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07 December 2014


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.

Schwartz reunited with Riesch in the early 1970s.

Had Agnes Riesch not reached out with such unexpected and completely defiant love, Schwartz might have forever carried a hatred of Germany within his heart—and who could possibly blame him after seeing his entire family taken away to be murdered only days before at Auschwitz-Birkenau?

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?

Along with Riesch, two other Germans during the same time period, one a train station gatekeeper near Allach named Martin Fuss and another farmer woman, Barbara Huber, also stood in opposition to the hatred of the times with their blatant acts of love and undeniable compassion, planting seeds within Schwartz’ psyche that not all Germans were bad and hating any particular category of people for the actions of their peers is not the way to find healing, no matter the gravity of the injustice. During their encounters, both Riesch and Huber called Schwartz her son. In fact, Fuss had a son Schwartz' age.

Fast forward seventy years—2014—the United States. Leslie Schwartz has been a keen observer of the recent epidemic of police violence echoing reverberations of a terrible time in American history. 

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.

Now the names keep piling up, held close within the national consciousness: Michael Brown, Eric Garner,  even twelve-year-old, Tamir Rice, whose offense was brandishing a toy gun—African-Americans shot or killed by white police officers in high-profile, well-publicized cases all over America; some of these victims were in the process of committing crimes, like selling illegal cigarettes in Garner’s case or, prior to the incident, stealing cigars in Michael Brown’s, but some were just walking home, like Akai Gurley in New York City—his “crime” was simply entering a doorway to his residence where a rookie police officer on patrol within the housing project stairwell shot him accidentally and tragically, out of surprise, the project so run down and neglected that stairwells are completely dark and residents regularly risk their lives, from violent criminals as well as from cops, just leaving or returning home.
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.

US Senator Cory Booker posted a response to Ferguson on social media in the midst of the rioting following the Grand Jury quoting Dr. Martin Luther King: “But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Some of King’s words seem like they could have been written this week. Yet there also seems to me like a sad and tragic resignation in Booker’s post, even an implied excuse or justification for the civil unrest, as if humans really aren’t responsible for their actions as long as those actions are clouded by emotion or ego, however justified those emotions may seem, based on very real or even perceived injury and injustice, whether seemingly historical or current.  It should be noted that most of the protests, excepting the riots in Ferguson, have been peaceful, but the speed with which old wounds were ripped opened is simply amazing. 

Leslie Schwartz has nothing but sadness for those who would embrace lawlessness and seek to return the injustices done to them back in kind to their perceived or even very real oppressors. 

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.

But, of course, Merkel’s Germany is  not the Germany of the 1930s or 1940s. Germany is  a nation that has taken great pains to heal the wounds they inflicted upon the Jews and the world during World War II. Are those wounds any less egregious than America's tragic history of racism and oppression? 

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 learned that egos and anger continually cloud clarity and renew age old-wounds leading us nowhere but toward renewed destruction and continued destructive patterns of behavior. Schwartz believes that only through rigorous truth seeking without blame or judgment can we create and nurture community to affect lasting change.

Perhaps we can learn from Schwartz and Mannheimer, use their wisdom to make some strides in Ferguson and beyond. Schwartz says, "You must put yourself in the other person's place--what would it be like to have someone in your family treated in such a way?" All life must carry a respect and honor to it.  He continues, "When life becomes so cheap, we lose our humanity."

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.  


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