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05 February 2011

Leslie Schwartz Redux

I wandered over the land, and good people did not neglect me. After many years I became old and white; I heard a great deal, many lies and falsehoods, but the longer I lived the more I understood that there were really no lies. Whatever doesn't really happen is dreamed at night. It happens to one if it doesn't happen to another, tomorrow if not today, or a century hence if not next year. What difference can it make? Often I heard tales of which I said, "Now this is a thing that cannot happen." But before a year had elapsed I heard that it actually had come to pass somewhere. Going from place to place, eating at strange tables, it often happens that I spin yarns, improbable things that could never have happened about devils, magicians, windmills, and the like. The children run after me, calling, "Grandfather, tell us a story." Sometimes they ask for particular stories, and I try to please them. A fat young boy once said to me, "Grandfather, it's the same story you told us before." The little rogue, he was right. . . . No doubt the world is entirely an imaginary world, but it is only once re- moved from the true world. . . . When the time comes I will go joyfully. Whatever may be there, it will be real, without complication, without ridicule, without deception. God be praised: there even Gimpel cannot be deceived. .
-Isaac Bashevis Singer
"Gimpel the Fool"

SINCE my original post on Leslie Schwartz appeared in early November 2010, I have been in frequent contact with him. I recently had an opportunity to sit down with him in New York City to continue the conversation. Imagine, we sat and discussed the tragic events of sixty-five years past in complete comfort, dining at one of New York's finest restaurants, TBAR, run by a dear friend of Leslie's named Tony Fortuna. All we had to do is ask, and anything we wanted would have appeared, as if magically, on that table! The restaurant was completely packed; smiling faces, people enjoying good food and conversation, and there I was taping his Holocaust stories of places like Dachau and Poing. Had Leslie been shown a vision of the future 65 years ago would he have believed it? Here he was 81 years old and at peace with all he's been through, surrounded by loved ones and admirers, eating fine food!

After interviewing him for more than four hours, again, I feel I've only scratched the surface. As one seeks to know Leslie and to understand the meaning of his extraordinary life, his words and deeds seem to exist out of time and space; past, present, and future are all one. His gentle and quiet demeanor do not mask the clarity and intensity of his vision and his message.

I understand now that his words are teachings, important lessons for humans in this school called life. And people are hungry for this wisdom. There is no other way to explain his popularity; all ages are drawn to him where ever he goes. And Schwartz relates his experiences without self-aggrandizement or the force of his ego. Martin Luther King often spoke of "soul force". The power of truth brought with compassion and love to overcome hate and bring about justice, peace, enlightenment, indeed even transformation of the human race. Leslie is of a similar vibration.

I consider Leslie a veteran of the war though he never carried a weapon, and the only uniform he ever wore was a German one! In the early days after the war, he had no other clothes! His sometimes controversial story is about his fight for survival and human connection, a search for wholeness that would, like a latent seed, take 65 years to germinate, only breaking the ground toward heaven in the last year or so. In fact, Leslie has always been on this quest for wholeness. He jokingly referred to his constant desire to revisit these people and places a form of his own masochism, as if he enjoys the torture! He simply has a soul that would not rest until all the scattered fragments have been gathered together again. His stories just keep unfolding.


The Early Days After The War: The Search for Frau Riesch

After briefly returning to Hungary, he headed back to Germany. He was on a mission of sorts to reunite with Agnes Riesch. He recalls, "the first night we slept at the German museum, ice, ice-cold winter. The following day we went to the displaced persons camp. I was there for a while, and the most important thing was for me to go to find this lady, Agnes Riesch. When I came to her house, I rang the bell and she recognized me. I would spend weekends in her house."

He was particularly drawn to Frau Riesch's daughter-in-law, Fannie: "I was 16 years old and the only man around! I felt like a bashful kid. Here is a mature lady; this was the lady who used to come and visit the SS guy; the soldier who was in charge of 12 to 20 prisoners, always one in charge and two who would watch us. To think she was Frau Riesch's daughter-in-law! I had very pleasant weekends with her. They would cook, and I would bring food. She was to me like a mother. She referred to me as 'my son'. The name Lazarus came from there. She called me Lazarus."

Frau Riesch had indeed left an indelible impression on young Leslie. In our recent interview he stated: "She saw me when I was in [the] concentration camp [at Dachau]. I had access to be alone, and she would pass through there with her bicycle, and I approached her; you know, do you have a piece of bread? And when she looked at me, my gosh, [she thought] what does a young kid like you do here? I was a political prisoner, and she couldn't figure this out - why was I a prisoner?

After their random meeting, she often brought him bread. First in secret and then openly, in the face of the SS Guards. They told her if she kept it up, she'd be put in the camp, but in Schwartz' words, she said to the guards, "I don't care. I am old." They never touched her.

Leslie says, "the blessing for me was meeting this Frau Reisch, when I was in [the] concentration camp, and she brought me, every week, a piece of bread to eat, which they themselves did not have. Emotionally, spiritually, it gave me immediately a feeling that here is a German lady who knew I was a Jew, yet she was so kind and helped me. I could not forget the people who were kind to me."


65 years later: The Search for Barbara Huber in 2010

Frau Riesch wasn't the only German woman whom Leslie couldn't forget. In the last days of April 1945, Schwartz had been in Muhldorf with over five thousand prisoners, mostly Hungarian Jews who had earlier gone through Auschwitz. On April 25, 3,600 of them were loaded on a train to Tutzing, nick-named the death train. The train stopped in Poing, and there was an announcement that the war had ended. It would not end officially until May 8, 1945. The prisoners scattered, leaving the train for the town. Leslie and a few others found a kind woman in a farmhouse in Poing who gave them food: "When I went to her farmhouse, she gave me a glass of milk, bread and butter." He recalls a crucifix hanging in her farmhouse and a comfortable feeling while in her home. She patted him on the head and cried, "you poor little boy, almost like a mother". Schwartz wasn't put off by her crucifix either; even growing up in an Orthodox environment, he had spent many happy days in his native Hungary in the company of his Christian friends. He thought to himself, "thank God, I am protected". Then an SS guard came to the door. When realizing the war not ended, the SS Guards came back and sought to round-up the prisoners and herd them back onto the death train to Tutzing.

The other boys with Leslie were able to hide, but Leslie thought he could outrun the guard. He couldn't and the guard shot him in the head in the middle of a field in Bavaria. Schwartz was then told, "get up or I have to give you another bullet". He was shot through the neck and jaw. Leslie was marched back to the death train. The SS Guards threw the dead and wounded back onto the cattle cars. The events of this day became known as the Poing massacre. Hundreds were killed and left to die on the train, including a friend of Leslie's named Roth who was shot by the SS; Roth still stands out in Schwartz' mind. Roth was so religious, even in the camps he remained Kosher.

The train continued onto Tutzing. Leslie never had any medical treatment. He could barely swallow and wondered if he would choke to death on his own saliva. Of course, Leslie somehow survived until the liberation by American G.I's at Tutzing. The pain he endured on that train ride is almost unimaginable to him even today. He must have stayed conscious because he remembers the American bombers strafing the train cars on the passage to Tutzing. He thought, the SS couldn't kill me, but the Americans might!

As if all this wasn't enough, he contracted Typhus in the days immediately following the German surrender and was sent to a hospital for only Typhus patients. Again, he lived to tell about it, but was urged by an old friend of his father's who found him wandering the streets to seek treatment for his head wound that by that time had healed disfiguring his face. Reluctantly, Leslie went to a hospital where he was operated on by a former high ranking German surgeon who was also a master of plastic surgery. The recovery was the worst pain Schwartz had ever felt as all the bones had to be reshaped. Leslie was put in a hospital ward with all German soldiers who were also amputees -- he was the only Jew there. He was still just 16 years of age!

Leslie, however, was still driven to find the mystery woman who gave him the bread and milk. He recalled, "After the war, I went back to that village, and I could not find her. And this was an obsession with me; constantly, it bothered the hell out of me; why, why, why couldn't I find her? This past year when I went back, I made it a point. He continued, "when I went back, I attended a birthday party, and I told one of the young men, George, 'do me a favor, I would like you to Google 'Poing' -- P-o-i-n-g -- where I was shot, and this is how my whole story started."

Additionally, Leslie found his old friend Max Mannheimer through this search. Leslie hadn't seen Max in 65 years! Max was too weak to get off the train at Poing, so he avoided the SS guards' bullets. Being reunited with Mannheimer has been another great blessing for Schwartz. Leslie added: "I met this Max Mannheimer, who is 90 years old -- and he has received every conceivable award in Germany for what he's doing; for the past 25 years, he has visited schools 85,000 times, and this meeting with him, after 65 years, and knowing what he does; immediately, it gave me some ideas. You know, I think, I should do this, too. And I spoke to him about it and that's how I was able to visit seventeen high schools; it was extremely rewarding for me, knowing that these kids are eager to listen to me and share my pain that I carried all these years." Schwartz and Mannheimer were together in the camps and liberated together. Mannheimer is originally from Czechoslovakia. When the war ended, Leslie recalled Max telling him, "never will I step foot on German soil, but he met a German lady, fell in love, and has been there ever since!"

A freelance journalist named Otto Hartl accompanied Leslie throughout the trip. It was his article in the local papers that attracted the attention of Barbara Huber's daughter, Marianne Maier, who later found Leslie in a hotel and brought pictures of the farm where he drank that fateful glass of milk all those years ago. The fragments now brought together and made whole.




Barbara Huber










To be continued. . .

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for this extraordinary report which discovered when looking for informations about my friend Max Mannheimer. I managed to reunite him with a former fried of Dachau, Willy Lermer. He migrated to Australia in 1950 and didn't know that Max is still alive until 2009 when we met. I'm very happy that I know both and I would love to meet Leslie as well. Sabine from Germany

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello Sabine,
    If you like, I can put you in touch with Leslie. He will be coming to Germany in April. Send me an e-mail if you'd like to be in touch with Leslie. marcbonagura@gmail.com
    Thank you for your comment.
    Marc

    ReplyDelete
  3. My Name is Sam Young would like to get in touch with Leslie as I made the same journey I was in Auschwitz{Birkenau} Then in KauferingIV {Via Muldorf} Established K.Z.Camp Landshut.In train in Ping and liberated in Tutzing.Then D.P.Feldafing samblanche@hotmail.com

    ReplyDelete
  4. Sam, I e-mailed you. I guess you didn't get it. Send me an e-mail at mbonagura@brookdalecc.edu or you can call me 908.358.8183. I will put you in touch with Leslie. He wanted to speak to you before! God Bless You!
    Thanks,
    Marc

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dear Mr.Marc Bonagura.It is Sam Young from Sydney Australia. I am at present writting a book of my German Concentration Camps expereinces. Includes K.Z.Auschwitz,K.Z.KauferingIV,K.Z.Landshut, Poing massacre, Tutzing liberation, D.P.Camp Feldafing and D.P.Camp Fohrenwald where I was Secretary to the Chief of Police till August 1947 when I left Germany for France. Will try to send you a copy when published. Regards Sam.
    Could you please pass this information to Leslie.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I will Sam! I really would love for you to speak directly with Leslie, too. I know he is very anxious to talk to you. I realize the time zones are completely different, but if you give me a phone number (send it to me at talkingweeds@earthlink.net) I will forward it along to Leslie, and I'm sure he would call you. I'd love to see your book too!

    ReplyDelete

All comments are reviewed first before being posted. If you would rather contact me personally, please e-mail me at marcbonagura@gmail.com

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