23 September 2015
Leslie Schwartz' Return to Hungary
Leslie Schwartz returned to Hungary to visit with students; his trip included a visit to Kisvarda, the ghetto where he and he family were sent before departing for Auschwitz. More than seventy years have passed and the feelings today are quite different, more joy and elation than even Leslie had hoped for--the Hungarian students impressed him. He is thankful to have survived and thankful to share his story in the land of his birth. Below is his address.
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.
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 fourteen—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, 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.
In fact, at least three times before the age of sixteen, I should have died. I have been imprisoned, brutalized, starved, slaved, and shot!
Interestingly, just a few years earlier, I never knew bigotry or injustice as a small child. In fact, my village, Baktalórántháza, was a place where Christians and Jews got along very well; I always enjoyed spending time at my Christian neighbors’ home. In addition, my family identity was as proudly Hungarian as possible. We always considered ourselves patriotic Hungarian citizens!
Enter the fog of war and in a few short years the entire climate in my village and Hungary in general had changed dramatically; in the path of a terrible storm approaching, we had nowhere to hide.
Once the Nazi’s seized political control, the pressure to give into “easy” answers and scape-goating began, and unfortunately my former friends and neighbors gave in to hatred. Their actions in 1944 left me questioning how exactly could such madness sweep over my beloved country? Perhaps this experience will remain one of the great mysteries of my life.
Today, however, I sense a new spirit among Hungarians, one that is willing to move forward together toward a place of healing and justice, a future with prosperity and tolerance and all the wonderful possibilities of what Hungary can become—but to move forward we must first face the truth of our history. To create healing, we must seek wholeness and wholeness demands that all stories, including my story be told. We heal together or we perish alone.
I have told my story in Germany and in the United States, and now I offer the same opportunities for healing to the country of my birthplace and my ancestors, Hungary. The last link in my lifelong quest for wholeness is to renew the former joy and happiness I experienced as young child in Hungary by working together with progressive-minded Hungarians.
In all your historical inquiries, I urge you to leave heated emotions and ego behind so that we lift each other up, realizing people, no matter what our differences, all have to inhabit this planet and make society and civilization work in a way that promotes democracy, human rights and mutual respect.
We all need each other to create a better world—most especially we need each other’s truths and each other’s stories—and most importantly by helping others to heal, we also heal ourselves. I don’t believe I’ve been given this platform, this worldwide forum in so many major media sources all over the world for no reason—my life is meant to be a teaching—so follow my lead— face all difficult challenges with complete openness, honesty and truth-seeking. Realize that 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. Perhaps now or at some time in the future, you may desperately need this wisdom.
I have met with so many people from all over the world for whom my story has found powerful resonance. In Germany, I have spoken at hundreds of high schools to thousands of students as an honored guest in the country that once sought to exterminate me.
Yes, now I’m honored, respected, acknowledged, loved, and definitely not forgotten—and this is the unimaginable miracle that has made me whole. I’ve longed for this same transformation in Hungary, and now it is happening, but only with your help.
You are about to see a documentary film that chronicles a short period during the last days of my imprisonment, but the one message I want you to walk away with, which is my life’s message, is no matter what, healing and wholeness are always possible.
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. And freedom from hatred truly is possible.