On the 85th Anniversary of Kristallnacht, Holocaust Survivor Spreads Light amidst Darkness

“Should I take down my mezuzah?” A friend asked me the other day. I shuddered at the thought. The idea of hiding my Judaism by removing such a fixed item on my home, one that ironically is there to protect that home, was a level I just couldn’t imagine getting to — that I didn’t want to get to.

Unfortunately, it’s a very real thing going through many Jewish minds. Antisemitism hit record levels in America in 2022 — way before the conflict in Israel was even a thought. Now, in November 2023, we’ve reached new heights. The FBI is calling these stats, “historic.”

It’s a confusing time for American Jews who in large part have always stood up for other minorities around them. Now, when we really need it, we’re struggling to find many non-Jews stand up for us. What’s worse, is that so many people we’ve stood next to every day in class or at work, are now marching and chanting for Israel to be eliminated, for the Jews to be eliminated. Many Jews have lost friends who have pulled away suddenly in their newfound mission to fight against Israel.

It’s eerily reminiscent of what we’ve heard about early Holocaust times. Six million Jews were taken from their homes, brutally executed and so many others around them did absolutely nothing. The entire world let it happen. It started with propaganda about the Jews — messages that seeped into the culture, into so many minds and turned into something unimaginable.

No one knows this better than a survivor. Mark Schonwetter was just five years old when the Holocaust began. He was born in Poland to Israel and Sala Schonwetter who later welcomed a daughter, Zosia, a few years later. They lived on a farm in a village of about 1500 people, 500 of whom were Jewish. Israel was the head of the Jewish community there. Before long, in 1941, the Gestapo came to their town and asked the police chief about the Jewish population. He guided them to Mr. Schonwetter. 

Initially, it was just questioning. Then, the Jews in the community were all forced to wear a band with a star of David around one arm. Then, they forbid Jewish children from going to school. Then, they took away Mark’s home. They told his parents to take their personal belongings and find a room somewhere in town within 24 hours because their house, farm, and remaining belongings would be confiscated. 

One day, Israel was called in by the Gestapo but he didn’t come back. Naturally, his mother was quite worried but wasn’t able to just leave and get answers. Before long, the wife of the police chief was at her door. She explained she overheard a conversation between her husband and the Gestapo who shared plans of coming to take all the Jews away in a matter of days. She urged Sala to take her kids and get out of there as soon as possible.

Not knowing where to go, Sala took her kids back to their farm. A Polish family they had rented rooms to was still living there — the Pilats — and they agreed to take in Mark for the night. Sala and Zosia stayed at Mr. Pilat’s cousin’s house for the night as they feared the Gestapo would be looking for a woman with two children. In the morning, they decided they would all reconvene and figure out what to do. That morning though, the Gestapo were already there questioning how many kids the family actually had. Mark was able to blend in that day, but the Pilats knew it wouldn’t be safe for them to stay much longer. 

They had heard about the Jewish ghetto in another part of the city and thought they would be safer there. So Mark, along with his two-and-a-half-year-old sister and mother walked 15 miles through the night to reach the ghetto. 

The ghetto was packed — they were lucky to find a small space just for them. They barely had food and water. “After 15 miles walking, my sister and I started crying that we were hungry,” Mark says. “[My mother] didn’t have anything for us to eat. She asked a neighbor and the person said, ‘You get food when they give you food.’”

That “food” they eventually got was a cup of “soup,” which Mark describes as warm water with coloring in it and a slice of dry bread. That was it, twice a day. “We were constantly hungry, but there was no choice,” he explains. 

The conditions there alone were treacherous. His mom cut their hair when they got lice. There were no toilets, they didn’t have running water inside. People got very sick and there were no doctors or medicine. “Somehow we lived like that for three months,” Mark shares. “It was terrible.”

After those three months, Mr. Pilat came by to break them out. He had heard rumors that something even worse was about to happen. He threw a towel over the barbed wire fence and Sala, though incredibly weak from those three months, managed to get her children and herself over to the other side.

They were able to stay with a family that took them into their attic for that winter — on the promise the kids wouldn’t talk, laugh or cry. They couldn’t make any noise and Sala agreed, ensuring it wouldn’t be a problem. But in the spring, the family said they had to leave and the only place they had to go was the forest. The family of three lived in the forest for the entire spring and summer, foraging off mushrooms and berries — Sala knew which ones were poisonous and taught her children how to avoid them. In the winter, they would go from house to house and somehow found someone to hide them most nights.

They lived like that for three years. One winter, the only spot for them to hide was under a pigsty. They couldn’t even sit up. They spent their days lying down with pigs on top of them, sometimes underneath pig urine and excrement. “It was really tough,” Mark says, which feels like an understatement. “Somehow, we survived it.”

Toward the end of the war, they started to see Polish people escaping their own homes as the war was getting close so they followed them. Christian Polish people took them in and they lived under false identities for the remainder of the war. “My mom gave us new Polish names, she told us to be careful and watch the people around us,” Mark shares. “We watched how they crossed themselves and prayed before they ate. We went to church with them on Sunday and followed everything they did.”

Finally, in the spring of 1945, they saw soldiers walking in different uniforms. “One of them knew Polish and said, ‘We are soldiers of the Soviet Union. We liberated you. You’re free,’” Mark shares. “We couldn’t believe it.”

Eventually, Mark made it to America where he made a life in the jewelry business. He started sweeping floors and worked his way up to factory manager, eventually purchasing his own wedding ring manufacturing company, Lieberfarb, in 1971.

Now, after making a life for himself in the States with two daughters and grandchildren, he’s witnessing antisemitism’s rise once again. “It’s very difficult for a Holocaust survivor to see antisemitism,” he says.

He credits the current spread to social media. “Antisemitism has been around for ages — as long as Jews can remember,” he explains. “That’s not anything new. Now, though, because of social media, young people are just seeing every little thing and don’t understand or have an education in [the history of the Holocaust].”

“Many kids don’t know who Hitler was, they don’t know what a swastika means,” he continues. “They put it there and think it’s a joke. They don’t realize the background. So we have to make sure people are being educated.”

Mark and his family have made this their new life mission. Along with his wife, Luba, and two daughters, Ann and Isabella, they started the Mark Schonwetter Holocaust Education Foundation, aimed at getting more Holocaust education into schools. According to the MSHE Foundation website, 66 percent of U.S. millennials do not know what Auschwitz is.

Shockingly, only 25 states mandate Holocaust education and those states don’t always have the funding necessary to carry that out properly. The MSHE Foundation offers grants to schools across the country that go toward field trips, programming, books and bringing in Holocaust survivors to speak to students. 

Since 2020, the Foundation has had four grant cycles reaching over 117,000 students nationwide. This 2023-2024 school year, they have given $98,000 in 135 grants that covers 24 states and reaches more than 41,000 students. Many schools that apply for and receive the grants are public schools with diverse demographics, so ideally, real change is being made.

At this time, it can be hard to know what to do to stop all the hate around us. Mark’s advice is not to just sit in the pain and fear, but to take action instead by educating others. “Panicking and feeling depressed won’t make you feel better,” he shares.

If you don’t know where or how to educate, you can donate to others that do this work. That action is also taking a step.

“You have to have strength,” he says. “I don’t think taking a mezuzah off the door will do anything. I hope it never comes to that. Share with people, keep them aware of what happened. If we don’t try, we’ll never know.”

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