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21 April 2015

70th Anniversary of the Liberation at Dachau: Leslie Schwartz' Remarks

[Dachau, May 2015: On the 70th Anniversary of the Liberation]

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.

Leslie at Mainzer Synogogue, Germany May 2015

Seventy 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. Yet, no single person on the planet was left untouched by this tragedy.

The war took my family away from me—my mother, sisters, and step-father vanished right in front of my eyes at Auschwitz. Except for my nickname, Lazarus, I no longer even had a name. I was only a number, a political prisoner as referenced by a number, 71253.

I no longer had citizenship in my native Hungary or any other country for that matter. I had no papers, no passport. I owned nothing. I was just fifteen years old.

At least three times I was supposed to die.

In fact, 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 I was shot through the neck by a member of the Hitler Youth during what has become known as the “Massacre at Poing.”

Max Mannheimer, my fellow survivor, and world-renown educator and humanitarian, 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, Allach, Rotschweig, Mühldorf, Mittergars, Poing, and finally my liberation at Tutzing.

Yet, Max Mannheimer also described me at this time, as someone “on the edge of humanity” and “insensitive, [and] cold.”

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 wondrous place in my mind. You see there were three individuals who still sought to nurture the child in me.

Amid the most unspeakable acts of cruelty and horror ever committed by the human race, government to government and person to person, these three Germans looked into my eyes with compassion and love. Their small acts of defiance to the Nazi hatred left an incredible impression on me.

Agnes Riesch was a poor farmer's wife with no education. The men in her family were at the eastern front. 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 prisoner 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 miracle that forever changed me.

Later at Rotschweig, near Dachau, while I was sent out to work at the Karlsfeld train station, another German—the station gatekeeper, Martin Fuss, also took care of me. He offered me kindness in the form of liverwurst sandwiches. Many years later, when I reunited with him in 1972, he broke down and cried when he saw me. He had never forgotten me either!

There was yet another kind farmer woman who left an indelible impression on me. Before my encounter with the Hitler Youth on 27 April 1945, during the “false liberation” and the aforementioned massacre at Poing, a woman took me and my fellow survivors into her home. She gave us bread and milk. I did not learn her name for sixty-five (65) years, but she never left my mind, not for one day! 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. For six decades I searched for her. I learned only a few years ago that her name was Barbara Huber.

Agnes Reisch 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.

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 that love will resonate and touch many other lives for years to come.

What I’m offering to you here is really my life—my life’s story and my life’s wisdom—how to heal impossibly difficult wounds—the path is complicated, difficult and long, but the intention is simple: we need to honor each other’s truths while understanding if we help others to heal, we are also healing ourselves.

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 has been published in 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 seventy years ago. My very presence here is a testament to my will to survive and to all the people who helped me.

I wish now to remember to all my fellow Hungarian Jews, one of whom is here today—my life-long friend from childhood, Bela Lowy— and to recall another life-long friend who could not be here today—Sandor Grosz, who, like Bela, befriended me and protected me in the camps. I must at this time also give thanks for the strength instilled in me as a young child by my very stern though always loving father, Imre Schwartz. Though crippled by Polio at the age of sixteen (16), my father was still the strongest and most amazing man I have ever known. He died before the war, but his memory never left my heart.

Perhaps my greatest strength though came from hoping one day to be reunited with my mother Malvin Kohn and my sisters Judith and Eva. 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 that I would simply disappear, waste away into nothing, and no one would ever know what had happened to me. But I have not been forgotten.

My only wish now is for the world to know the peace and healing I have found.

Amidst all the darkness of hatred and the sheer brutality I experienced during my imprisonment, there was also a tiny light of love—one that Agnes Reisch, Martin Fuss and Barbara Huber would not allow to go out in my soul—and that little light has now become a shining beacon as so many modern Germans, from students and teachers, to artists, and politicians— all the way to Chancellor Merkel—have embraced this spirit of remembrance, reconciliation and healing and personally touched my heart in similar ways.

I want the world to know what they have done for me!

This part of my story must also be told, for they keep alive the spirit of those who showed me such illogical and courageous love all those years ago—and they have personally helped me to heal in so many ways.

I have, in fact, experienced a spirit of love and dedication to truth-seeking and wholeness in so many Germans today—my healing journey has become interwoven with theirs—this is the unimaginable miracle I have experienced—the missing parts of my soul have been gathered together.

 I am made whole.
Thank You.

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