Yesterday, I had the profound privilege to hear Mrs. Anges M. Schwartz speak at the Rock Island Arsenal Days of Remembrance Observation. She is a Holocaust Survivor. Although she was not deported to a death or concentration camp, her mother was. Her father escaped his own deportation thanks to the actions of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat (and a personal hero of mine).
She told a riveting tale of how her idyll childhood world in Budapest, Hungary, was ripped from her when she was only 11. In 1944, the Nazis, led by Albert Eichmann (later hanged in Israel in May, 1962) began their reign of terror and systematic deportation to the death house that was Auschwitz. She recalled with chilling detail of the sounds of Nazis marching, coming to collect her fellow Jews,...including her mother. She survived because her maid, a Catholic, took her in and hid her as her niece. Because Mr. Schwartz had attended a Catholic school (Hungary is an over-whelming Catholic country and private education was common) she knew enough about the New Testament to avoid inquiry from neighbors, some of whom were enthusiastic supporters of Hitler. She survived the bombings, the Nazi (and their Arrow Cross henchmen) spontaneous killings, and even found her father after the war. When finally reunited with her father, she heard those magical words, "We're going to America!"
However, this was not to be a "and they lived happily-ever after." After settling in Chicago, her father inexplictedly returned to Hungary. Then, he did the unthinkable: he re-married and his relationship with his daughter, the one he almost lost, was thrown away.
Mrs. Schwartz tells this part of the story without overt bitterness. She stoicly stated how her father was "never the same." Undoubtedly, he had post-traumatic stress. How could he not? Or her, for that matter.
As she told her story of her first husband leaving her and being a single parent, I saw in this eldery woman a strength few have. She did not say this, of course, but her presence conveyed this message: "I survived the war, I can survive as a single mother." She later did meet another man, Mr. Schwartz, and until his death, they had a good life. If anyone deserved such a life, it is her.
Now retired, her work is with the Illinois Holocaust Museum, her "second home." She speaks on a subject she ignored (and who could blame her) for years. Now, her voice is being heard. It is a difficult story. I had to work to maintain my composure several times yesterday. Her decision to speak, to find her voice (that is becoming a trite phase but appropriate here) is all the more important as the number of survivors is estimated at anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000, with that number falling everyday. As the deniers and the Hilter apologists are eagerly awaiting the day there are no more living survivors, the tale of Anges Schwartz needs to reach as many people (especially young people) as possible.
In telling her tale, he elected to cross back over a bridge in her memory that had to cause unimaginable pain. Yet in doing so, by choosing the courage to speak, we have another testament to a dark time in history. We need to remember. By remembering, by honoring, by pledging "NEVER AGAIN!" we build our own bridge to a better world. A world free of (we hope) from terrified 11-year old girls, hearing the pounding of boots on the pavement.