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Friday, February 28, 2014

Holocaust Survivor Breaks Silence After 65 Years

Holocaust survivor Leslie Schwartz displays a copy of his family tree. He was the only member of his family to be liberated from the Auschwitz death camp. (Julia Duba/Miami Herald)Leslie Schwartz shares letters he's received from high school students. After keeping quiet most of his life about his experience during the Holocaust, Schwartz broke his silence three years ago, visiting a German high school to share his story. (Julia Duba/Miami Herald)Leslie Schwartz was awarded a medal for the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany on July 1, 2013. (Julia Duba/Miami Herald)Leslie Schwartz displays a New York Times article about him speaking to German teenagers about his time in Nazi concentration camps. (Julia Duba/Miami Herald)Leslie Schwartz shares a photo of a church near his childhood home in Baktalórántháza, Hungary. (Julia Duba/Miami Herald)Leslie Schwartz shares a photo of his elementary school class in Hungary. (Julia Duba/Miami Herald)

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.

Interview Highlights: Leslie Schwartz

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.”


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