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20 February 2011

"If you were to see me walking down the street, would you know what I have gone through?"

Excerpts from a Recent Talk Given to 13-Year-Olds

"We were doomed from the day we were born."
--Leslie Schwartz

Quite naturally, all teenagers struggle to some degree with their identity. The basic questions of who am I? What is my life to be about? What is really important to me, and how do I go about finding and then expressing the true nature of my intellect, talents, and spirituality in the healthiest and most productive manner? How does my particular faith and my understanding of its traditions and responsibilities relate to my choices and decisions that while made presently will also affect the rest of my life? At the age of 13, Leslie Schwartz faced incredible challenges to his sense of self, purpose in life, and, of course, the expression of his Jewish faith. To say that his 13th year marked a coming-of-age or move into manhood would be an understatement. In fact, it was the beginning of his journey through hell and back. The working English title for his book The Hell of Auschwitz and Dachau: Young Boy Fights for His Survival is rather revealing, yet he was fighting for more than just his survival, and his message is especially relevant for teenagers today seeking to understand the challenges of their transition into adulthood.

At 13, Leslie was first uprooted from his village, Baktaloranthaza, in Hungary, and he and his family (consisting of his mother, sister, step-sister, and step-father) were sent to the Hungarian/Ukrainian boarder, for all practical purposes to be eliminated by the Nazi's and Hungarian Nazi sympathizers (of which there was no shortage). The premise for the destruction: as Jews, they were not Hungarian citizens anymore. Although Leslie's great grandparents were born in Hungary, the questioning of their citizenship was the first lie spread to dehumanize and isolate the Jews of his village.

He and his family were shipped to the mountains on the boarder of Hungary and Lithuania, a beautiful region as he recalls, to be killed right then and there, but the advancing Russian troops necessitated that he and his family be sent back to their village again. Upon returning, his village wasn't the same. Life had been transformed by the war and conditions were terrible – the Nazi's had taken everything. Leslie remembers the Jewish storekeepers opening up their stores, "it was a free for all" with everyone running around and taking whatever they wanted. As much as a rebellious (and mischievous by his own account) teenager might find this chaos appealing on some level, Leslie "had a peculiar feeling". He knew everything was all wrong. The Nazi propaganda was starting to take hold on his psyche. He describes his mind as "poisoned." He began to accept his "inferiority".

He was forced to attend a Catholic school, and it was there he fell in love with a young Catholic girl named Judith; she was also the daughter of his teacher. She told Leslie, "my parents don't want me to look at you". Her parents were both school teachers, the intellectual elite of the village, and whether they had bought into the Nazi lies or were just trying to survive themselves, there would be no sympathy for Schwartz and his kind. Yet, not everything in Leslie's story is about the Holocaust. The love and confusion of a young boy knew no boundaries, and he thought of Judith for many years afterward, finally to see her again in 1995. The reunion as Schwartz called it "the ending of a great love in sadness" as old age and infirmity had taken their toll on her. Her family suffered their own tragedies later at the hands of the Communists – Judith's brother was imprisoned for fifteen years before escaping to live in France, another betrayal at the hands of one's own countrymen. Leslie tells me although the concentration camps were kept secret and "no one knew what was to come at Auschwitz and Dachau", the abandonment of these Hungarian Jews, who had been such a vital part of the fabric of life in Hungary, is still particularly difficult to fathom.

April 1944: the beginning of the journey to Auschwitz - the Schwartz family and so many others sent away in oxcarts. The bells of the Greek Orthodox Church rang, and Leslie's descent into hell truly began. The poster taped to the front of his synagogue in his village: "NOW WE ARE RID OF THE JEWS". The brutality always emphasized at the beginning of such mass movements. He remembers a gentle Rabbi from his hometown being beaten so terribly. Later in life that Rabbi's grandson, Willie Silber, a friend of Leslie's, would make it to the USA and pursue a career in opera. Leslie recalled the children of his hometown giving Willie pennies to sing!

The first leg of the trip, on to the Hungarian Ghetto in Kisvarda where Schwartz, just before being sent to Auschwitz, remembers vividly two young SS Guards in the Ghetto. Just teenagers themselves, Leslie remembers how beautifully dressed they were in their uniforms with their German Sheppard dogs, not unlike the dog named Friend Leslie loved and left behind in his village. What was so different about these teenagers than Schwartz himself? Did they not breathe the same air? As mysterious as adolescence can be, how much more so for Leslie Schwartz? The uniforms, the lies, the terror, the brutality, and the sheer power of the military-industrial machine of the Nazi empire were not enough in the end to defeat him. He survived to tell his story; they did not.

One's perceptions of strength and weakness, superiority and inferiority, are not always accurate – don't trust impressions of what the material world around you considers valuable – not at 13, nor at any age! Better to place your trust in the rising human spirit, always universal, always yearning for freedom and the expression of beauty and truth, even in the most seemingly hopeless conditions.

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