Leslie Schwartz, eighty-four, of New York City and Muenster Germany knows something about injustice. His entire immediate family was murdered by the Nazis during World War II. He was only fourteen when he managed to “escape” from Auschwitz by joining a work detail of older men headed for Dachau. His mother, step-father and two sisters were not as fortunate.
Schwartz looked much younger than fourteen during the spring and summer of 1944. He was small for his age to begin with and since May had been a prisoner in concentration camps, forcing most muscle and what little fat he carried to melt away from his body, leaving a skeletal frame that would house his soul for approximately one year through a nightmare worse than any fiction writer could ever dream up.
That summer he was wandering the streets of Dachau begging for food.
One German farmer-woman named Agnes Riesch took pity on him, not seeing a Jewish, concentration camp prisoner, but simply a boy in need--a boy who could have been her own son. Openly defiant of SS Guards, she comforted the teenager, offering him bread, food vouchers, even money, but most importantly, simple and unmistakable compassion. These encounters went on for many weeks until Schwartz was sent to a different camp later that summer, one near Muhldorf where he would spend the brutal winter to come at hard labor in slave-like conditions.
SS Guards told Riesch, "If you keep this up, we'll put you in here."
Riesch was pushing her bicycle and carrying packages, walking through the streets when she first encountered Schwartz.
She couldn't fathom the "crime" this young boy could have committed. How could he be a"political prisoner" at Dachau, she wondered?
Schwartz remembers being shocked at the treatment of African-Americans when he first immigrated to the United States in 1946. "Even after they had fought in the war, they still were considered second-class citizens. I could not understand this." Schwartz had never even seen a black man until he lived in the DP camps and encountered African-American soldiers driving the trucks that brought former concentration camp prisoners like himself life-sustaining supplies.
Has America time-traveled back into the 1960s?
We’ve certainly seen 1960s like protests this past week all over the country with the recent decisions by grand juries not to indict now former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson in the death of Michael Brown or New York City Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo in the death of Eric Garner.
Schwartz recalled his days in Auschwitz and Dachau and draws scary parallels between that time period and modern-day America in that life is once again cheapened to the point of meaninglessness among so many.
"In concentration camps, the wrong look directed at an SS Guard could get you shot on the spot, with, of course, no accountability on the murder's part," he recalls.
Some of these current encounters with police are along the same lines. How often is justification for a police shooting "feeling threatened" or "uncooperative" attitudes among "suspicious" individuals? Even token resistance or not complying fast enough as in Michael Garner's case can get you killed.
"Every day your existence was spent in such inhumane conditions--you lived with the realization that life was cheap, your life meant nothing and was worth nothing," says Schwartz.
Our criminal justice system and incarceration rates have grown exponentially in recent decades and life has indeed become cheap for any soul caught in the machinations of a system that would rival the camps of Nazi Germany for its efficiency and brutality.
He also witnessed complete social chaos and rioting directly following the end of the war and the liberation of the camps. In that chaos Agnes Riesch’s husband, a carpenter riding his bicycle home from work one night was murdered by former concentration camp prisoners; they were actually Polish Christians and not Jews according to Schwartz. While Herr Riesch was simply riding home from work, he was surrounded and murdered by a mob simply because he was German. He hadn't been a soldier or Nazi party member, just a simple carpenter.
With a son in a Russian POW camp, Riesch was left destitute in post war Germany, so destitute that Schwartz brought her Red Cross rations from the DP Camp where he was living directly following the war.
The irony of the murder is not lost on Schwartz, even today.
He remembers feeling as powerless as he ever felt in the camps when Riesch recalled the details of her husband's murder to Schwartz on one of his many visits to her home after the war.
"She just cried and cried; to think this woman who had been so kind to me had to suffer so needlessly at the hands of a mob, even today all these years later this is just beyond my comprehension." The war was over. Schwartz just wanted first to live and then to find a new life in a direction not yet revealed to him. In the seventy plus years since his initial deportation from his native Hungary and imprisonment, Leslie Schwartz has indeed traveled an incredible road of healing and conflict resolution that can only be described as completely unimaginable. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel shook hands with Schwartz in 2013, his healing journey had traveled full-circle, from once being on the receiving end of genocide to becoming an honored guest in the country that sought to exterminate him.
|Schwartz meeting Merkel in 2013. Schwartz had also been awarded Germany's highest civilian honor, The Knights Cross earlier that summer.|
Thorough an education system second to none, energized by the spirit of a new generation of Germans intent upon healing the past so they can move forward as world leaders, this time in areas like promoting free-trade, environmentalism, democracy and tolerance, modern Germany has made great strides. And Schwartz was more than willing to walk that difficult but rewarding road with any Germans interested in similar miracles. He’s found no shortage of participants, having spoken to thousands of German students following the brave lead of his older friend and former concentration camp companion, Max Mannheimer, who has been involved in Holocaust education in Germany for decades. Politicians and educators and especially students have fully embraced their healing initiative.
|Schwartz and Mannheimer going over the draft of Schwartz' book.|
Schwartz has said many times: “My healing is forever linked with Germany’s healing.”
Sudden and miraculous possibilities for wholeness open up when we abandon our emotional attachment to our personal sense of injury while walking together with those, or even the descendants of those, who’ve injured us—the destination being a better future that we can only reach together.
Opportunities for healing often lurk just outside that space deep within our innermost being—that place formerly occupied solely by our need to be right.
MARC DAVID BONAGURA