The Touch of an Angel - ebook
The Touch of an Angel - ebook
The Touch of an Angel is the extraordinary story of a child's survival of the Holocaust. Henryk Schönker was born in 1931 into one of the most prominent and highly esteemed Jewish families of Oświęcim—the Polish town renamed Auschwitz during the German occupation. He and his family managed to flee Oświęcim shortly before the creation of the Auschwitz death camp, and survived the war through sheer luck and a strong will to survive. The Schönker family's return to Oświęcim in 1945 provides a fascinating glimpse of challenges faced by Jewish people who chose to remain in Poland after the war and attempted to rebuild their lives there. Schönker's testimony also reveals an astonishing fact: the town of Oświęcim could have become the departure point for a mass emigration of Jewish people instead of the place of their annihilation. Documents included with the narrative provide support for this claim. Although he was only a child at the time, Henryk Schönker's life experience was the Holocaust. Even so, death and the threat of death are not the focus of this memoir. Instead, Schönker, with a touching personal style, chooses to focus on how life can defy destruction, how spirituality can protect physical existence, and how real the presence of higher powers can be if one never loses faith. His story has been made into an award-winning documentary film, The Touch of an Angel, directed by Marek T. Pawłowski.
Polish Publisher’s Note
Return to Oświęcim
Index of Names
Index of Place Names
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POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews is the first and only museum dedicated to restoring the memory of the civilization created by Polish Jews in the course of a millennium. As an educational and cultural institution, the museum is dedicated to stimulating dialogue in the spirit of mutual understanding and respect.
The KARTA Center is an independent nongovernmental organization that documents and popularizes the recent history of Poland and Eastern Europe, including the history of Polish Jews. KARTA’s main areas of activity are publishing, documentation, and education.
We would like to express our appreciation to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) for supporting this publication. Through recovering the assets of the victims of the Holocaust, the Claims Conference enables organizations around the world to provide education about the Shoah and to preserve the memory of those who perished.
The Tadzio Kolski Fund supports academic research and publications about prewar life of Polish Jews and the history of the Holocaust. The fund was created by Tadzio Kolski’s cousins to commemorate the death of this fifteen-year-old boy shot by the Nazis in Warsaw July 20, 1944 (on the day of the assassination of Hitler).
POLISH PUBLISHER’S NOTE
IN THE POLISH EDITION, THE Polish Jews series became a collection of canonical depictions of the Holocaust. The Touch of an Angel is one of the most vivid memoirs of the series, an extraordinary book that tells a story of endurance—testimony from a time of mass death that speaks of the survival not only of individual people but of humanity itself.
The Holocaust is Henryk Schönker’s main realm of experience, even though he was only a child at the time. He emphasizes this period in his memoir, but death and the threat of death don’t make up its primary content. In this story, it’s extraordinary and wonderful how life can defy destruction, how a person’s spirituality can protect his physical existence, and how real the presence of higher powers can turn out to be if one never loses faith in their existence.
Henryk Schönker was eight years old in 1939; with each month of the Holocaust that passed, however, he became an increasingly conscious and attentive observer. The period from late 1939 to early 1940 is of great significance in this memoir. Schönker’s description of this period isn’t based on his personal experiences, although his childhood memories have confirmed some of the images and atmospheres. It’s based on notes and oral accounts by his father, Leon Schönker, who wished to proclaim to the world something to which he, himself, had been a credible witness—that Oświęcim didn’t have to become the symbol of the Holocaust and could have become a place where Jews were saved if the world hadn’t shown indifference at the beginning of the war.
Henryk Schönker’s testimony was written in Israel more than sixty years after the events it describes: the main part of the book was completed in Tel Aviv in 2001, the prologue was written in 2005, and the final chapter (“Return to Oświęcim”) was written in 2013. After two editions of the book were published in Poland (in 2005 and 2006), the book’s description of the opportunity for mass emigration of Jews from Oświęcim to Palestine at the beginning of World War II was confirmed thanks to research conducted by Dr. Artur Szyndler and documents he found; we present these documents in the appendix. After becoming acquainted with these documents, historians who had previously questioned the veracity of Leon Schönker’s testimony, given here by his son, acknowledged that this revelation was accurate.
And so we now face a fundamental question: Could the fate of Jews in Poland under German occupation have been different if the Western world hadn’t ignored their desperate pleas for help? If it’s true that “the Jews of Poland were alone,” as Henryk Schönker states in his memoir, the entire world carries the moral burden of the Holocaust, not only the perpetrators—the genocidal Germans and their European collaborators.
The Touch of an Angel is, above all, a book about survival. It is not only about the incredibly fortunate events thanks to which a Jewish family was able to survive the war but also the aspects of this terrible world that bring salvation, and the realms of human spirituality that overcome human insignificance—and protect the meaning of our existence.
Henryk Schönker is not only an author but also an extremely energetic person. While we were clarifying certain things during the preparation of this book for publication, extraordinary coincidences occurred and surprising discoveries were made. We were certain this would continue, and we were right—it came true in the form of the documents discovered by Dr. Szyndler and the beautiful documentary film based on the book. And this surely isn’t the end, for the fate of this book will continue to let us feel its touch.
—Zbigniew Gluza, KARTA Center FoundationACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I WOULD LIKE TO EXPRESS my sincere gratitude to Halina Zawadzka and her late husband, Joel Sack, from Sarasota (Florida, United States), for showing me, by writing and publishing their memoirs, that even after so many years have passed, it’s possible to overcome internal difficulties and describe one’s experiences from the nightmarish period of World War II. By sharing their experiences, impressions, and feelings with me before the publication of their books, they awoke in me a desire and need to write my own memoir. Although I’ve always felt obligated to write a book about my wartime experiences, I was unable to find enough strength to do it for many years. My stimulating conversations with Halina and Joel gave rise to a conviction in me that I, too, was capable of it.
I owe the publication of this book, above all, to my editor, Katarzyna Madon-Mitzner, who invested in it a great deal of tireless work and energy. Her sensitivity and understanding of me, from the very first moment we met, filled me with conviction that this book needed to be written. I thank her with all my heart.
I would also like to thank Dr. Karl Liedke and Dr. Thomas Rahe from the Bergen-Belsen Memorial—for sending me materials from Bergen-Belsen and the Politisches Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts in Bonn. They revealed to me—after I’d already written my memoir—important matters concerning the people I had described.
I’m also grateful to Stefan Essle from Tyresö, Sweden, for allowing me to include a letter in my book written by his grandfather, the actor John Gottowt. My deepest gratitude also goes to the film historian Olaf Brill from Bremen, Germany, for helping me establish the identity of John Gottowt. I would like to thank Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt am Main for permitting me to publish a photograph of Gottowt from its archives.
I would also like to thank my wife, Helena, for her advice and careful reading of my first draft and for the deep understanding she gave me during the entire period of time when I was writing my book.
I’m grateful to the editor in chief of KARTA Center’s publishing house, Zbigniew Gluza, as well as the director of the History Meeting House in Warsaw, Piotr Jakubowski, and the deputy director, Katarzyna Madon-Mitzner. They spared no efforts in helping my book be published. I would also like to sincerely thank Dr. Artur Szyndler, a historian from the Auschwitz Jewish Center. His research and several years of exploring in archives led to the discovery of documents that not only confirm but also expand upon what I’ve written in this book about the failed attempt of Jews to emigrate from Silesia in 1939 after the outbreak of World War II, which my father, Leon Schönker, strove to realize. I would also like to thank him for writing an appendix for my book about this matter and including historical footnotes.
I would like to express special thanks to Professor Tomasz Szarota who, ever since the first edition of this book was published, has publicly supported the claims expressed in it concerning the failed emigration of Jews.
I would like to thank the editor of the Polish Jews series at KARTA, Hanna Antos, for her constant contact with me and her supervision of the entire process of publishing this book. I’m also grateful to another editor at KARTA, Maria Krawczyk, for her thorough and highly intuitive editing of the final chapter, which was not an easy task since it contains the most important themes from the manuscript of my new book, W pogoni za początkiem życia (In Pursuit of the Beginning of Life).
I sincerely thank all the employees of KARTA and the Jewish Historical Institute who helped this book come into being.
THE TOUCH OF AN
I’VE OFTEN WONDERED HOW MY parents, my sister, and I managed to survive the war. Luck was certainly on our side, and completely unbelievable events often happened to us. I’m sure all Jewish people who survived the war in Poland can say the same about themselves. Now, however, after writing my memoir, it seems to me that our salvation was largely thanks to the initiative of my father, Leon (Eliezer) Schönker (1903–1965), who always tried to find a way out of seemingly hopeless situations.¹
My father never waited passively for catastrophic events to develop. He was blessed with an extraordinary instinct and was always ready to escape, to take a huge leap, even straight into the unknown, if he felt it might change a situation that would certainly have led to our doom if he had remained passive. We weren’t aware of it at the time, but my father’s instinct always found the right path for us to take so that we could be saved.
Now, while thinking about my family’s history, I realize that my father’s active searching for a way out of every situation was one of his main character traits. It was evident long before the war. Thanks to his presence of mind and readiness to act, my father prevented various family misfortunes several times and sometimes even managed to protect us from severe oppression.
Above all, however, his instinct, originality, accurate assessment of situations, and swift orientation aided him in his own life. I think he most likely inherited these traits from his mother, Fanny (Feiga) Schönker, née Hollender, who is said to have been a very energetic and determined woman.
My grandfather, Józef (Josef) Schönker (1872–1945), was one of the most well-respected citizens of Oświęcim and owned a factory there called Agrochemia, which produced artificial fertilizers. He was socially active and served many times as a member of the town council; he was a consultant at the City Savings Bank and also actively participated in the life of Oświęcim’s Jewish community. He possessed vast Talmudic knowledge, which he’d learned from his father, Izaak Aron, in his youth.
He and his wife, Fanny, had four children: Sarah (Sala), my father, Liba, and Emanuel (Mendel). Fanny, my grandmother, was from Rzeszów, and she was the sister of my other grandmother, Fryderyka (Friedl)—my mother’s mother. We called her Frydzia. My father and my mother, Mina (Dwora Mindla, 1905–1976), were cousins. My other grandfather, Markus (Mordechai) Münz, nicknamed Motele, lived in Rzeszów and was from a wealthy family that owned vast estates and a brick factory.
During World War I, both of my grandfathers escaped to Vienna with their families. My mother was nine years old, and my father was eleven years old. There, in Vienna, they fell in love with each other. My mother told me that my father bought dolls for her. Love distracted them from the harsh reality around them. Despite the war, they managed to take beautiful trips together to Tyrol and other places. Both of them always recalled this period in Vienna as one of the most pleasant times in their lives. They attended school there together, too, and became perfectly fluent in Viennese German.
My father was very talented artistically and spent all his free time drawing landscapes and portraits. In 1916, Józef Schönker asked Professor Kohn, a famous professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, if he could visit him with his son for a consultation. Professor Kohn examined my father by asking him to draw a vase. After this exam, Professor Kohn convinced my grandfather that my father should attend the art academy, and he took him under his guidance as an exceptional student.
After the war, both my mother’s and father’s parents returned to Poland. My father, however, went to Amsterdam to study painting at the Academy of Fine Arts there. Then he continued his studies in Paris. In 1922 he received a telegram that his mother was on her deathbed, so he rushed back to Oświęcim, where he managed to bid her farewell in the final moments of her life. My father’s home sank into a state of mourning.
A year later, my father, at the age of twenty, decided to ask for my mother’s hand in marriage. This wasn’t a simple matter because her father was a very pious man—a Hassid who followed a rabbi whose name I can’t recall, but whom people called the Bluzhover Rebbe.² He viewed my father with suspicion since he’d just returned from Paris, which was considered a sinful city. Furthermore, my father didn’t have sidelocks and wore flamboyant, striped velvet clothes and a large, black silk bow tie, which were completely unacceptable.
In her love letters, my mother constantly asked my father not to come yet with his marriage proposal, for there was the risk of him being rejected. My father, however, grew tired of constantly delaying the engagement and decided to act. He’d heard from my mother that her father never made any decisions without first consulting with his rabbi. My father understood that the key to concluding the whole matter in a positive way lay in Bluzhover Rebbe’s hands.
One Friday he told his father he was going to visit his aunt and uncle in Rzeszów and that he intended to ask Uncle Motele for his daughter’s hand. Grandpa Józef advised my father to wait a little while longer, since Motele might eventually forget that my father had just returned from Paris, and then he could make a better impression on him. Grandpa Józef was afraid my father wouldn’t be considered a suitable candidate for the son-in-law of such a devout Hassid, due to his art studies.
Grandpa Józef was very wise, but he obviously underestimated my father’s inherent capabilities. My father timed his journey on a Saturday so that on the way to Rzeszów, shortly before the beginning of the Sabbath, he reached the village where Bluzhover Rebbe lived and stopped to visit him. He told him that he was on his way to his uncle Motele Münz’s house, but that he’d heard so much about Bluzhover Rebbe that he wished to meet him in person. He’d also heard the rabbi collected pipes, so he was taking the liberty of giving him a rare jubilee-edition Bruyère pipe as a present.
Bluzhover Rebbe was delighted by the pipe. He invited my father to stay as his guest during the Sabbath, since it was too late for him to reach Rzeszów before nightfall. My father agreed and went with the rabbi to pray in the synagogue, which he always did every Sabbath in Oświęcim. The following day they continued to pray, and the rabbi gave a sermon. They went for a stroll after dinner and discussed various worldly matters. In the evening they went to the synagogue again for the ceremonial farewell to the Sabbath.
The next day my father said goodbye to Bluzhover Rebbe and his wife. Both had been very charmed by him. After arriving in Rzeszów, my father immediately asked Motele for his daughter’s hand in marriage. It was a difficult decision. Uncle Motele held Józef Schönker’s family in high esteem, but his son was a rather strange person, for what normal Jew travels to Paris to learn to paint pictures? Who knew what else Leon had learned there? He decided not to answer too hastily and promised my father he would inform him of his decision a few days later.
I know the rest of this story from my mother. Two days later, Motele made an appointment to meet with Bluzhover Rebbe to discuss an urgent matter. When he arrived, he told the rabbi that he was faced with a difficult dilemma—his daughter’s cousin, Leon Schönker from Oświęcim, had asked him for her hand in marriage. It was true that the two youngsters loved each other, and he would be happy to see his daughter join Józef Schönker’s family. But how could he possibly entrust his daughter to someone who had recently returned from Paris and had decided to occupy himself with such frivolous matters as painting pictures? Who needed these pictures? And who really knew what kind of person this Leon Schönker was? The fact that he had come to him in a velvet hat with a wide brim didn’t testify to his character, did it?
A huge surprise was awaiting Grandfather Motele. Bluzhover Rebbe declared that he knew Leon Schönker very well and considered him to be an exceptional person. He told Grandfather Motele that he’d held long conversations with Leon on various subjects. “Motele,” he said, “you have nothing to fear. Your daughter will have a good life with him.” A great weight was lifted from my grandfather’s heart. He didn’t dare ask the rabbi any further questions since he knew that a common person was incapable of seeing the truth that a rabbi sees. The following day my father received a positive reply, and the wedding took place soon afterward.
Grandpa Józef owned a plot of land opposite his villa, and that’s where my father’s villa was built. My grandfather lived at 36 Jagiellońska Street, and the young couple lived at number 41. My mother grew accustomed to Oświęcim very quickly because, after all, Grandpa Józef was not only her father-in-law but also her uncle.
Grandpa Józef convinced my father that after starting a family, he would have to take up a serious occupation of some kind, apart from painting. Times were hard, and it was impossible to make a living as a painter. At first my father wanted to move to Kraków, where there was a vibrant artistic community, but in the end he yielded to his father’s wishes and remained in Oświęcim.
The town was undergoing electrification at that time, and my father, with my grandfather’s financial support, opened a lamp shop. There was a huge demand for lamps, and many of Oświęcim’s residents became my father’s customers. He imported a great number of lamps. My grandfather generously provided capital, for he was pleased his son was finally running a business and had begun a normal life.
And so while his friends were beginning their painting careers in Paris, my father was selling lamps in Oświęcim.
My grandfather constantly invested money in this business, even though the shop seemed to be prospering. After a while he sent a bookkeeper from his factory to check how the shop was doing. The results of this inspection were disastrous. It turned out that my father was mainly selling lamps on credit. He’d kept records at the beginning, but the business was growing so fast that he had eventually stopped writing anything down and simply trusted people. After all, most of the residents of Oświęcim were his friends. Nobody had been doing any bookkeeping, and there was a terrible mess. Nobody knew who owed money or how much they owed.
My grandfather wrung his hands; he realized that not only had he lost a huge amount of money but that his beloved son was useless at running a shop. He had no choice but to agree to my father moving to Kraków to continue his artistic career.
It was said that most of the town’s inhabitants had obtained lamps in my father’s shop for free. My father became a local hero. To this day I suspect that he planned the whole affair himself.
In Kraków, my father soon became a renowned portrait painter. He also painted landscapes and still lifes. He received a very illustrious commission to paint the interior of the historic Wolf Popper Synagogue in Kraków, and the Jewish community was extremely pleased with his work. His works were presented in many individual and group exhibitions. One of his paintings was bought by the Hermitage in Leningrad, and another by the museum of the Bezalel Academy of Arts in Jerusalem. He regularly wrote articles about art for Nowy Dziennik. In the 1930s he was the president of the Association of Jewish Painters and Sculptors in Kraków.
We were born in this city: my brother, Musiu, and I, and later my sister, Lusia. Our apartment at 2 Szczepański Square became a meeting place for actors and artists of various kinds. Many of them became very dear friends of ours.
Things went well for my father in Kraków, and Grandpa Józef always helped him when he had financial problems. Grandpa Józef was the head of the family and the director of the family business—the Agrochemia factory. Unfortunately, everything did not always go well there. It started out as a joint-stock company, and in addition to my grandfather, who had founded the factory with his brother Eber in 1905, several banks held shares in it. Later, my grandfather bought all the shares and became the sole owner.
Superphosphates were manufactured at my grandfather’s factory. Sulfuric acid was needed in the production of superphosphates. Large superphosphate factories in Poland had their own sulfuric acid factories, which was a huge investment. We didn’t have such a factory, and Agrochemia depended on deliveries of this acid, primarily from steelworks. But because the production capabilities of superphosphate factories in Poland were much greater than the market’s demand, a cartel was established that focused on large factories. The cartel decided how much each factory could produce and tried to suppress small factories, which were depriving it of consumer markets. The cartel accomplished this most frequently by exerting pressure on steelworks and other enterprises to decrease supplies of sulfuric acid to factories that weren’t members of the cartel. This caused difficulties for Agrochemia many times.
One day, while walking down a street in Kraków, my father noticed a beautiful living room set from the era of Louis XVI in an antique shop owned by a friend of his named Stieglitz. The living room set was genuine, not a copy, and was being sold by an aristocratic family. My father had a passion for antiques, and so, after negotiating a price, he immediately gave Stieglitz a down payment for the living room set. He signed a contract and was expected to pay the rest of the money by the end of the week. Various people owed him money, and he hoped he wouldn’t have any trouble obtaining the remaining amount.
It was a large sum, however, and my father soon discovered he was unable to obtain it. Having no alternative and fearing he would lose the down payment, my father went to Grandpa Józef to borrow some money. But he was greatly disappointed to discover that the Agrochemia factory was once again facing difficulties because the steelworks in Katowice refused to supply it with sulfuric acid. My grandfather told my father that the factory would be able to continue production for only two more weeks, and then he would have to shut it down. He was in despair. Under these circumstances there was no way he could lend my father any money.
The following day, my father visited Stieglitz’s shop to cancel the transaction. Stieglitz wasn’t there, so he decided to wait for him. The living room set was no longer in the shop, and my father assumed it had been put in the storeroom. Stieglitz appeared about fifteen minutes later. When he saw my father waiting for him, he grew pale and started stammering. He begged him not to be angry, but something unfortunate had happened—he’d sold the living room set to someone else. Two days after my father had been in the shop, Michał Grażyński, the provincial governor from Katowice, had seen the living room set and had, quite simply, forced Stieglitz to sell it to him. Stieglitz had tried to explain to him that it was no longer for sale. The governor had refused to yield. He’d said he would settle the matter with Schönker and would take full responsibility for the situation. Right there, on the spot, he had paid the full price and had taken the living room set.
Stieglitz told my father that of course he would return his down payment, and he apologized profusely for this unpleasant incident. He asked my father if they could cancel the transaction and told him he was willing to offer my father something from the shop as compensation. My father pretended to be very upset. He declared that there could be no talk of cancellation and left the shop. Stieglitz ran into the street after him, trying to appease him, but my father was implacable.
That very day he went to Warsaw and visited a well-known lawyer named Zygmunt Hofmokl-Ostrowski. He presented the situation, and the lawyer was delighted. He enjoyed cases that caused scandals.
“Mr. Schönker,” he said, “if you let me handle this case, I’ll take it on for free. We’ll cause a scandal throughout Poland.”
My father said he wasn’t interested in a scandal; he wanted to settle the matter amicably.
“In that case, I’ll write a letter, and you can be sure it’ll affect him greatly,” said the lawyer.
Two days later my father received a phone call from the governor, who was clearly outraged. “Mr. Schönker, why did you send Hofmokl-Ostrowski after me? We can reach an understanding between ourselves. There’s no need to create such a huge fuss.”
My father made an appointment with Grażyński and went to Katowice. The two men came to an agreement there. In my father’s presence, the governor arranged over the telephone that the steelworks in Katowice would supply Agrochemia with sulfuric acid for the entire season. And he also promised to make an exact copy of the living room set and send it to my father as a present.
Unfortunately, a year later, in 1937, Agrochemia’s troubles with sulfuric acid supplies resumed. The cartel was trying to stifle our factory again. My grandfather was told that the deliveries would be terminated. He faced rejection everywhere he turned. My father called the governor, but this time Grażyński told my father that he wasn’t responsible for Agrochemia. It seemed the factory’s fate was now sealed, and it would have to be shut down. This would mean bankruptcy, since the factory owed a lot of money for raw materials. And it would mean the ruin of our entire family.
By this point my grandfather had become completely despondent, but my father refused to give up. He remembered that the president of Poland, Ignacy Mościcki, had been on Agrochemia’s board of supervisors in the 1920s when it had been a joint-stock company. In those days, the board had met several times a year, and Mościcki had come to the meetings from Lwów,³ where he was, at that time, a chemistry professor at the polytechnic institute. Every time he had come to Oświęcim for a board meeting, he had stayed for a while at my grandfather’s house. He liked my father very much, and after the meetings he used to have long conversations with him. Later, after he had become the president of Poland, he visited my grandfather several times while passing through Oświęcim and even signed his guestbook.
My father decided to make use of this old friendship and went to Warsaw. He reported to the president’s office in the castle and asked to meet with the president. He was given a form to fill in and was told that he would receive a reply, but that it might take several months. My father answered that he would like to see the president that very day. The astonished secretary asked my father if he had an appointment.
“No, I don’t have an appointment, but the president will know who I am,” he answered, handing her his business card.
Soon he was informed that the president was waiting for him. My father was led into a large, very elegant office. President Mościcki approached him, smiling, and shook his hand. He asked how my grandfather was doing, whether he was healthy, and if everything was going well for us. Then he sat down behind his desk, and my father sat across from him.
“What has brought you here to see me?” Mościcki asked.
My father told him that Agrochemia was on the verge of catastrophe because the cartel had interrupted its supplies of sulfuric acid in an attempt to stifle the factory’s production. The cartel’s actions would cause Agrochemia to go bankrupt. Several hundred families in Oświęcim would lose their jobs.
“But that’s sabotage!” exclaimed Mościcki. “Sławoj, did you hear this?”
Only now did my father notice that someone in a uniform was standing by the window with his back to them.
“I heard,” answered the officer. Then he turned around. My father immediately recognized him—it was General Felicjan Sławoj Składkowski, Poland’s premier and minister of internal affairs.
“This is a scandal!” said the president. “Please take care of this matter.”
“The matter will be taken care of immediately,” said Sławoj Składkowski, and he smiled at my father.
The meeting came to an end. My father left the castle in an excellent mood and decided to visit a friend. They went out for dinner together, and my father returned to his hotel very late in the evening. The hotel’s manager was waiting for him at the reception desk, highly agitated.
When he saw my father, he shouted, “For the love of God, Mr. Schönker, where have you been? We’ve been looking for you everywhere for several hours ! “
“I’ve been receiving urgent phone calls for you all day. They ordered me to find you, at any cost.” “What is it about?”
“I don’t know exactly, but they told me Sławoj Składkowski wants to send several directors of some cartel to the Bereza Kartuska prison. Everyone is extremely agitated, and they want to speak with you. Here’s the phone number,” he said, handing him a piece of paper. “They want you to call them as soon as possible.”
My father dialed the phone number he’d been given and gave his surname. Someone began to explain something to him in an irate voice, but my father couldn’t understand what he was saying. He asked the man to speak more calmly. It turned out that he was speaking with the director of the artificial fertilizer cartel.
He informed my father that the cartel agreed to accept Agrochemia into their group and there wouldn’t be any further problems with sulfuric acid supplies. The factory would also receive a larger trade quota. He begged my father to agree and to immediately inform the premier and the minister of internal affairs that the matter had been settled in a satisfactory manner for the Schönker family. My father replied that first he needed to discuss it with the owner of Agrochemia.
“Quickly! Quickly! Please hurry, because police officers are waiting downstairs here, at my villa.”
My father phoned my grandfather and explained to him what had happened and that Agrochemia was going to be accepted into the cartel. My father had to repeat the news several times because my grandfather thought he was drunk.
My father called the cartel’s director again and told him that Józef Schönker agreed in principle, but that the trade quota was too small and had to be increased. The director of the cartel immediately agreed and invited my father and grandfather to a ceremonial acceptance of Agrochemia into Poland’s artificial fertilizer cartel.
My grandfather asked my father to return to Oświęcim to help him run the factory. He offered him 25 percent of the ownership and the position of vice director. After discussing it with my mother, my father agreed and they moved back to Oświęcim.
Agrochemia could have saved our entire family from the Holocaust, but fate decreed that things would happen differently. In 1938, while taking a train from Katowice to a cartel meeting in Warsaw, my father shared a sleeping car with a young American named Harriman. He was traveling to the same meeting. His father, Averell Harriman, a railway tycoon, had sent him to Poland several times to familiarize himself with the heavy industry in Upper Silesia. He had large shares in the coal mines and steelworks there, as well as in artificial fertilizer factories, within a huge syndicate called SACO (the Silesia-American Corporation).
Harriman described to my father his very pessimistic view of the situation of Jews in Poland and throughout Europe. He believed we should leave Poland.
He proposed that we sell Agrochemia to his father; he was ready to pay $100,000 in gold for it. The payment would be made in New York or London—wherever our family decided to go. This was a very large amount of money in those times. My father told him he would inform his father of this offer.
After returning to Oświęcim, he told my grandfather about it. My grandfather met with Harriman in Katowice. It was a serious offer, and my grandfather needed to make a decision. My entire family met at my grandfather’s house to discuss the matter. In the end, however, they decided not to accept the offer because my grandfather’s second wife, Regina Grossfeld, née Schwartz, didn’t want to part with her son and his family who lived in Kraków.
Toward the end of the 1930s, Agrochemia became extremely prosperous. My parents were very content with their lives in Oświęcim. They lived in a lovely villa with a beautiful garden, took part in the town’s social life, had many friends, and were well-respected citizens of the town. My father improved many things at the factory, and everything he did was successful. Grandpa Józef was very satisfied with my father and consulted with him on all important matters.
However, despite my father’s vitality, originality, and resourcefulness, my mother was the true backbone of our home. She gave stability to our life. She devoted herself entirely to the family. She always had an optimistic outlook and never lost hope, even in the most difficult situations. She always stood by my father’s side and was his greatest support. My father appreciated this, and they loved each other very much. Bluzhover Rebbe had been right—it was a truly wonderful marriage.
My parents experienced the entire war together and supported each other with every bit of their strength. They managed to save themselves and their children. It’s true that it was my father who always took the initiative. But it’s also true that in moments of great danger and suffering, often on the very threshold of death, we were always saved by some kind of extremely fortuitous event.
I’ve always felt—and still feel today—that we were saved by the touch of an angel.
I was supposed to die before I was born. I owe my life to my mother not being aware she was pregnant. Knowing of her new state, she undoubtedly would have ended my life. She once told me this herself. Nevertheless, she was the most perfect and loving mother I could ever imagine. She was also the most wonderful person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve often asked myself how she, such a wise and intelligent person, could not have realized she was pregnant. For many years
I was unable to understand this. Today I believe that even then, while in the womb, a greater power of some kind already had me under its care.
My mother’s intention has never surprised me. She was afraid her next child would be like Musiu—her first son, who was five years older than me. As an infant he became paralyzed and almost completely lost the use of both legs. My parents went to great efforts to improve his state, even just partially. For many years, professors, doctors, and physiotherapists worked hard to cure him. A great success was when Musiu was able to walk very slowly by himself, leaning on two canes with both legs supported by braces.
Despite his serious disability, Musiu was a happy child. His joyful laughter still rings in my ears today. He accepted the life he’d been given. Led by a remarkable instinct, he made use of each day to the fullest. He was able to enjoy everything—every little thing that for other children was meaningless. His joy was contagious to others; it was pleasant to be in his company. My parents and I loved him deeply.
Other people who were much less seriously crippled than Musiu and suffered less than him locked themselves up in their own worlds and isolated themselves from their surroundings. Musiu was different. He was interested in everyone and treated people equally. He didn’t divide people into categories and respected everybody. He was very intelligent and talented; at the age of five, he was already reading books. In school he was good at math, and children often came to our house to ask him for help with their homework. My mother wasn’t pleased about this at first, since it took up a lot of Musiu’s time. But she agreed to the visits after seeing how happy they made him. Musiu felt happiest when he could help people and express love toward them.
All his classmates were very fond of him. However, children in other classes often bullied him. But he never felt insulted and tried to ignore their taunts. He explained to me that people are never as bad as they seem; their further behavior toward us depends on how we react to their negative words. I didn’t really understand what he was saying at the time, but I felt there was something important in it.
When I was six years old, Musiu fell ill with encephalitis, lost consciousness, and died a few days later. I remember my father painting a portrait of him while he lay on his deathbed. His death plunged our home into deep pain and mourning. It was a pain that remained with us forever. It was the first time I experienced the death of a very close and beloved person.
I didn’t understand how Musiu, who had become an important part of my childhood world, could suddenly leave us. I cried at night, secretly, for a long time. Throughout all my later years, I’ve lived with vivid memories of Musiu. I’ve asked myself why such a good and innocent person, so deeply loved by us, who had never done anything bad to anyone (who, on the contrary, had done so much good) had to die. Why did he have to suffer so much? Why was he burdened with a physical disability?
Later, other questions haunted me. How was it possible that Musiu, despite his serious disability, was so happy during his short life? What source did he draw so much joy from—despite so many sacrifices and even humiliation—that everyone near him also felt blessed with it? Unable to find any answers to these questions, I started doubting whether life makes any sense at all.
A year after Musiu’s death, my sister was born. Nobody had prepared me for her arrival, and nobody had talked about it in my presence. On the night of the birth, Musiu appeared to me in a dream and told me that I had a sister. In the morning, my father woke me to tell me the joyous news. Before he managed to say anything, however, I asked him where my little sister was, whom Musiu had sent from heaven. My father was speechless with amazement.
That same year, we moved from Kraków to Oświęcim, where my father’s family lived. This move distracted me from thinking about Musiu and slightly dispelled my sadness. Suddenly I had uncles, aunts, and cousins near me. Everyone was very kind to me, and I was passed from lap to lap. I was caressed constantly, as if I were a small child. All of this attention embarrassed me, but I tried to be kind to everyone, for that’s how I thought Musiu would have acted.
I deeply loved my uncle Emanuel, whom we called Mendek. He was the only one who talked to me as if I were an adult. He bought me a small dog right after we arrived in Oświęcim, and he often gave me money to go to the cinema. He was an exceptionally pleasant person, always smiling and cracking jokes. A lightness of being and unshakeable optimism radiated from him. He had a four-year-old son named Izaczek and a daughter who was born just before the war. His wife, Rózia, often invited me to their house for delicious cake. I also started going to school at this time, and I began to feel that the world was smiling on me once again.
Shortly before the Germans attacked Poland, our entire family fled to Kazimierz Dolny because it was believed that the Germans wouldn’t reach this town very quickly. Everyone was influenced by Polish propaganda and thought that Poland would be able to defend itself. In the worst scenario, people expected trench warfare similar to World War I.
Before fleeing to Kazimierz Dolny, I took five złoty to school because there was a collection for the Antiaircraft Defense Fund. I was sure my contribution, which I’d requested from my father, would help stop the Germans because five złoty was a huge fortune for me. A person could go to the cinema ten times with this much money—admittedly only in the first row, but who sat in any other row at my age?
Everywhere I looked, I saw the slogan “We won’t give a single inch of land.” But my favorite poster was the one that read “We won’t give a single button.” I was sure there was nothing to fear and that no enemy would be able to capture Poland. After all, these posters couldn’t lie.
My father remained in Oświęcim and tried to dispatch the fertilizer from the factory that had been manufactured for the fall season. But he soon found this to be impossible. All trains were now occupied by the army, and there was chaos, confusion, and general destruction everywhere. This was extremely ominous, but I was too young to understand it.
1. Jewish people in Poland usually had two first names—a Hebrew name and a Polish equivalent. For example: Mojżesz (Moses)—Maurycy; Eliezer—Leon.
2. Tzvi Elimelech Spira (Polish: Cwi Elimelech Szapiro) (1841–1924): a tzaddik from Bluzhov (Polish: Błażowa). He was known as the Bluzhover Rebbe.
3. Translator’s note: Now Lviv, Ukraine.HENRYK SCHÖNKER was born in 1931 in Kraków, Poland. His father, Leon Schönker, was a painter. In 1937, the Schönker family moved back to their hometown of Oświęcim—the Polish town renamed Auschwitz during the German occupation. After the war, Henryk graduated from the Kraków Polytechnic Institute with a degree in mechanical engineering. In 1955, under pressure from the communist authorities, Henryk’s family left Poland for Vienna, then immigrated to Israel in 1961. Henryk worked in the Israeli aeronautical industry until his retirement. He lived in Tel Aviv with his wife, Helena, who is also a Holocaust survivor from Radom, Poland. They had three daughters and ten grandchildren. Henryk started painting in 1979, focusing on one theme in his works—the Holocaust. He died in Tel Aviv in January 2019.
SCQTIA GILRQY is a literary translator.