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Holocaust survivor shares story with Elgin middle school students

Holocaust survivor Agnes Schwartz has somber moment during her talk more than 200 eighth grade students Ellis Middle School.

Holocaust survivor Agnes Schwartz has a somber moment during her talk to more than 200 eighth grade students at Ellis Middle School. Schwartz gave a first-person account of the Holocaust during youth growing up in Nazi occupied Hungary. May 1, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 3, 2013 3:27PM

ELGIN — Agnes Schwartz’s family was ready to emigrate from Budapest, Hungary, to join family already in the United States.

Their luggage already was in Lisbon.

That’s when Germany declined to let her family cross the border, Schwartz said.

It was 1944. She was 11 years old. And, she said, “had we been able to emigrate at that time, my life would have gone very, very differently.”

“Our luggage was returned, and, because of this, I lived through the Holocaust,” she said.

Schwartz shared her story with more than 200 eighth-graders Wednesday at Ellis Middle School, a story of choosing love over hate, of strength and survival during the Holocaust as Nazis marched into Hungary just before the end of World War II.

It’s not a story the Skokie woman enjoys telling, she said. In fact, she never really had talked about it — not with her three children, not even with her first husband — until one of her grandchildren had asked her to speak about it at his school.

But it’s a story, she said, she feels she has “a purpose in telling.”

“I am getting older, and so are all the other survivors, and I don’t know how much longer we will be able to speak out. But as long as I am able, I don’t want the Holocaust to go down in a history book just as another page. That’s why I pour my heart and soul out to you,” Schwartz said.

“It’s important to me that your generation knows what happened and will prevent anything like that from ever, ever happening again.”

Losing family

An only child to relatively affluent parents, Schwartz said, she “couldn’t have had a better early childhood no matter where I lived.”

But within 50 days of the Nazis occupying Hungary, 450 Jews were deported from the outlying areas of the country, she said. Schwartz was forced into a “Jewish-designated building” with her parents and her grandparents, she said.

That’s where her grandfather became ill and died. And where Nazis marched into the building, shots rang out, and her parents were rounded up “to work,” leaving her alone with her grandmother and “lucky” to be with family, she said.

Not long after, there was a knock at the door. It was her family’s housekeeper, who had “invented this family for me on the streetcar ride to her house,” she said.

There, Schwartz said, “I took her last name, and we took off the yellow star, and I passed out in the open as a Catholic, blonde little girl and her niece.”

That is, until the bombings became so frequent and so severe that they forced into the basement all 200 residents of the apartment building where she and the housekeeper were living. That’s where they stayed, without electricity or heat or water or toilets, until “news started traveling from building to building” that the war — and the Holocaust — were over, she said.

Meantime, her grandmother, aunt and uncle had been moved to the Budapest ghetto, where they were shot and killed along the shores of the Danube, she said. Her mother, she learned, had died of “natural causes,” meaning starvation and possibly typhus in the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, she said.

Her father somehow had survived the war in a “Swiss-protected building” in Budapest, and the two emigrated as they had planned when she was 13. But their reunion was short-lived: sick with tuberculosis, then having difficulty assimilating, her father returned to Europe within the year, leaving the girl with an aunt and uncle in Chicago.

Lessons learned

Schwartz has shared her story with Ellis students at the end of their studies about the Holocaust for the past few years, according to special education teacher Debbie Hadesman. The teacher had grown up next door to Schwartz, she said.

Samantha Richmond, 14, said hearing about her experiences during the Holocaust was “pretty cool.”

“You’re not just reading about something. You’re actually hearing about it from a person who knows,” Samantha said.

Schwartz said she hoped eighth-graders like Samantha would take several things away from her story; among them, an appreciation for democracy — “you cannot possibly appreciate its wonders” — and for “this wonderful country that you live in.”

She’s left the U.S. only once to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, where the housekeeper who had protected her is remembered in The Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations. She’s never returned to Hungary, which to her, she said, “is nothing but a cemetery.”

She also hoped to impress on students the message of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, she said: “Don’t hate.”

“If somebody looks different than you do, don’t hate. Find out who they are. They may be a nice person,” Schwartz said.
“There is good and bad in every religion and race and kind.”

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