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04 September 2013

Freedom From Hatred: Chancellor Merkel Meets Holocaust Survivors

Resilience and Hope Personified: Leslie Schwartz and Max Mannheimer's incredible journey continues.

Unimaginable healing is taking place in Germany. Regarding the wounds of World War II and the Holocaust, those born after the war ended, one or two generations removed, have embarked upon a fruitful season of remembrance and reconciliation. Longing for wholeness and realizing, if only intuitively, the power of such efforts to heal inter-generational trauma, many Germans have chosen to look at their past with as much clarity and honesty as possible, and men like Leslie Schwartz and Max Mannheimer are invaluable in these efforts, working in partnership with so many teachers, politicians, and other leaders. 

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a campaign stop for a rally in Muenster on August 23, 2013, one of the special guests she invited to sit in the front row in an audience of 6,000 was Leslie Schwartz (pictured below, shaking hands with Chancellor Merkel).

August 23, 2013. Muenster, Germany. Schwartz' impression of Merkel's character, "very strong, an amazing woman."

She made a special effort to acknowledge his presence, though the status of a dignitary is  strange territory, and sometimes in the back of his mind he is still that teenager fighting for survival in the concentration camps; Schwartz said of the event, "Here I am, a former prisoner--and to be made such a fuss over--it was unbelievable. I was so taken, I almost started to cry."

A few days earlier, Chancellor Merkel had a similar campaign event in Dachau stopping at the former concentration camp to greet Max Mannheimer (see photograph below).

August 21, 2013 Dachau.

Mannheimer and Schwartz have a long history together.

As concentration camp survivors, they shared passage on what become known as the "death train" originating from the camps near Muhldorf in the last days of the war. The point of the excursion was to eliminate several thousand (mostly Hungarian) Jews who had passed through, and managed to survive,  Auschwitz, Dachau, and now Muhldorf, in order to silence any potential witnesses.

Schwartz was only fifteen at the time and Mannheimer in his mid-twenties. To think either young man could have made it out alive was radically optimistic, even delusional, but somehow the with the American advance and the war's end a few weeks later, both Schwartz and Mannheimer did survive to bear witness. Some sixty-eight years later could either imagine that one day he would shake hands with the German Chancellor? That they would live in Germany and educate the German youth about the horrors of hatred, making it their life's mission to guard against this evil ever rising again? 

Merkel's gesture clearly represents the spirit of so many Germans today who make it their mission to ask the young people to face history and learn from it, responsibility for the manner in which Germany moves forward on the world stage directly upon their shoulders. 

Schwartz and Mannheimer meet thousands of German students every year.

Interestingly, for Schwartz, the work of sharing his story has led to a profound healing journey; he would be the first to say the students have done as much for him as he for them.

It was at Mannheimer's gentle prodding a few years ago that Schwartz began speaking to students in the first place, and this work toward wholeness has made all the difference in his life, leading to his own personal renaissance in his 80s.

And these students are incredibly interested in Schwartz. Like American teenagers follow celebrities, they follow Schwartz. He has told me again and again that the students are always amazed that the crimes of the Holocaust happened right in their own backyards, places they pass every day still echoing atrocities. Determined to learn all they can from Schwartz and Mannheimer, realizing the rare gift these men offer in their stories and experiences, there aren't enough hours in the day for this work. Schwartz is booked solid, spending almost every free day he has with the students.

Schwartz' work has not gone unnoticed. 

A 2012 documentary film (The Muhldorf Train of Death) by Beatrice Sonhuter based on his experiences on the death train, interestingly revealed as German students work with Schwartz to discover their history, had a very successful run on Bavarian television and is still showing in selected theaters and schools across Europe. He was also awarded the Knight's Cross in July, the highest civilian honor given by the German Government for his service to Germany. Mannheimer has written many books, been awarded countless international honors, and been featured in several films, including The White Raven

Schwartz meeting with students, 2012.

With so many age-old wars still playing out today, this method of conflict resolution is desperately needed. Unless the cycle is stopped, decades and decades of atrocities lead only to more hatred and intolerance from one side to another in so many parts of the world. The gulf between where we are and where we need to be seems vast and impossible to navigate, but what's needed is a change in thinking.  As Einstein once quipped, the mind that creates the problem cannot solve it. As radical as it sounds for concentration camp survivors to have found so much love and understanding in Germany, their work illustrates a great thesis.

The only way we can ever bridge such a vast gulf is to sit together and share stories--for prisoner and prison guard to become one, discovering this place of unity through hard work, truth-seeking, genuine compassion, and a sincere willingness to shape the future in ways much different than the past. 

Again, that's what it's all about for Schwartz--that somehow he leaves the world a better place. 

Certainly, Leslie Schwartz had a great mentor in Max Mannheimer; just like when they were in the camps together and Mannheimer by speaking fluent German would get information from the guards, he's still passing along vital information necessary for survival. This time regarding the survival of our species. 

Based on the experiences of these two extraordinary men, what is it exactly that the rest of us feel cannot be accomplished?

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