To Life

May 9, 2009

9 min read


After running from the Nazis as a 10-year-old, she has seen life come full circle.

Dana Schwartz is a child survivor of the Holocaust. A licensed psychotherapist, she devotes much of her time to traveling to schools and museums and even air force bases to speak about her experiences. She has also interviewed many other survivors, most of whom were children during the war, for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. Along with her husband, an internist in private practice, she founded the Concern Foundation specializing in cancer research in Israel. This is her story.

I was born in 1935 in Lvov, Poland, an only child. A lot of what happened with my life and who I became was shaped by my first 10 years.

Both of my parents worked, so I spent a lot of time with the nanny. I hated waiting for my mother to come home. One day my nanny took me to the park and when she was busy talking, I went over to the forbidden path and picked a daisy. As I picked it I heard a tremendous boom. I was shocked and terrified. A man ran by with a white dog and shouted, "Go home. The war has started."

The wonderful thing about the war was that the nanny was let go, since my parents no longer worked. And my father would let me sleep in my clothes and gather me up in the middle of the night when there were air raid sirens. We would all run down to the big cellar that was the apartment's laundry room.

After awhile of this my father said, "We're getting out of here." He hired a car and driver to take us to Romania, which was still free.

On the way we ran out of gas, so we hired a horse and buggy and continued. We crossed a big river and it was very scary. Finally we stood at the bottom of a hill, seeing the border of Romania halfway up.

This is the 20th century, the Western world. What could happen?

At that point, my mother turned to my father and said, "But honey, what about our Persian rugs and our silver and our paintings? We can't just walk away from everything."

My father started pacing back and forth thinking. Finally he said, "This is the 20th century. It's the Western world. We're educated. I'm a lawyer. I have plenty of pull. What could happen?"

He turned to my mother and said, "You're right. Let's go back." So we turned around and went back.

We were so close. Out of the 182,000 Jews in my hometown, only 184 survived.


We went back to Lvov and first the Russians came. They took my father into the army but he escaped and returned to us. Then the Germans came. They gave us half an hour to pack a bag and leave. And we walked out of there. I remember the silence. My parents walked tall with me between them.

We walked into the ghetto. We lived with my grandmother, my uncle and a woman whose husband in the good days had been a senator. He was dead and she had nowhere else to go. We were there for about a year. It was a horrible, scary, cold year with a lot of hiding from actions and fear and hunger and everybody kept disappearing.

We got non-Jewish papers and were smuggled out.

Eventually my father was able to get non-Jewish papers for my mother and me, and we were smuggled out. We met my father at the gate to say goodbye and I wanted to hug him, but I was not allowed to because then the German soldier would be suspicious. My mother warned me at all costs to keep my arms down. And I remember how my arms hurt from holding them down when I wanted to hold him.

We went to a small village where my father had paid a farmer to look after us. He was to pretend that we were his cousin's wife and daughter and although he was obligated to look after us, he couldn't stand us. That allowed him to keep his distance.

When we arrived, he gave us a big bed to sleep in. I can visualize it to this day. We slept and slept. When we woke up, it was sunny and light and peaceful and the birds were singing.

He found us a place to stay with another farmer. He was the only one that knew we were Jewish. No one else around there ever found out. We were put in the barn. There were partitions for cows, horses and sheep -- and we had one partition. And from our hiding place we watched the remaining Jews in the town be taken away.


There was a young Jewish woman upstairs in the building next door. She was a dentist, very pretty, with a broken leg. A German soldier came and she pleaded with him, "My leg's not set yet and I'm the only dentist in town, maybe you'll need me." He said, "That's a very good idea but my orders are to take you downstairs." Then another German came by and when she repeated her story, he shot her over and over and over again.

Another time a man came, six months after all the Jews had been cleaned out, with his son in his arms begging the farmer to help him. "We've been in the forest for months, and everything was okay until my son got gangrene. I can't cut his foot off. Please will you help me get the doctor?" The farmer said "sure" and got the Nazis instead. His reward was two kilos of sugar.

Instead of getting a doctor, the farmer got the Nazis instead. His reward was two kilos of sugar.

We stayed with that farmer a few months, and then with other farmers, and in other places in the village and in the forest. Finally the war ended.

We went back to Lvov and found out that my father and everyone else we knew and loved had been killed. We were homeless; we had two raw eggs between us. We were at the end of our rope. It was horrible. There was nobody left to beg from. But many stories later, we made it and found ourselves deep in the USSR.

I remember that a drunk Russian soldier was waving a revolver and trying to rape my mother. She screamed and I was the only one who could save her. I jumped on the soldier's back like a monkey and kicked and scratched him. And I yelled to my mother, "Run, run, run!" She ran while I kept kicking and scratching until I knocked him down. By the time he found his equilibrium we were both gone.

That was a defining moment. My mother said to me, "I'm going to take you away from all this. I'm going to take you to a country where you can be a Jew and be respected for who you are and you can study and learn Hebrew." And she talked about these freedoms.


We escaped from the USSR back to Poland. We were dirt poor and had many more adventures. I went to school for a while and there was a boy in my class who refused to stand up to pray when everyone else did. He said he was a proud Jew and his home was Palestine. I was astonished because I thought of Jews as terrified, haunted and ashamed, not worthy of life, to be destroyed. This young boy gave me a different way of looking at things.

I remember being in Sweden a few years later in a Jewish community building. Everyone was listening to the man on the radio yelling out names of countries and answering "yes" or "no." The UN was voting to partition Palestine. The next thing I knew, everyone was dancing and singing HaTikva. Tears streamed down their faces and I knew that I had lived to see the day my forefathers had only dreamt about. I've always had Israel in my heart.

In a way my life has come full circle this past year with all the terrible violence in Israel and America. All these years I have been optimistic that it could never happen again.

Those who have survived through horror are more ready to believe that horror exists.

But now this makes me very anxious. It's a terrible crisis of belief in the goodness of man. I think those who survived through the horror are more ready to believe horror exists. We know that the unthinkable can happen.

I wear this whistle because I was so impressed and touched by the goodness of those who saved as many people as possible. I have greater faith in humanity now. If I am ever buried alive, I'll blow this whistle and if they hear me, they'll pull me out.

There is evil in the world but there is also great kindness and goodness.

I dare say that I have been spending my life telling stories to touch people so that they would like Jews, and want to save Jews if need be. I want to take people who don't know and I want to touch them; I need them to know about the people who have died. I want to keep the stories of those I love alive. For them. But mostly so that Jews will be safer in the future.

I've been so lucky in my life. I have had an amazing life. And I have a wonderful husband and three terrific sons.

I think that in order to live a successful life you need courage. And you have to walk between raindrops. I'm so fortunate to have survived so I feel it's incumbent on me to do whatever I can for my people.

Postscript: On December 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush hosted the first-ever Chanukah party in the residential part of the White House complex. The evening was marked by the lighting of a 130-year-old silver menorah from Lvov, the Polish town that Dana Schwartz fled from at age 10. President Bush said: "The Jews of Lvov fell victim to the horror of the Nazi Holocaust, but their great menorah survived. And as God promised Abraham, the people of Israel still live."

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