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Holocaust survivor shares story with Tucson community

Holocaust+survivor+Leslie+Schwartz+speaks+about+his+experiences+during+World+War+II+on+Wednesday%2C+April+5.
Shane Bekian

Holocaust survivor Leslie Schwartz speaks about his experiences during World War II on Wednesday, April 5.

Holocaust survivor Leslie Schwartz shared his story at the Tucson Jewish Community Center in front of an audience of over 500 people on Wednesday night. In collaboration with the University of Arizona Department of German Studies, Schwartz shared his history and presented a short film about his experience during World War II with “The Mühldorf Death Train.”

Overflow parking and extra seats were needed as a huge turn-out of students, professors and community members filled the JCC to hear the inspirational story of Schwartz’s survival. Many of the audience had lost family members in the Holocaust, some being survivors themselves.

In front of a smaller audience at a lunch colloquium on Tuesday, Schwartz detailed some of his background, sharing that he was 14 years old when he was taken captive.

“When we arrived in Auschwitz, with my mom, sister and half-sister who was six months old, I did not know what to do,” Schwartz said. “I heard all of this terrible crying and screaming from the mothers and children. That scared me terribly so I decided not to go with my mom.”

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Instead he left the women’s line and was taken to the children’s barracks. One of his friends’ older brother helped Schwartz and took him with the older boys to the line for Dachau, a satellite camp where young strong boys were put to work on the railroad.

“In Auschwitz you knew you were going to die,” said Schwartz’s wife Annette. “When he got to Dachau, he thought it was a paradise.”

Annette Schwartz, Leslie’s wife, is one of his main supporters and aided him in both the lunch and the main event the following day. She is German, which lead to some interesting first impressions.

“My friends asked ‘are you crazy?’” Schwartz joked at lunch, “when I started going out with Annette.”

Steven Martinson, Interim head of the UA German Department, thanked Annette Schwartz for her assistance and described her as a pillar of support during the introduction on Wednesday.

After his speech, the short film “Mühldorf Death Train” was shown, and according to the film, Leslie Schwartz was liberated by American soldiers on the April 30, 1945.

“It was so important for me,” Leslie Schwartz said, “when I was liberated, to bring myself back to the human race.”

Luckily, Leslie Schwartz had an uncle who was living in Los Angeles at the time and was granted entrance into the United States. After spending some time in a Displaced Persons camp when the war ended, he moved to New York City in 1946.

He was the only one of his family members that survived Auschwitz and did not start sharing his story of survival until 65 years after he was liberated.

“My family did not want me to talk about it,” he said. “They wanted me to become part of the American life and be a loyal citizen.”

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With the help of a New York based journalist, Leslie Schwartz published a book explaining his detailed memories of the horrors that he experienced during the war, and the he had been holding within himself for so long.

“When my book was released, all of this that I carried with me for years came out. I cried and cried and could not stop,” he said.

His book, titled “Surviving the hell of Auschwitz and Dachau : a teenage struggle toward freedom from hatred” was released in 2007 and was sold at the event. Leslie Schwartz signed books for audience members with the assistance of Melody Fischer from the School of International Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

“We want to bring forth recognition for Leslie’s life and for the impact that he has had on our lives and our studies,” Fischer said.

With so many in attendance, Leslie Schwartz’s story was able to reach many in the Tucson community.

“There is a huge impact on the audience for them to get the hands on experience of putting a face to the history,” Fischer said, “being able to see his will to survive is so important.”

One of the main points that Leslie Schwartz shared at the event was a message of peace and acceptance, something that many didn’t expect, considering the events that he was put through during the Holocaust.

“When a nation creates a was machine, the nation itself risks losing its humanity,” he said. “Since then I have realized that my search for healing is also Germany’s search for healing.”

He credits his survival to the kindness of three Germans who went against the will of their government and the power of the Nazis to help him as a young boy. They helped with providing food, shelter and transport during times of need.

“They kept me from the Nazi hatred,” Schwartz said, “those three kind Germans saw hope in my mind and love in my heart.”

This resonated with the message that he shared with the audience at Wednesday’s event.

“Small acts of love often hold huge amounts of power,” he said. “We are all connected and freedom from hate truly is possible.”


Follow Tirion Morris on Twitter.


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