Leslie Schwartz – survivor of the Holocaust, native of Hungary, resident of New York City for more than six decades – was walking through the town square of Munster, a city in northwest Germany, earlier this year. A few German teenagers spotted him, running up and hugging him, he says.
The high school students thanked him for a speech he had given at their school, in which he recounted his wartime and postwar experiences.
Such effusive recognition has happened a lot in Germany the last two years, Schwartz, 81, says.
During most of the years since he settled in the United States in 1946, he spoke little about what had happened to him during the Shoah. “I was still healing from the tzuris.” Now he speaks about it frequently. The retired printer’s autobiography, which was prompted by a serendipitous meeting with a Danish publisher, came out and became a bestseller in Denmark in 2007. That led to an invitation by Bayernische Gedenkstatten, a Dachau memorial institute, to travel around the country and address high school classes, and attend commemoration ceremonies at former concentration camps. Everywhere he goes, German newspapers interview him – one called him “a star.”
His autobiography came out last year in Germany, followed by a recent documentary about him by a Munich-based broadcasting authority. An English version of Schwartz’s autobiography is to appear next year – also published by Lit Verlag, his German publisher – and there is talk about a Chinese translation, and a dramatic movie, and a screening of his documentary at a film festival here next spring, says Schwartz, who has started to speak to school groups in the U.S.
“It’s very exciting,” says Schwartz. Divorced, he lives on Manhattan’s East Side and in Boynton Beach, Fla. He’s a first cousin of the late actor Tony Curtis (nee Bernard Schwartz).
When the spigot of Schwartz’s memories opened after he went to work on his autobiography (its Danish title means “To Survive Hell”), they never stopped flowing.
For six months in 2010 and 2011, he stayed in Germany under the auspices of Bayernische Gedenkstatten, going to classroom after classroom. He says he prefers to meet teens; his “lucky” life as a young teen in a Hungarian village (his original given name: Laszlo) was disrupted by the war; he survived a series of concentration camps and forced labor camps and a death train in Germany. “I still think of myself as a teen.”
Today’s young Germans are receptive to his message of loss (four members of his immediate family died in the Holocaust) and reconciliation (a series of sympathetic German soldiers and civilians assisted him during the war), he says. Part of his motivation to return to Germany was a desire to find and thank the sympathetic Germans, he says. “It bothered me for 65 years.”
Schwartz says he’s already planning to go back to Germany next year, again for six months, again for meetings with German teens. “Same thing” as the last two years, he says. “I enjoy it.”