This post was originally published as an Op-Ed column in the Los Angeles Times. It coincided with the inauguration of the Jewish Federation’s Martyrs Memorial. If any friends, family or acquaintances of Malvina Schwartz read this please do add a comment here or send me a private e mail. I would love to add a picture of her to this post as a remembrance.
Remembering the Martyrs–and the Simple Human Courage of a Survivor
Los Angeles Times, November 1977
by Richard Silverstein
In the spirit of sacred remembrance, the Los Angeles Jewish Federation Council today is dedicating a Martyrs Memorial at its headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard. The memorial will contain a chapel, artifacts from the Holocaust and an educational display commemorating the 6 million Jewish victims of Nazi murder. Its opening is a fitting occasion for recalling one survivor’s simple human courage as told in her own words:
“My name is Malvina Schwartz. I was an inmate of Auschwitz from May 26, 1944, until the end of October of that year. My entire family, consisting of my husband, son and daughter, accompanied me, but only my daughter and I survived those five deadly months.
“My little son, Laser Hirsch, lived in a lager with 600 other boys. On the second evening of Rosh Hashanah, the Germans took all these children to the gas. I stood outside near the barracks in the dark, watching the truck that held them. I knew for sure that my son was in that vehicle. An SS officer saw me in the street. He jumped down from the cabin and began shooting over my head upon the barracks wall, crying: ‘Verschwint!’ Get away!’)
“My son was taken away before my very eyes. That was a terrible thing to live through. My daughter-she was only a little girl–kept me alive by running after me day and night. …She held me back from the camp’s electric fence. Every morning when I came out of the barracks people hung upon the wires, dead. They ran into the wires to end their sufferings.
“The last time I ever saw my son was one early morning in August or September before he was taken away. The stars were still in the sky. I went out into the street between the lagers, In front of me sat four children in a window. My son was among them. He recognized me and started to cry ‘Mommy, mommy,’ ‘Don’t cry, tataleh,’ I said to him. ‘We will go home. You’ll see. We will meet at home.’ He cheered up and told me; ‘I’ll be the first home.'”
I had befriended Malvina Schwartz when I moved into her building in the Fairfax district last year. When she told me a few of her stories of the camps, I encouraged her to write down or tape them, since she is a survivor of one of the most significant events of the 20th century. I felt an obligation to help her serve as witness by writing her story.
Remembering is important for Jews. Each Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New. Year, we say the prayer Zichronot (Memories). On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, Jews recite Yizkor, a memorial prayer for the dead. Eyleh Ezkera–a moving lament for the martyrdom of Israel’s great rabbis at Roman hands during the second century B.C.–is also read. On those holy days, Malvina Schwartz mourns her martyred husband and son. She also takes the occasion to remember two women whose lives she helped save at Auschwitz.
“One Friday evening in mid-October the Germans made an extensive selection, going through all the barracks. Those selected for. the gas chamber they left inside the lager, Those who were passed over were sent outside. Dr. Josef Mengele, Auschwitz’s dread physician, made the selection, as always. There came a woman to me saying: ‘My little niece is inside–she is selected. Maybe you can help me somehow. Her name is Miralch Landau. Please, please help me.’
“This woman-the girl’s aunt-was named Margit Landau. She didn’t know me well, since 1 came from a different community. But the little girl was from my home. town. I walked around to the back of the barracks and found Miraleh sitting inside with another woman. ‘Now you come with me, ‘ I told her.
“She replied, ‘My mother has gone to the gas with all the children. I am all alone. I have nobody. My neighbor (pointing to the woman next to her) was placed here and she, too, is alone. She has become like a mother to me, so I must stay with her.’ I look both of them out -pushed them through the back door. The aunt, who was waiting, ran away with them. They survived.
‘Two hours later the SS came with their bloodhounds to gather those who had been selected for the gas chambers. They opened the barracks door and counted as the victims-to-be exited. I didn’t know that they had previously counted those inside. The Germans found 20 people where there should have been 22.
“A guard came and asked those of us in the street: ‘Who took those two people out?’ Everyone knew that I had done it, but nobody answered. They asked again and again, but no one answered.
“As punishment, they forced us to kneel on the pavement from 3 in the afternoon until midnight, No one could sit down; the SS stood over us the whole time. A rebbetzin, a very religious woman, was among us, She placed a rag upon her head, since that day was Friday, Sabbath eve, and it was a mark of disrespect for a woman’s head to remain uncovered upon the Sabbath.
“The guard ripped the rag from her, but she would not let him have it. He beat her so terribly, until blood ran from her nose and mouth. When he left at midnight we could go into the barracks to lie down. As we arose, our knees were bloody from the hours of kneeling upon the hard pavement.
“Mirelach Landau now lives in Israel. She is married and has children. I don’t know her husband’s name, so I don’t know the name she now goes by. She was born in my home town of Vmsharush-Namenya, Hungary. Her aunt, Margit Landau, lives in New York City, where 1 last saw her. I would like to know about Miralch.
“I want people to know what I went through-that I was there. 1 would like to receive a letter from Miralch Landau to prove the truth of everything that I tell now.”
“Once I stood in line waiting for the guards to take a prisoner count. One of the young girls in line, who was pregnant, began feeling labor pains. She cried; ‘0 God, the SS is in this place. We said to her: ‘Just hold back, hold back until he leaves.’
“They always stopped work at 6. Once it was safe we brought her into the barracks. These buildings were built during World War I to shelter horses. On either side stood brick troughs into which they had once shoveled coal for heating in winter. We placed the girl in this trough. Among the inmates was a doctor named Rosin. She and I helped with the delivery. After the woman gave birth, Dr. Rosia took the baby and wrapped it in a blanket. Then she threw it into the latrine. Dr. Rosia had to do this in order to save the mother’s life.
“The mother was taken to a Krankenstube, or sick room. They didn’t receive a doctor’s care there, or medication. They received nothing. Among the inmates were a doctor and nurses. They took care of the sick. They concealed from the SS that she had had a baby. That’s the only way that we could save her.
“I would go to the kitchen at night, when the lager was locked up and the SS had gone to their own private apartments. The Jewish girls who worked in the kitchen gave me something for this poor woman who lay there without food. They gathered together some potatoes, a little farina, salt and margarine. After dark, I collected kindling and built a fire behind the barracks. I found some broken cans to cook in. After the meager meal was prepared, I carried it to the girl: one night potatoes, the next night farina. Every night she lay in the sick room I took her food. In the course of several days she recovered her strength.”
“When I escaped from Hungary in 1956 1 to New York City and settled in Brooklyn. I heard a family who were tenants in my building speaking Hungarian. I asked them where they came from. We were from the same town. We also discovered that my daughter and her son were in the same high school class.
“What I didn’t know was that she was an aunt of the pregnant girl I had helped in the camps. One day the niece (who also had come to New York) visited her aunt, who told her that another Hungarian family lived in the building. When the niece asked what the family’s name was, the truth struck her. She told her aunt the whole story-what I did for her.
“She had escaped death as I had–escaping on a workers’ transport to serve as factory labor in German cities. Dr. Mengele didn’t want her to go, but she was desperate. She pleaded with him: ‘I need to go to work. I want to go.’ Three times he rejected her and four times she came back. The last time he let her through. She returned to Hungary after the war, but her husband (his name was Fried) had not survived. She emigrated to New York and became a professional designer. She also remarried. She is all right.”
These recollections of Malvina Schwartz throw new light on that question’ most commonly asked about the Holocaust: “Why did the Jews go so quietly to their death?” The question itself assumes that the only form that resistance can take is armed struggle, as: in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. But, as I heard a Holocaust survivor plead so eloquently at a symposium I attended last year, There were many different kinds of resistance among inmates, from the uprising at Sobibor to the underground food network established to feed the sick at Auschwitz (under threat of death to the participants). Anyone who condemns these human beings for not doing more than they did betrays ignorance of the conditions we faced and callousness towards our fate.”
Malvina Schwartz’s story confirms the truth of these words. Her deeds were not grand or heroic in the conventional sense. She grasped the few furtive opportunities that presented themselves to save an individual life, and she clung determinedly to her own life and that of her daughter. We need to better appreciate her quiet, but fierce, human dignity. There were many others like her.
Richard Silverstein, a graduate student in comparative literature at UCLA, is working under a federal grant to develop a Judaica curriculum for Los Angeles public schools