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NEW YORK—In 2009, New York businessman Leslie Schwartz found a new vocation as teacher, educator, and role model. Now, the octogenarian is seeking a way of understanding the parts of the puzzle that is his personal history.
Schwartz has sparked the interest of students throughout Germany who have heard him speak of his teenage years under Nazi rule. On April 30, Bayerischer Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting), the broadcasting authority for the German Freistaat (Republic) of Bavaria, airs the story of Schwartz’s personal journey as well as the path taken by six German high school students from the Franz-Marc School in Markt Schwaben who are seeking to learn how the Nazis used the railway tracks which still pass through their city.
The documentary on Schwartz, whose working title is “Lazarus,” uses a combination of interview and narrative sequences and contemporary videography style. A feature film, to be produced by German filmmaker Martin Otter, is in the works. “Lazarus” (in Hebrew, “Elazar,” meaning “God has helped”) was Schwartz’s “nickname” in the Auschwitz concentration camp and reflects his own—and his biblical namesake’s—ability to outwit death.
“I hope my parents are looking down and smiling about what their yingele (Yiddish for “little one”) has created,” Schwartz tells JointMedia News Service. “Sixty-seven years ago, even in the waning days of the war, [the Nazis] wanted to kill you. On April 30, the German nation will watch my story on TV.”
Newspapers write up Schwartz’s story everywhere he goes in America and Europe, and he quips that people ask him, “Who’s your press agent?” His biographical book, originally written in German, has been translated into Danish and was on the best-seller list in Denmark for six weeks. The English translation is due later this year.
Born in 1930 as Laszlo Schwartz, he grew up in the small Hungarian village of Baktalórántháza. In 1944, the community’s Jews were sent to a ghetto and transported from there to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were murdered soon after arrival.
Schwartz remained in Auschwitz only 10 days. The 14-year-old, determined to stay alive, sneaked into the political prisoners’ barracks and was soon transported to a sub-camp of Dachau. “When we arrived, it was heaven, like a summer camp,” he says. “We had our own beds.”
Initially, Schwartz’s labor at the camp involved carrying 50-pound bags of cement— nearly three-fourths his own weight. Later, he says, “the commander gave me small jobs, and I was left alone much of the time.”
One officer’s interest probably saved Schwartz’s life. “There was nobody my age [at the camp], and he called me ‘Lazarus,’” Schwartz says. Another officer, known to be so cruel that other Nazis feared him, made Schwartz his manicurist.
“I used to say to myself, ‘Here is this brutal man, and I am manicuring his nails,” Schwartz says. “There were rumors that he was a homosexual, but he never touched me.”
Schwartz came to New York in 1946, where he created a successful printing business. He has one son. In 2010, Schwartz returned to Germany to heal. He spent six months looking for the people and places that haunted his memory. He found that older Germans claimed no responsibility for the death of 6 million Jews. Some would simply walk away, others said what happened was “what Hitler did, not what I did.”
To tell his story, Schwartz went to young people, particularly high school students. He was greeted as a hero in Germany. Pointing out to his audiences that he was a prisoner in Auschwitz and Dachau at their age, he says, “They identified with me as a 14-year-old kid…at one, a girls’ Catholic high school, the students stood and for 10 minutes they were applauding me. My legs were shaking, it was so emotional.”
“My greatest fear was always that we would all simply disappear and that no one would ever know what happened to us,” he says of Holocaust survivors. “Today, I know we have not been forgotten. After going through hell, I was blessed with so many beautiful things… It seems the younger Germans are eager to know history and are not afraid to face their ancestors’ past.”
Throughout the decades, Schwartz says he remembered three individuals who propelled his ability to believe in humanity and helped to “heal the wounded child within me.” Amid the most unspeakable acts of cruelty, those three catalysts—all Germans—and their “small, yet powerful acts of defiance” enabled Schwartz’s survival, he says.
Agnes Riesch, a farmer’s wife, gave him bread in Dachau. “I stepped out in front of her and asked if she could spare a small piece of bread,” Schwartz recalls. “She looked at me with horror: I was emaciated, with bones protruding from all over my body.”
Schwartz recalls that Riesch handed him a large piece of bread—“bigger than any slice I had seen in many years—it was half of her ration of bread—a food coupon, and money… The fact that someone gave me anything was amazing… a simple miracle that forever changed me.”
At Rothschwaige, near Dachau, Schwartz worked at the Karlsfeld train station. Station gatekeeper Martin Fuss offered kindness, from sandwiches to conversation. Schwartz reunited with Fuss in 1972. Both men remembered.
Barbara Huber took Schwartz into her house, gave him bread with butter and what he calls “the most delicious glass of foamy milk.” Though he did not learn her name for more than 60 years, he says she “never left my mind.” In 2010, he found Huher’s family. Through a series of newspaper stories in Germany, Schwartz met her daughter, Marianne Meier. It was the search for Huber that initiated his journey of personal discovery.
Schwartz says the “search for truth and wisdom” of the people of modern Germany is also his search for “wholeness.” He tells his story “because of the brutality.”
“I must leave a record of the horrible things that I witness,” he says.