"Forgiveness is a mystical act, not a reasonable one."
LESLIE SCHWARTZ died in Florida on May 12, 2020 at the age of 90. While this news wasn't wholly unexpected, I thought he would somehow bounce back. Leslie was always superhuman to me, resilience personified; through all the normal misfortunes, diseases and bad breaks we all endure, to the unthinkable horrors he lived through in Auschwitz and Dachau, Leslie could survive, even thrive, in almost any situation. He always told me, "it's not what you achieve that matters most; it's what you've overcome." I figured in a few more months he'd be back on his feet, out of the hospital and doing what he loved best, talking with students, educating them about the Shoah--speaking with all his heart, mind, body and soul, and the unbelievable strength he always seemed to muster, again and again, while traveling the world doing this holy work.
|with German students|
HE SPOKE WITH TENS OF THOUSANDS OF STUDENTS, from the United States to Europe, and especially in Germany, his adopted country--and while the irony of a Holocaust survivor finding a home in Germany wasn't lost on a lot of people, his reconnecting to the nation that murdered his immediate family was essential to his own healing journey, for it was the descendants of the people who had orchestrated the war and inflicted genocide upon untold millions he sought most to reach, so a better future for them and for the world might someday become a reality. He told me many times the older Germans, those who had been alive during the war, weren't so eager to embrace their history. Once when acting as an impromptu "tour guide" at Dachau, he met an elderly man who had been an SS Guard there. Leslie casually told him, "I was once a prisoner here". The man replied, while sizing up Leslie, "I guess I didn't do my job."
HE HELD MANY DREAMS close to his heart his entire life; in addition to being reunited with his mother, after being separated from her when he was just fourteen years old in the lines at Auschwitz, he wished for the human race to learn from the dark times and unimaginable horrors he endured during World War II. That we not repeat the Holocaust. That we help to heal each other--without regard to borders, race, religion or personal biases--anything that separates us from one another had to go, for in his wisdom, peace and justice without healing were impossible.
IN THE PAST DECADE OR SO, Leslie Schwartz and I wrote a book together, presented lectures and facilitated discussions at many different venues, large and small, from elementary schools to college campuses to the United Nations--corresponding with world leaders and children alike, our work was recognized by major media all over the world from The New York Times, NPR, and Fox News in the United States to Süddeutsche Zeitung and Bavarian Television in Germany, and so many other outlets I can't even remember. A frequent speaker at international events of remembrance, he was given many honors and awards, even the Knight's Cross for his service to Germany, but the impact Leslie had on my life is still hard to put into words. He was the fourth person who emerged from World War II to educate me personally, so that I could understand how something that ended sixteen years before I was even born was still affecting me in profound ways. Today they call it inter-generational trauma or epigenetics, but all I knew is something wasn't right my entire life. How many other millions and millions of people, the children of Holocaust survivors or combat veterans or anyone who has experienced severe trauma, have felt this same unnamable void? My father, a US Marine who fought in the Pacific, brought home severe, although often invisible disabilities I couldn't make any sense of as a child, yet these disabilities had incredibly detrimental, very real effects on my family; then Bob Worthington, another Marine from the Pacific, who is largely responsible for my career path, literally forcing me to tell his story--he made me become a writer--came into my life, and I began interviewing other World War II veterans from that point on. Although Bob's life was completely destroyed by the war, and his disabilities wrecked havoc in every aspect of his life, he always sought healing. He wanted to change his brain entirely, to see the world in a new way, and he prepared me for that mindset. Then my friend Jimmy Mirikitani, world renown artist who spent World War II in a Japanese internment camp in California--that experience altering the trajectory of Jimmy's life to the point where he wound up homeless on 6th Avenue in New York, well into his 70s--yet another person I met who was seeking his voice and some kind of healing experience--that the world not forget what he went through. And finally Leslie came along. Leslie was a child during the war. Leslie had the opportunity to heal simply because he had more time than the others. I helped Leslie find his voice as I've done for my writing students throughout my entire career. I helped him to communicate his deepest feelings to others, and we shared a simpatico that was instantaneous. I so enjoyed our conversations, sometimes several times a day, for many years. We shared the joys of this newfound recognition. People sought him out for appearances. Suddenly he mattered to a whole new generation, and he loved the connection with those younger students--they laughed with him and cried with him and hugged him like they would their grandfathers. For the German students, the war was a distant memory to their parents and grandparents, but the echoes of the war still affected them. With KZ camps literally all over Germany, they walked through the shadows of their ancestors' crimes everywhere they went, and students and teachers there resonated with Leslie's quiet message; he'd first simply inform them of what went on--to speak for all those whose voices were forever silenced-- and then he'd allow the students into his emotional aura, healing together, no longer alone, to face the impossible task of coming to terms with darkest parts of the human psyche the world has ever seen to create something life affirming out of that spiritual poison.
|1972 with Agnes Reisch|
|Barbara Huber and spouse|
|Max and Leslie at Tutzing Ceremony|
MAX MANNHEIMER WAS THE KEY TO EVERYTHING. Max and Leslie had known each other in the camps. Max was older and spoke German, so he was a great asset to Leslie, who at that point, spring 1945, saw his chances for survival dwindle with every passing day--Max encouraged Leslie to keep fighting--that somehow he could make it through slave labor, disease, starvation and torture. That had a friendship of sorts that flowered sixty years or so later. Max Mannheimer spent his life educating German students, helping them to heal from hatred's poison, loving fearlessly the nation that tried to murder him--from the first days after the war, he stayed in Germany and began working for peace and promoting education, spreading hope that change was possible and a better future could emerge if people were willing to face things directly and, first, simply listen to each other. Max and Leslie were not normal people, and when Leslie saw first hand what Max did, especially speaking to German students, Leslie thought to himself, I want to do that as well. And so he did, beginning around 2008 and for many more years to come, and that's when everything began to change for Leslie. He even had an apartment with his spouse in Munster and looked forward to traveling to Germany every summer. Finding his voice and connecting with students and teachers who realized what an incredible blessing it was to have Leslie there, alive, standing right in front of them, willing to answer any question and help them understand what happened in their own backyards and all over Germany--this experience was something rare and Leslie was a treasure to them. He felt their love and appreciation very powerfully, and the experience genuinely gave his life new vitality.
|Meeting Chancellor Merkel|
THE MOST IMPORTANT MESSAGE he brought students and to anyone struggling with impossibly difficult situations is that hatred is useless and damaging--even if justified--being a victim is a powerless and lonely existence compared with that of a survivor--even better--a survivor who uses all experiences as a portal toward wholeness, knowing we all need each other to heal, and the world is a very small place. Turning enemies into allies is no small feat, yet some of the most important healing work happens when you forgive and bring your adversaries into the healing process with you, requiring truth telling and active listening, and ultimately action, for forgiveness is an active process that demands a lot of hard work--and time and patience--and you still need miracles to happen after all this, but they will come, though not always according to our schedules. These miracles took more than sixty years in Leslie's case.
IN THE END Leslie Schwartz understood our sacred task is not to pass along shared trauma but to create a better future and to hand down to younger generations tools for healing and reasons to hope, and Leslie gave us all plenty of hope. The best way we can honor Leslie Schwartz is simply to keep his work alive--resolve conflict without violence--and always to remember him. If you were lucky enough to spend any time with him, you were made better for the experiences. You couldn't look at anything the same way afterwards--your first move, no longer to react, with fight or flight, but to stay and face things, no matter how difficult--to reach for compassion, to find kindness and to value honesty and storytelling as important though often overlooked conflict resolution methods. You find hope, no matter what mountains lay ahead of you in your journey. The simple act of one human speaking to another--listening to each other without judgement--allowing for all the inevitable, uncomfortable silence to be filled with something new--unimaginable miracles--things you couldn't dream up in any parallel universe. And these miracles happened frequently for Leslie, like the time he met Chancellor Merkel--seventy years after the small boy who was supposed to have been worked to death by the Nazi's--greeted and honored by the German Chancellor--that kind of experience far too improbable for any Hollywood screenplay. Even Leslie's famous cousin, American screen legend, Tony Curtis, never made a film that far fetched. I'll never forget you, Leslie, and all I can do now is say "thank you for sharing so much of yourself with me and with the world." Leslie never liked to say good bye, so I won't either.
|At Bowling Green University, April 2013|
Leslie's speech on the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation at Dachau.
Leslie Schwartz BIO
Meeting Chancellor Merkel
My First Meeting with Leslie
Leslie's Talk with Teenagers
Regarding Barbara Huber
An Evening With Leslie Schwartz with Videos
Our Book Freedom From Hatred
More photos from Leslie's amazing journey! We'll update as new pictures come in.
|Leslie on his last trip to Hungary a few years ago|
|Anne-Frank Gymnasium in Germany|
|with German students|
|at Tutzing memorial|
|At Brookdale Community College--site of many of Leslie's presentations--watching his life in a film!|
|My favorite photo of Leslie|
|memorial in Bavaria|
|with his mother in 1933 or 1934|