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21 June 2013

Leslie Schwartz' Bundesverdienskreuz Acceptance Speech

Leslie Schwartz to receive Bundesverdienskreuz:

          1 July 2013
          14:30-15:30 pm

          Bavarian State Ministry of Education and Culture

          Salvator Strasse 2
          Munich, Bavaria

Dr.Ludwig Spaenle will preside over the ceremony.

Following is the text of his acceptance speech.

Martin Luther King Jr. once wrote, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Truer words about my life have not been spoken.

Each and every Holocaust Survivor must come to terms with the concept of loss. The losses we suffered are so vast and unfathomable that I believe it takes a long lifetime to confront them and many lifetimes to heal them.

I was only a boy when the troubles in my country began, and at fourteen years of age, I lost my freedom, my family, my citizenship, my identity, and even my name. But above all these very real and tangible losses I suffered, the worst loss of all is simply being forgotten.

To be removed and isolated from all aspects previously associated with being human and all activities historically and traditionally associated with humanity—to realize the enemy has taken you away from any future opportunity for joy and nurturing human relations is the most tragic loss of all.

You become a ghost, human only in your biology.

Your consciousness is no longer among the living. You exist to pass time only until, quite literally, you join the ghostly realm.

And while you’re aware that your last hours and days are quickly passing away, you’re barely able to associate with the other ghosts who, just like you, are ready to let go of every awareness and emotion that makes us human and intimately connected to each other.

In this condition you can very easily just give up; this was never my choice, but it is the real war a survivor like me had to fight everyday in the camps and for many decades afterwards.

But the truth is my captors also become ghosts—for they too had to abandon their humanity, and when an entire nation creates a war machine and becomes the perpetrator of such brutal crimes, the nation itself loses its humanity.

One may live on the “free” side of the fences or camp walls, but that freedom is illusory—to bind others one must also be bound. And this sickness doesn’t end when the conflict ends. Scholars have labeled the term “intergenerational trauma” to explain the lasting implications of such violence and horror, from generation to generation, and I believe this lasting trauma has terrible effects on perpetrator and victim alike—and their descendents. It must be addressed and healed for society to progress.

With this concept in mind, I can completely relate to and understand why my search for healing is also Germany’s search for healing. We’re not separate in this process.

Still, some people think it strange for a Holocaust survivor to have embraced this healing initiative in Germany, but I do not. It seemed to me, right from the first days after the war until today, my only possible option. My healing is forever linked with Germany’s healing.

And for me to speak to you today is of course an honor, but it is also unimaginable—because if you were to see me at age 14, being taken away with my family—in a cattle wagon headed for Auschwitz—well, not only did I think I might never return to my village of Baktalórántháza in Hungary, but I wondered if I would ever return to the place of the living—much less become a man who would one day speak to people who might actually want to hear what he has to say!

The Nazi’s began to carry out their final solution in Hungary in 1944, and by the time the smoke had cleared, over 500,000 Hungarian Jews (from 800,000 who lived there before the war) would be murdered—included in these “statistics” were my mother, sisters, and step-father, so the odds were against me to say the least.

In fact at least three times before the age of sixteen, I should have died.

I have been imprisoned, brutalized, starved, slaved, and shot!

So, there is no logical or plausible explanation as to why I stand here before you, except perhaps for my deep-seated desire to survive and to one day tell my story and the miraculous and defiant acts of kindness by a few people I encountered during my time in the camps—people who also happened to be German. I would not be here today without them. Small acts of love often hold the greatest power.

And this is the wonderful and the challenging part of my story—as a teenage survivor of Auschwitz, Dachau, and other sub-camps of Dachau, including Mühldorf and the so-called death train I was forced to ride in the last days of the war, an outside observer would think that I have nothing but hatred for Germany and the German people, and that might have been the case if not for these three particular Germans who defied the Nazi hatred with their unbelievable kindness:  Martin Fuss, Agnes Reisch and Barbra Huber.

Martin Fuss, the station gatekeeper at Karlsfeld offered me encouragement, friendship, and liverwurst sandwiches when I worked at the railroad station near Allach.  Fuss also had a son about my age; perhaps that is why he could not look away regarding my suffering.

Agnes Reisch, a farmer’s wife with no formal education, gave me bread, money, and her food vouchers in Dachau. I met her one day as I was begging for food. She simply could not understand how I could be a political prisoner—she called me “dear son, Lazarus”—in complete defiance of the SS Guards I might add!

They told her, “If you keep this up, we’ll put you in here.”

She told them, “I don’t care, I’m old.”

They never touched her by the way.

And Barbara Huber, from the kitchen of her small farm house in Bavaria, reached out to me and three other ghostly survivors, nothing but skin and bones in the last days of the war, barely alive—we who had fled the death train during the time of the Poing Massacre—serving us the most delicious bread, butter and milk I have ever tasted! 

Barbara Huber, like Agnes Reisch before her, considered me her son—can you imagine that—an emaciated—half-dead— teenage—Jewish—concentration camp prisoner—was also her son! She too could clearly see all the hatred I had suffered embedded within my emaciated body but was determined to combat that hatred with love.

Now, I did not learn Barbara Huber’s name for more than 65 years, but she, Martin Fuss, and Agnes Reisch never left my memory for one day.

And all three helped to save more than just my body, for nourishment is more than food, but thoughts and feelings too—and most importantly, they helped keep me from the Nazi mindset of hatred.

You see when you are oppressed and put in that position of being on the receiving end of genocide, it is very easy to hate the people that did this to you, and many people would say that hatred was entirely justified, even necessary to be returned in kind, but for me that was not the case because three kind Germans put seeds of hope in my mind and love in my heart, showing me that all Germans were not the same.

That was a good lesson to learn because it would prove very valuable to me during my life-long search for wholeness and healing—and good advice for those interested in promoting the healing that needs to take place among all people on this planet for so many other, perhaps less well known, but no less horrible atrocities we humans keep inflicting upon each other in the 68 years since WW II ended.

I’ve learned that only love can conquer hatred, but love, let me remind you, serves us better as a verb rather than a noun—to say, to think, to wish love is good—but to act, to feel, and to experience love is better.

Because I can tell you, when you rescue the heart of a child (just as my heart was rescued all those years ago) in any similarly desperate circumstances, you save the life of the adult who will then carry for the rest of his or her life, instead of a message of hate, a message of love—and one that will resonate and touch many other lives.

I have come together with so many people from all over the world, especially in the United States and here in Germany for whom my story has found powerful resonance. And the German students I have spoken with for the last three years have made all the difference in my life.

I have now shared my story with hundreds of German students, following the lead of my great friend Max Mannheimer—an amazing man who has blazed the trail toward unimaginable healing and conflict resolution—and each time I leave a classroom, I am already anticipating the next visit. The profound changes this experience has brought about in me and the love and compassion the students have shared with me brings me right back to the kindness of Martin Fuss, Agnes Reisch, and Barbra Huber—their spirit lives on in these amazing young people.

In the country that once sought to exterminate me, I’m now honored—respected—acknowledged—loved—and definitely not forgotten—this is the unimaginable miracle that has made me whole. 

The teenagers in Germany have chosen to walk with me. They share my pain and my triumphs. They seek only truth and justice, and they are fearless in their ability to face history with clear minds and open hearts—a very rare occurrence in human history—always with an eye toward the future. They have been well-educated by so many great teachers and political leaders on every level who realize how important it is to heal the past so the best future can emerge.

I’m proud of the partnership The United States and Germany have forged since the war ended all those years ago—their collective efforts to rebuild upon a new foundation of democracy and peace have certainly paid off. And I can state without question—if my experience with the German students is any indication—Germany’s future is in good hands, filled with humanism, prosperity, and hope.

In the end, what I’ve learned is that we no longer need to pretend we’re all separate—we can indeed face the sometimes brutal but also beautiful greater reality that we are all connected.


Leslie Schwartz shortly after receiving the award. He said of the experience, "I'll never be the same."

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