My grandmother, Dita Schwarz, believed, “Everything is written and is meant to be.” My grandfather, Max Schwarz believed, "When you’re in trouble you get strong; you do things you never think you can do. You have to help people; and no one is better than anyone else." Despite being forced from their homes, losing their family members, and suffering the devastation of the Holocaust, my grandparents lived their lives with hope. Here are their stories:
In March 2009 when I visited my grandparents (they lived nearby, and I saw them routinely), I sat for some time with my grandmother, who, for the first time in my life told me her story of the Holocaust. I learned that my roots in San Francisco stretch further back than I realized, and go back to my great great grandfather Hammerslag, who was born in San Francisco before he moved to England, met my great great grandmother and eventually settled down in Vienna, Austria.
Edith Kaufteil, my Omi, was born November 1, 1923 in Vienna Austria. The youngest of eight children and daughter of a middle-class salesman and homemaker, Omi was a spoiled child who spent much time with friends and was nurtured and supported by the love of her family. She wasn’t affected by the economic devastation of WWI, nor was she aware of anti-Semitism in Europe until March 1938, when the Nazis conquered Austria in what was known as the Anschluss. Omi was thirteen years old.
One of Omi’s older brothers, Yossi, died of a head injury when Omi was too young to remember, and another elder brother, Max, a fervent Zionist, left for Palestine in 1934. Being that he was already in his twenties and much more aware of the impact of anti-Semitism in Europe, Max felt it was necessary to leave the continent and help forge a Jewish homeland. He said that Germany was changing, and what was happening in Germany eventually would happen in Austria as well. My Omi paid no mind to his words. How could she? She was so young.
In August of 1938, the youngest of Omi’s older brothers, Paul, left for England to stay with their great-uncle. It was in England where Paul eventually met his wife, Elsie, and moved to the United States in 1947.
Almost immediately after the Anschluss, life for Jews in Austria changed. In my grandmother’s apartment building, Jewish and Christian neighbors who at one point got along well, now didn’t talk to one another. A week before Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, my Omi’s brother-in-law was arrested from his business and never heard from again.
One of my Omi’s neighbors was a Nazi, and on November 10, 1938, there was a knock on her door. Two Nazis stood there (one of whom was the neighbor), asking for Omi’s brother, Paul. Although the family told the Nazis soldiers he wasn’t there, the Nazis searched the apartment anyway, looking in every corner. When they didn’t find who they were looking for, they deliberated for a moment and decided to take my Omi’s grandmother, mother, and all the children in the house down to the river. They were paraded in front of people, and the Nazis asked the onlookers what should be done with my grandmother and her family. “Drown them in the river!” some onlookers shouted. My grandmother was so frightened and helpless in that moment, and during that night, she thought she was going to die. One of the soldiers decided to let my Omi and her family go, and their lives were spared by the kindness of a soldier not much older than my Omi.
Although my Omi and her family were spared, her neighbor two doors down, a nice older woman who lived on her own, spent the night in a barrel full of water, being pulled up from the water by her braid and submerged over and over and over. My Omi watched this spectacle from her window, feeling lucky her life had been spared, but sickened by what she witnessed her neighbor endure.
One month later, my Omi, barely fourteen, was walking down the street at eight o’clock at night on her way to visit her sister when she heard the footsteps of a Nazi soldier behind her. Afraid to turn around, my Omi kept a casual pace but eventually stopped in front of a bakery to look in the window. The soldier stopped as well, asking my Omi if he could take her home. She raised her up her hand and showed the soldier her ring finger, which was adorned with a small band. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m married.” The soldier left her alone. In the time the soldier was following my grandmother, she had taken the ring she was wearing and turned it so the jewel was tucked in her hand and the band was showing. Once again, her life was spared. Who knows what would have happened to her had her identity been revealed?
On March 16, 1939, around a year after the Anschluss, my grandmother was sent with a youth group of 60 children, 30 boys and 30 girls, on a boat from Italy to Palestine. By this point, my grandmother’s three older sisters were making plans to go to the United States, and my grandmother’s eldest sister, Ani, and her parents, stayed behind in Austria. The last time my Omi saw her family was on this day, standing on the train platform. “We’ll see you when you return,” they said. And my Omi believed she was going to return to Austria one day.
Less than a year later, in January of 1940, no Jews were allowed to emigrate legally from Nazi-occupied countries. Around 1941, my great aunt Ani, her son, my great grandparents, and my great great grandparents were sent to a concentration camp and killed. My Omi, thoroughly homesick and lonely in Palestine, who packed her life into a suitcase and eventually left behind all her possessions and had nothing, was spared her life by leaving her family behind.
Max Schwarz (known as Micky, known to me as Opi) was born July 2, 1920 in Berlin, Germany. His father and mother came from Poland in the early 20th Century and had five children—four daughters and a son, Opi, who was the youngest. Opi was raised in a strict Orthodox home. The same year Adolph Hitler came to power (1933) was the year my grandfather was bar mitzvahed. People at that point thought things would be over within six months to a year, but times eventually became worse.
Opi grew up in a household where he was both an actor and an athlete (soccer player). Opi already went to a Jewish school, but soon it became so Jewish schools were the only options for Jewish people. The laws that were passed limited Opi’s lifestyle—the benches he could sit on, the business he could patronize, the people he could interact with. One day soon after the Nazis came to power, Opi went to greet his lifelong friend Paul, but Paul called him a dirty Jew and their friendship was over. Another time my great grandfather was walking out of a synagogue, and he was spit upon by those standing outside.
By 1938 the situation had worsened to the point where Opi and his family decided he would go to Palestine and live on a Kibbutz until times got better. He was supposed to leave in early November, but on the morning of October 28, 1938, there was a knock on the door of Opi’s household. Two men with guns from the Gestapo asked for Herman and Max Schwarz, my great grandfather and Opi respectively. At that point in time the Gestapo had been arresting Polish-born males in Berlin. About a 1,000 men—fathers and sons—were taken to a small auditorium. At 11:00 that night, one of the Nazi captains came onto the stage and separated fathers and sons: “Fathers go to the left; sons go to the right.” My great grandfather was crammed into a truck and hauled away, and that was the last time Opi saw his father. My grandfather was put in another truck to go to Poland, but after a seven hour trip, Opi’s truck returned to a prison in Berlin. He and about 120 other people were put into a 30-by-30 foot cell.
One morning out of the blue, an officer came down to the cell and called the name, “Max Schwarz.” My grandfather was convinced he was going to be killed. He was taken to an office and asked to sign a paper identifying himself as a Jew. He didn’t resist. Then two Nazis walked him to the main gate and told him he had four weeks to flee the country, and if he was seen again, he would be shot. To this day, Opi has no idea why he was called among all these people, and he didn’t know if anyone else was given the same chance he was. To his mother’s surprise, he came home, but his father was never seen again.
From that point forward, the kindness of resistance workers, Jewish and Christian alike, helped Opi gain his freedom. There was a Christian man in his neighborhood who helped smuggle Jews into Holland and helped Opi and his friend Morris (who was fortunate enough to be staying with a friend when the Gestapo were arresting people) leave the country. On Dec 8, 1938 at 8:00am Opi said goodbye to his mother and hoped he was going to survive. He was given a detailed plan (which he was to rip up each time he reached a new stage of the journey), a Nazi uniform, and a Swastika armband to wear, and he went to the train station.
While at the station, he noticed a set of shovels and young soldiers taking them. He and his friend Morris also decided to take shovels in hope to look more the part. Also while at the station, a soldier asked to see Opi’s ID papers, but Opi acted forgetful and patted down his clothing as if he had been too hurried to remember them. The soldier let him go, and Opi responded with, “Heil Hitler.” Another woman at the station recognized Opi, and he tried to shoo her away. She had a group of 11 kids, aged 6 to 14 and she asked Opi if he could take the children with him. He agreed.
So with a Nazi uniform, Swastika armband, a shovel, 11 children, and his friend Morris, Opi got on the last train car (as the plan instructed them) to head to Holland. He and the children were crammed in the car for eight hours. At one point near the Holland border, the train made a routine stop by a bridge, and once again, soldiers were making their way through the train asking people for their ID papers. This time, Opi decided to pretend he wasn't very intelligent, and after a couple minutes of playing dumb, the soldier leaned over to him and said, “Good luck.” The soldier spared Opi’s life.
Opi was instructed to get off the train about 100 yards from the Holland border to meet another man who took refugees, Rabbi Solomon. So Opi asked one of the janitors on the train to open the door, and fortunately, he did. Opi, the 11 children, and his friend Morris met a rabbi and a priest who helped them cross the border and take a bus into Holland to a Jewish agency. At the agency there were about 100 children, Opi and Morris (18 and 19 respectively) were the oldest. They were separated and put into different houses for a couple of weeks until they could get fake ID papers. They stayed with a nice Jewish family.
After two weeks, Opi went back to Jewish agency for his ID papers, but he had to pretend he was 14 years old. He also was sent from one children’s home to the next, and after several weeks he was able to call his mother to let her know he was safe. After four more weeks, Opi received papers saying his actual age, and he moved to the city of Rotterdam.
While in Rotterdam, Opi saw ad in paper for actors in Amsterdam, so he collected money and went to Amsterdam and ended up staying with a young married couple five houses away from Anne Frank. Opi attended the audition and was selected as one of 15 people to be part of a traveling acting troop, which he was a part of for six months. The proceeds from the performances helped Jewish organizations smuggle people from Germany to Holland, so Opi was able to give back to the group that gave to him.
During one of the performances, a talent scout named Mr. Hecht invited Opi to come act in New York, but the paperwork would take about three to four months. At first Opi agreed, but that also was at the time when the Nazis had already occupied Austria and Czechoslovakia and had just invaded Poland. Opi had a feeling that was too long of a time period to wait, so he connected with another Jewish underground organization, the Haganah, and made plans to go to Palestine.
Opi left on a freighter ship with 500 people on a Saturday, and soon after the ship left the harbor, a bomb had hit the port city. Once again, Opi was lucky.
He spent seven weeks on the freighter, and at this point British soldiers, who had control of Palestine at the time, were guarding the ports. When arriving in Palestine, Opi’s ship was sent away. The ship sailed to Turkey for three days and then back to Palestine; once again the ship was sent away. The ship sailed to Palestine a third time, and at this point the Haganah had kidnapped the British soldiers and locked them in a room for the night so Opi and the other refugees could go free. Opi then fled to Tel Aviv where he had an aunt who owned a store.
Word had gotten around the British soldiers than an illegal ship had docked at the harbor, so Opi soon was discovered and once again asked for his ID papers. Once again, too, Opi was arrested and put in jail in Jaffa. After 10 days, his aunt and some friends had gathered enough money to post bail, and luckily, Opi was allowed to stay in Tel Aviv. Eventually, he moved to a small town in Rana’ana, and with help of a soccer team manager, played on a professional team in the town.
One day while at the game, Opi noticed a “cute girl” (as he says) sitting in the stands. There on the soccer field, in 1940, Max Schwarz met Edith Kaufteil; in March 1945, right before the end of the war, they were married.
Of 40 people in Opi’s family—aunts, uncles, cousins—only four survived. They were sent to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Bergen-Belsen, where they were hung, shot, or burned. Soon after the Holocaust, Opi learned of what happened to some of his family. When Opi’s brother-in-law was suffering, he said, “I want to die,” to which the Nazis responded, “we’re going to make it easy for you,” and they hung him. His oldest sister Sarah was killed in a gas chamber. His sister Ida and her husband hid in the wall of a family’s home in Belgium for 14 months. His sister Ellie fled to Colombia. His sister Rose went to Haifa in 1942, with the help of smugglers in Paris. Of the 60 refugees Opi stayed with during his time in Holland, all but three were killed. Of kids Opi helped into Holland, only two survived. The priest who helped Opi while in Holland also was killed. He ended up helping 9,000 people.
Through the kindness of those who would seem least willing to help, and through the persistence at too young an age, my grandparents were the lucky ones who survived. Not a day goes by where I don't feel gratitude for the life I have the privilege to live--for being back in the home of my great great grandfather. Not a day goes by where I don't see our present-day struggles as a call to action, remembering the willing allies who allowed my grandparents to live despite discrimination, hatred, violence. I hope to carry out their legacy, and I hope that through my work as a teacher, ally, partner, friend, I can provide future generations with a life where kindness defeats hatred, where despite untenable circumstances, human goodness prevails.