Some religious school students at Temple Emanu-El heard a firsthand account of the Holocaust recently. And they saw the New York premiere of a German-made Holocaust documentary.
During two Yom HaShoah speeches at the Upper East Side Reform synagogue, Holocaust survivor Leslie Schwartz talked about his wartime experiences (the rest of his family died in Auschwitz) and showed a documentary about his life produced by a Bavarian television channel (an English-language version was recently released at his request).
At the end of Wednesday’s program, a fifth-grader in a front row of the Lowenstein Auditorium raised his hand. “If you had the chance to save someone” in your family, asked the student, “who would it be?”
“My little sister,” Schwartz answered.
“How old was she?” another religious school student, a girl, asked.
“Eleven,” Schwartz said.
“You could see the look of horror on her face,” Rachel Brumberg, the congregation’s associate director of lifelong learning, says of the student – Schwartz’s sister was almost the same age as the student.
For a few hours last week, it wasn’t just an old man with a foreign accent talking to kids young enough to be his grandchildren, some of whose grandparents were also Holocaust survivors – it was peer-to-peer, someone discussing his life when he was the students’ age.
Which is the goal of Temple Emanu-El’s Religious School, and of Schwartz.
In recent years the school has invited child survivors of the Holocaust to address its annual Holocaust Remembrance Day program, which last week collected tzedakah money for needy Holocaust survivors aided by The Blue Card organization. The reasons are both practical (today, seven decades after the Shoah, the only survivors left are men and women who were young during World War II) and pedagogic (students can better identify with someone who was their age), Brumberg says.
“By having someone [who was] their age, they can relate” to what happened to the speaker, Brumberg says.
Schwartz, an 83-year-old native of Hungary who for decades rarely discussed his wartime experiences but has embarked on an ambitious year-round schedule of speeches to student groups in Germany and the United States in the last four years, says he prefers to tell his story to young people.
They’re more open, more eager to listen, especially in Germany, he says.
“I identify with these kids,” Schwartz says. “I feel very comfortable speaking to them.”
He was 14 when the war ended.
Schwartz’s remarkable survival story, including internment at a series of concentration camps, Auschwitz and Dachau among them, and his escape from a death-bound train 68 years ago this week, near the end of WWII, is the subject of “Der Muhldorfer Todeszug” (The Muhldorf Train of Death), a 22-minute documentary that was produced two years ago by Bavarian Broadcasting.
The documentary relates Schwartz’s experience as a prisoner on the train, consisting of 60-80 wagons, that carried some 3,600 people, mostly Hungarian Jews, from the Mulhdorf concentration camp in southeast Germany south to Tyrol, and was attacked along the way by Allied planes that mistook the train for a Nazi troop transport.
Schwartz – his original first name was Laszlo – was probably the youngest prisoner on the train. He had learned German in the camps, “as a survival strategy,” and serendipitously survived his ordeals, partly because of kind-hearted non-Jews who fed and sheltered him.
The documentary records how he survived, and how students at the Franz-Marc Grammar School in Markt Schwaben have researched his life’s story and the train’s journey through their region.
Schwartz came to the US in 1946.
In recent weeks, Schwartz has been premiering the English-language version of the documentary – twice at Temple Emanu-el, for combined fifth-sixth-seventh grade classes and several of the students’ parents –at Park East Synagogue on the Upper East Side, and at private homes in Manhattan and Boca Raton, Fla., where the retired printer lives.
Schwartz’s efforts made an impression on Bernd Georg Reindl, head of the political and scientific department at the German Consulate here, who attended Wednesday’s program at Temple Emanu-El. “I learned once more,” he said, “that in Jewish life it is very important to remember.”
Schwartz returns this week to Germany, where he will speak to more high school classes (he’s invited by Bayernische Gedenkstatten, a Dachau memorial institute) and receive the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany (he’s received a similar honor in France). Later this month, an English translation of his autobiography, which he wrote in German and became a 2007 bestseller in Denmark, will appear.
“I have found unimaginable peace and meaning in my life” by speaking to classes of teens, he told the Temple Emanu-El religious school students. “I’m living proof that nightmares can be transferred into the most beautiful dreams.
“I’m very grateful to share these experiences with today’s youth of Germany,” he said.
The reactions of students in this country and in Germany are “pretty much the same,” Schwartz says. In both countries, they are anxious to listen. In both countries, he meets children who have a shaky grasp of 20th-Century. A student in the States asked Schwartz if he met Hitler. A student in Germany, hearing Schwartz mention Auschwitz, asked “Was ist das?” (what is that?)
Students in both lands usually ask him the same question, he says – “They ask me how I was able to endure.”
“I was very determined,” he answers, “to tell my story.”