Holocaust History, as Told by a Survivor
By CHRIS COTTRELL, December 27, 2013
EMSDETTEN, Germany — LASZLO SCHWARTZ never had a proper adolescence. The Nazis made sure of that.
He was 14 when he and his family disembarked from a cold boxcar onto the selection ramp at Auschwitz, and he says he still remembers the feel of Josef Mengele’s wide leather gloves pinching his scrawny biceps.
As the sadistic concentration camp physician known as the “Angel of Death” sized up the teenage Laszlo, ordering him to line up with the other children, a sinister flame rose in the distance, he said.
“I knew what they were doing, but I didn’t want to believe it,” Mr. Schwartz recently told a class of 50 high school students in this small town in western Germany. “My turn came for Mengele, and he asked me to make a muscle. He asked how old I am. I said 17. It didn’t help.”
At 83, Mr. Schwartz splits his time between Germany and New York City, where he emigrated in 1946. Since July 2010, he has spoken at more than 80 schools around Germany about the kidnappings, starvation and torture he endured during the war and how the last time he ever saw his mother and sister was the day he met Mengele.
Talking about his travails has not always been easy for Mr. Schwartz, whose right cheek still droops slightly where, he says, a member of the Hitler Youth once shot him through the jaw. He says he used to choke up at the thought of losing his mother, but now he is stoic, his articulation slow but deliberate.
For Mr. Schwartz, speaking openly about secrets he kept for decades is cathartic, but for Germany he also plays an invaluable role in bolstering Holocaust education at a time when the number of living witnesses is shrinking by the year.
Germany is not alone in fretting over how to teach the Holocaust once the survivor generation is gone, but its role as perpetrator heightens a sense of urgency.
Survivors’ stories, like the ones Mr. Schwartz recently told at the Martinum Gymnasium in Emsdetten, are especially important for younger generations who feel increasingly detached from the crimes of their forebears, educators say. Firsthand accounts provide an emotional link to the atrocities that other forms of memorialization simply cannot duplicate.
“To hear it from someone who was there is different than reading dry books,” said Fransiska Hollekamp, 17, one of the 50 students here listening to Mr. Schwartz. “It’s so much more real.”
Mr. Schwartz grew up roughly 155 miles east of Budapest in a woody Hungarian hamlet called Baktaloranthaza, where he worked for his father, a cosmetician known for his lavender perfumes and lotions. The local pastor used to let young Laszlo ring the church bells. They were so heavy, Mr. Schwartz remembers, that his tiny body was hoisted off the ground whenever he failed to let go of the rope in time.
All changed when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944. For the next month, before Mr. Schwartz and his family were taken to the Kisvarda ghetto near the Ukrainian border and then later to Auschwitz, the sound of the bells was met with bellicose, anti-Semitic chants.
Mr. Schwartz said that after his encounter with Mengele at Auschwitz, he was assigned to the children’s barracks, but 11 days later he managed to smuggle himself onto a train carrying forced laborers to Dachau and its subcamps in southern Germany.
He spent the next year hauling sacks of cement for railroads and airplane bunkers — and today speaks almost fondly of the move, seeing in it his salvation.
BUT as the Nazis’ prospects for the Endsieg, or final victory, faded, Mr. Schwartz was swept up in one of the last-ditch attempts by the SS to kill large numbers of prisoners. For three days, Mr. Schwartz and about 3,600 other passengers languished without food or water on board a “death train,” before it halted unexpectedly in rural Bavaria.
“Suddenly I see one of the SS removing his uniform, putting on civilian clothes, and he waved to us,” Mr. Schwartz said. “ ‘Ihr seid frei!’ he said. ‘You’re free!’ ”
Mr. Schwartz dashed toward a nearby farmhouse, but he said his escape was thwarted when a bullet penetrated his upper neck and exited his right cheek, leaving a gaping hole in the side of his face. He had no option, he said, but to follow the gunman, a teenager from the Hitler Youth, back to the train.
False radio reports of encroaching Allied soldiers had jarred the SS, Mr. Schwartz said. Realizing their mistake, the guards began violently rounding up the prisoners, killing 54 of them and wounding 200, including Mr. Schwartz.
Making matters worse, American fighter planes, mistaking the prisoners’ train for a military transport, strafed the cars twice, Mr. Schwartz said. He and the other prisoners hid under corpses to shield themselves.
American soldiers liberated the convoy two days later, but it would be weeks before Mr. Schwartz underwent surgery for his wound, which had become infected with typhoid. Maggots — “big, fat ones,” he said — chomped away at his flesh.
For over a year, the scraggly, scar-faced teenager wandered the bombed-out streets of southern Germany wearing part of a discarded Nazi uniform he said he found in a ditch. He stitched his red prisoner’s triangle onto the left lapel as a statement, he said, to show everyone that the Nazis were not able to kill him.
In 1946, Mr. Schwartz received a letter at the displaced persons camp where he lived. It was from his uncle who had emigrated to Los Angeles before the war. “We have a photograph of you as a baby,” the letter read. Excited to learn he had relatives in the United States, Mr. Schwartz presented the letter to the camp’s administrators and was granted passage aboard the American cargo ship Marine Perch.
He began returning infrequently to Germany in 1972, but for six and a half decades, Mr. Schwartz barely spoke a word about his travails as a teenager. All his family knew was that he had been shot.
THAT changed in July 2010 when a prominent Holocaust survivor named Max Mannheimer, whom Mr. Schwartz knew from Dachau, encouraged him to share his story in German schools. A young audience would listen, Mr. Mannheimer told him. Plus, unlike older generations, they would not try to make excuses for their silence during the war.
For Mr. Schwartz, who said he was never “a happy camper” after the war, the experience has proved a relief.
Last July, just a half-hour’s drive from where he was interned in Dachau, Germany recognized Mr. Schwartz’s work in the schools by awarding him the Bundesverdienstkreuz, or Order of Merit, the highest civilian honor, at a ceremony in Munich.
In the school in Emsdetten, Mr. Schwartz proudly showed off the red, white, silver and gold medal to the students.
“Here is this 14-year-old kid who was treated pretty shabbily and now he’s getting all the recognition,” he said. “I am almost like a performer, looking for the next applause.”