing there with your mother and your stepfather in the camp. I'm surprised you're even able to hold onto that memory because I feel that if I had a memory like that, I would want to block it out of mind.
SCHWARTZ: Yeah, unfortunately I cannot.
HOBSON: Well, Leslie Schwartz, we thank you for sharing your experiences with us.
SCHWARTZ: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.