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09 November 2010

Leslie Schwartz

Leslie Schwartz: Haftling Nummer 71253

I had the good fortune to attend an event sponsored by the Brookdale Center for World War II Studies and Conflict Resolution at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, New Jersey: "Living Through Hell" an Evening with Leslie Schwartz on Tuesday November 9, 2010.

After having attended the program and met with Mr. Schwartz afterward, I can only say he is an extraordinary human being, not even so much for his sufferings and survival at the hands of the Nazis in Auschwitz and Dachau, but for his lifelong quest for healing and peace and his dedication to bear witness to the atrocities he experienced as a boy. This man is fearless.

Even as a teenager in the camps, he spoke of his strong will to survive: "The German press referred to me as feisty. . . I was determined that I must live, I must live that I can tell the horrible things that took place. I'd talk to myself." He later said, "I was with people in the concentration camps where they gave up; these people I had no feelings for--as a kid I always wanted to see people fighting." He calls this spirit "a Dachau thing in me." He grew up in Hungary and told me his conservative father was very strict in the old European way, and this tough upbringing helped make him strong. He also made it clear that Hungarian Jews in those days were very much assimilated, almost like German Jews. 

The most significant aspect to his presentation is his search for healing. He has been a frequent traveler back to Germany in the years following the war, but his most recent trip was by far the most important. He traveled around Germany throughout 2010 speaking with high school students about his experiences. It seems the younger Germans are eager for history and are not afraid to face their ancestors' past. The feeling of honesty and truth seeking couldn't be more apparent from his anecdotes. He described some of his experiences in "the new Germany" as he calls it as "nothing but glorious, glorious, unbearable." He went on, "I couldn't walk down the street. . .the kids hugged me." It was as if a dream had supplanted the nightmares he's faced for more than sixty-five years: "Is this possible? Is this Germany?"

At one particular German school he received ten minutes of applause from high school students; of the experience he says, "my legs were shaking." His dream for healing became reality when he spoke to younger people, yet this transcendent experience was not always the case with the older generation. He always had a knack of talking to people and wasn't ever afraid to confront anyone. He would often visit spas (hot springs), and if he saw an older German, he would inquire as to what he did during the war years. Schwartz says some would walk away, but others would talk to him, usually avoiding any personal responsibility in Schwartz' words by saying, "always what Hitler did, not what I did." But he is living proof that generational trauma can be healed if we are brave enough to revisit the source of the pain. If we hide from the darkness, we remain prisoners. There is no more optimistic news for those suffering from PTSD or other similarly related effects of war. The news that even the most formerly incurable psychic pain can indeed be healed should be broadcast on the front page of every newspaper in the world.

I have to say in all my years of interviewing WW II Veterans, I have never come across a man so at peace with himself and so immersed in an aura of grace than Leslie Schwartz. He is a hero to me in that he faced his fears by going back to the places where he was tormented and choosing to revisit the people and their descendents who had committed such unspeakable crimes against humanity, and  he has done so with compassion, not anger, not seeking revenge, but only truth and wholeness. He has gone on a quest to find the missing pieces of his soul, to gather them together in a way that benefits all who enter into his presence or read his story.

Although his feelings on God and religion are complicated, Schwartz is a holy man to me--a man who is able to look into the darkest realms of the human psyche with an unimaginable lightheartedness, wisdom, and even joy. He spoke of his move from Auschwitz to Dachau as if he were moving to a country club: "When you're tormented, you know the difference." His understanding of a higher power has been a long, difficult process, but one he's not willing to neglect: "As you see all the horrible things, you question. Why? Why did I have to go through what I went through? For some reason I'm starting to believe that there is something."

Central to his personal narrative is the understanding that the success of the Nazi operation was all based around fear. Something of which we should take note: only in a climate of fear can lies become truth and oppression succeed and only when people shrink away from the challenge of confronting evil can such horrors ever become reality. People living in fear are easily controlled. He told a story of his brief stay in the Hungarian ghetto of Kisvarda, just before being shipped off to Auschwitz. He said there were about 700 Jews and only 2 SS guards, and these guards were just kids, maybe 17 years of age, yet the fear they inspired among the masses of people (who could have killed them at any moment) was enough to hold power over the group. He recalled, "the Nazis had a genius way to put this fear into you."

From my point of view, his journey could be summed up as follows: to bear witness to the evil that took place so the human race will never forget, to revisit the people and places where it all took place with a spirit of compassion and truth-seeking in a quest only for wholeness and peace, and to share his happiness, wisdom and insight with the world. 

If Leslie Schwartz can find peace, there is hope for all of us. May the name Leslie Schwartz be forever spoken as a blessing.


  1. Hello Marc,
    thank you for that wonderful article! I met Leslie last year here during his journey in Germany. It was miraculous for me to meet this man. I'm german, born 1971, and never made such an experience. As you say, Leslie is a blessing.

  2. Mark. Wonderful description of Leslie. Nice meeting you at the Hungarian Club. Ron

  3. Hello Marc,

    I did write an essay about Leslie Schwartz but it is not posted, please advise,I clicked on " Google Account" and Post comment.

  4. Fred, can you send it to me?

  5. I met Leslie yesterday and he gave me the link to this page. I am still impressed. I asked him if he still believes in god. He answered: I had to, hadn't I?
    He is an amazing man!!


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