At All-School Meeting on Friday, April 16, the MBS community had the privilege of listening to the emotional story of 86 year-old Mark Schonwetter, who grew up in Poland and survived the Holocaust by hiding in attics, under floor boards, and in the forest with his mother and his little sister after his father had been taken by the Gestapo.
Mr. Schonwetter’s visit was made possible by the Holocaust Council’s “Survivors Speak” program and is part of a series of events at MBS this month designed to celebrate Jewish heritage and promote tolerance. Last week during All-School Meeting, MBS students shared personal stories as part of “Jewish Narratives: Voices from the MBS Community.” Mr. Schonwetter will also share his story with MBS parents and alumni on Tuesday night, April 20 as part of the Crimson Conversations series.
Mark Schonwetter was born in Brzostek, Poland where he lived on a farm with his parents, younger sister and uncle. When he was six, the Nazis invaded Poland and soon arrived in their hometown. His father, Israel, was the leader of the town’s Jewish community and was frequently questioned at police headquarters. One day he did not return home. In the middle of the night, the wife of the police chief warned Mark’s mother, Sala, that her husband would not be returning and that they would be taken next.
Sala went to seek the help of a neighbor and with his help immediately left Brzostek for the Dembitze Ghetto, at that time the only safe place for Jews.
Thanks to the bravery and instinctual smarts of his mother, along with the aid of several sympathetic families, the three of them survived four years on the run. They split their time living in a forest during the summer months and finding families that could take them in and hide them during the winter months.
He recalled nearly being discovered by the Nazis while hiding in a barn attic under the hay, and also spoke about living under the floorboards of a pigsty to keep safe.
“It was difficult, but there was no choice,” he said. “When you are in a situation where you don’t have any control, you adjust yourself and you do your best. It’s uncomfortable, but there’s no choice. It was a matter of life and death.”
Schonwetter and his family were finally liberated by the Russian army in 1945. Before the war, his hometown had about 500 Jewish citizens. After the war, there were less than 15.
In 1957 he secured a permit to move to Israel, and four years later he was able to emigrate to the United States, where he found work in a jewelry factory. He ultimately purchased another jewelry company and remained in the business until he retired in 2018.
Schonwetter said he hoped that his story resonated with students and that they share it with other people. Above all, he encouraged them to practice kindness and understanding.
“We have to make sure that we remember the Holocaust and do our utmost to not allow anything like this to happen again,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that we are all human beings. We are all the same. It makes no difference your color or your religion; we are all human beings. We should live together in peace and harmony. With love and respect for each other, we can accomplish so much more in our life.”