27 April 2011
Leslie Schwartz: Holocaust Memorial Speech
(photo credit: Christian Endt/Süddeutsche Zeitung)
Leslie Schwartz is now in Germany speaking at several Holocaust memorial services, pictured above at Poing with fellow survivors of the "death train" Max Mannheimer and Stephen Nasser (27 April), later at Mühldorf (28 April), and ending at Dachau (29 April to 1 May). Over 30,000 are expected to be gathered at Dachau for the memorial, and the speech I wrote for him is as follows:
"Sixty-six years ago, during the spring and summer of 1945, World War II was ending. The worst conflict in human history was soon to be finished, and few people on the on planet were left untouched by this tragedy. I was only beginning to comprehend the significance of the events I had witnessed and experienced.
In 1945, I was fifteen years old, and except for my nickname, Lazarus, I no longer had a name. I was only a number—a political prisoner—71253. My citizenship in my native Hungary had been taken away, too. I had no papers, no passport. I owned nothing.
As if in a tortuous nightmare, my mother, sisters, and step-father vanished right in front of my eyes one year earlier at Auschwitz.
At least three times I was supposed to die. In fact, by the end of the war, I was barely recognizable as a living person—weighing less than 80 pounds—with an open wound in my face. My jaw had been crushed when on April 27, 1945 I was shot through the neck by a member of the Hitler Youth during the “Massacre at Poing.”
Max Mannheimer, my great friend and fellow survivor, has called my story “the biography of a child that survived Auschwitz and Dachau.” For nearly one year, I had indeed survived concentration camps and death trains. I survived beatings, starvation, and torture. I survived places where most children simply didn’t survive: Auschwitz, Dachau, Rothschwaige, Allach, Mühldorf, Poing, and finally my liberation at Tutzing.
Yet, Max Mannheimer also described me at this time, 66 years ago, as someone “on the edge of humanity” and “insensitive, cold, incapable of anything.” The loneliness, fear, brutality, and constant hunger had indeed threatened to change me into something less than human.
Being here today on this solemn occasion again takes me back to the places of my worst humiliation and loneliness, but at the same time to a lovely and wondrous place in my mind. You see there were three individuals who recognized and sought to heal the wounded child within me.
Amid the most unspeakable acts of cruelty and horror ever committed by the human race, these three Germans looked into my eyes with compassion and love, and their small, yet powerful acts of defiance helped decide my fate—because of their actions, I knew, somehow, I would survive.
Agnes Riesch was a poor farmer's wife with no education. The men in her family were sent to the eastern front, and she became my guardian angel. One day as she was walking through Dachau—back from the bakery—dragging her bike—I stepped out in front of her and asked if she could spare a small piece of bread. She looked at me with horror. I was emaciated, bones protruding from all over my body. I had not seen my own reflection since leaving my hometown in Hungary. I must have looked awful.
Full of disbelief, she said, "Little boy, why are you here?'"
I pointed to my red number.
"Oh, you cannot be a political prisoner!”she said.
She then handed me a large piece of bread, bigger than any slice of bread I had ever seen in a concentration camp. There was a rationing system for everything, and she gave me half her ration of bread, a food coupon, and money so that I could shop at the bakery.
The fact that someone gave me anything was amazing. That someone looked at me with sad and caring eyes simply shook me to the core. It was a simple miracle that forever changed me.
Later at Rothschwaige, near Dachau, I worked at the Karlsfeld train station. There the station gatekeeper, Martin Fuss, noticed me. He saw me sitting alone one day, and approached me. During my time there, he offered me kindness in many forms, including liverwurst sandwiches. We had many conversations about the brutality of the Kapo Christof Knoll. When I was reunited with Fuss in 1972, he broke down and cried when he saw me. He had not forgotten me either!
Before my encounter with the Hitler Youth on April 27 1945, during the “false liberation,” when my fellow prisoners simply walked away from the death train as rumors spread that the war had ended, a woman took me and my fellow survivors into her home. When she saw me outside her farmhouse, she cried and put her hands on my face like a mother. She sat me down at her kitchen table—in a chair—and gave me bread with butter and the most delicious glass of foamy milk I have ever enjoyed. I never learned her name. But she never left my mind. For sixty-five years I thought of her every day. I learned only last year she was Barbara Huber.
Many will always point to the atrocities and evil that took place here, but I will always remember these heroic acts of kindness.
Agnes Riesch first brought me bread in secret and then openly, in the face of the SS Guards!
They told her, “If you keep this up, we’ll put you in here.”
She said to the guards, "I don’t care."
They never touched her.
In the last few years I have followed the lead of Max Mannheimer, and I have begun telling my story to young people in Germany and around the world. My book is now being translated into English after previous versions in Danish and German. I have had documentary films made about my life. Everywhere I go people are eager to hear my story. I cannot express how unimaginable all this would have been to me sixty-six years ago. Yet my very presence here is a testament to my will to survive and to the people who helped me along the way.
I wish now to remember my fellow Hungarian Jews, especially my lifelong friend, Sandor Grosz, an older boy from my home town of Baktalórántháza. Sandor protected me in the camps, and without his friendship, I would not be here today. I also think often of the strength instilled in me as a young child by my stern father, Imre Schwartz. Though crippled by Polio at the age of 16, my father was still the strongest and most amazing man I have ever known. He made me tough, almost as if training me for what was to come.
Perhaps my greatest strength though came from hoping one day to be reunited with my mother, Malvin Kohn, and my sister, Judith. I lost them in the lines at Auschwitz during our arrival, but the dream of seeing them again has never left me.
My greatest fear was always that we would all simply disappear and that no one would ever know what happened to us. Clearly as I stand here today, I know we have not been forgotten. Soon it will be up to the younger generations to keep our memory alive: Do not let us down.
In the past two years, I have experienced so much genuine affection and support from the people of modern Germany that it seems to me that their search for truth and wisdom is also my search for wholeness. My wish now is for the world to know the healing and peace I have found. The missing parts of my soul have been gathered together.
Leslie returns to Dachau for the presentation of the memorial Book for the Dead of the Dachau concentration camp (Photo by Siri Maria, April 2011).
Leslie at Dachau with a letter from Agnes Riesch! (April 2011)
Leslie and Otto Hartl, freelance journalist, at Dachau (April 2011). I think Otto might be the German version of me! He travels with Leslie and chronicles his experiences. If I can't be there with Leslie in Germany, I know Otto Hartl is doing a great job! Thank you, Otto! I hope to meet you someday.
Leslie Schwartz and Max Mannheimer at Dachau (April 2011).