Auschwitz survivor Leon Schagrin: ‘The suffering doesn’t go away’

At 93 and having lost his survivor friends, Leon Schagrin educates young people on the horrors of Nazi Germany.

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schagrin
Schagrin was liberated on January 27, 1945. He lives in Florida and teaches students including those at the Parkland school that suffered a mass shooting [Courtney Ortiz, courtesy of Stephen Shooster]

Leon Schagrin keeps a supply of white business cards on him to hand out with a plea on one side.

“Let no Holocaust victim be forgotten!” one side of a card reads.

The other side has his name, phone number and, in italics, the title he earned 75 years ago on January 27, 1945.

“Survivor from Auschwitz.”

To get out alive, he endured years of near-death experiences.

Being crammed for days in a cattle wagon while naked, as people defecated or died at his feet. Being beaten. Wearing wooden clogs in winter. Back-breaking labour while nearly starving. 

Auschwitz was “a commercial factory of killing”, he told Al Jazeera.

“Look at the railroad when you pass the gate. The railroad goes direct to the crematorium. I was working on it. It was some job.”

At 93, Schagrin has lost most of the survivors he knew.

“In the last 10 years, they very rapidly they passed away,” he said about his local group in South Florida, where he has lived since the late 1970s.

On December 2, 2019, the one closest to him died – his wife, Betty Sternlicht, who, along with her sisters, had survived because they got onto Oskar Schindler’s list.

“I had 62 years of life with her, a good life,” Schagrin said.

Framed pictures of the couple adorn their apartment, including one of them smiling at a beach.

I had the number - and they knew right away you were a Jew. I said to my wife, 'you know, I'm going to cover this with anything.'

by Leon Schagrin, Holocaust survivor

A few weeks after her death at 97, Schagrin went to a lunch for Holocaust survivors around the world – an event called Cafe Europa.

He wore a blue blazer that matched his eyes, which struggle to see because of macular degeneration. His memory, though, remains intact. 

Schagrin told Al Jazeera about the last weeks of his imprisonment.

“I couldn’t go to the death march from Auschwitz as I was wounded very badly,” said Schagrin, pointing to a scar on his lower neck caused by shrapnel from bombs dropped by the US Air Force on December 26, 1944, over a factory where he had laboured, in a camp known as Auschwitz III, or Monowitz.

Schagrin’s neck wound had grown infected and he developed a fever. Soon after, prisoners learned they would evacuate the camp by foot through the snow in the middle of January 1945.

The Soviet forces were fast approaching and the Nazis were scrambling to escape with their prisoners in tow. 

Schagrin did not go on the march because he was too weak to keep up the pace and risked getting shot.

Instead, he clung to life without a crumb of food for nearly two weeks until Soviet soldiers liberated roughly 7,000 prisoners, including him.

He was 18 then and weighed just 80 pounds (36kg).

As Schagrin spoke, live music played in the background. Two men tried to keep spirits up – a tall order at a Holocaust survivor gathering. One sang, with accordion accompaniment, a song from Fiddler on the Roof called To Life, about hope.

When Schagrin got out of Auschwitz, he had little hope of finding any family. 

His parents, Hersch and Chaja Schagrin, and his five siblings died in the gas chambers of Belzec, a German extermination camp in eastern Poland where the Nazis murdered 600,000 people, mostly Jews.

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schagrin
Auschwitz survivor Leon Schagrin and his wife Betty Sternlicht, also a Holocaust survivor with the help of Oskar Schindler’s list. They married in Haifa on June 26, 1958 [Courtesy of Leon Schagrin and Stephen Shooster]

In 2012, he unexpectedly reunited with a cousin and fellow survivor of the camps, Leo Adler.

After 70 years apart, Adler discovered that Schagrin was alive only when he received a copy of Schagrin’s memoir – The Horse Adjutant: A boy’s life in the Nazi Holocaust, published in 2011.

“A friend of my parents said you have to read this book,” recalled Gary Adler, Leo’s son, who spoke to Al Jazeera because his father does not hear well over the phone.

Leo Adler had experienced the Holocaust himself and did not think he needed to read another account of it, but he opened it and found names of his own relatives – and that this Leon Schagrin was his cousin.

Leon had changed his name from Lemel, which is the name Leo Adler knew him by.

“My father was extremely excited. It was a huge deal,” Gary Adler said.

The cousins used to see each other after reuniting, when Leo Adler and his wife spent time in South Florida, but they live in New York state permanently now, and that distance keeps them apart again.

For years, Schagrin wanted to write that memoir, and he enlisted fellow Floridian Stephen Shooster to do it.

Shooster spent years, with the help of friends, gathering Schagrin’s life story. It spans nearly 300 pages. Despite his busy full-time work, Shooster did it because he wanted Schagrin to fulfil the promise he made to Hersch, his father.

“Leon’s father told him to tell the world the story about what happened to them,” Shooster wrote in the book. “It is not a story. It is a dire warning. It can happen again.”

That’s why Schagrin’s resolved to discuss his past over and over.

“You have to understand, my past is like steps up and steps down,” Schagrin said. “Some time was very rough, some time was easier, but in general, you put everything together, the suffering doesn’t go away.”

The suffering followed Schagrin to New York City, where he and Betty lived for many years. He felt certain that anti-Semitism stopped him from getting work.

“I had the number – and they knew right away you were a Jew,” Schagrin said about the “161744” tattooed on his left forearm at Auschwitz.

“I said to my wife, you know, I’m going to cover this with anything.”

And he did; in the mid-1960s he walked into a parlour and covered it up with a long black panther tattoo. 

Auschwitz survivor Leon Schagrin
Leon Schagrin covered up the ‘161744’ tattooed on his left forearm at Auschwitz with a black panther he got in New York City in the mid-1960s [Courtney Ortiz, courtesy of Stephen Shooster]

Later the couple moved to Sunrise, Florida. Although they never had children, Schagrin has surrounded himself with students at public schools, where he gives talks.

Ivy Schamis has hosted him at a class she taught at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida – the same school where, on February 14, 2018, a 19-year-old former student killed 17 children and staff with a semi-automatic rifle. The shooter had etched swastikas onto ammunition magazines.

Two students who died had taken Schamis’s Holocaust studies class. 

“To heal, a lot of these kids from the shooting, especially the ones who were in my class during the shooting, they go back and they’ll read passages of his book just for inspiration,” Schamis said. “They went through such horrible times in their life and they came out with pretty good attitudes and the will to keep on going and living.”

On Monday, the Auschwitz Memorial will commemorate 75 years since the liberation of the German camps. Organisers expect up to 200 Auschwitz and Holocaust survivors to join them, though Schagrin will not be there. He did return to Poland once, in 2004.

“January is an important month for me,” he said from his apartment. When asked if he would like to get together with other survivors locally, he said he prefers to visit students.

“Otherwise,” he said, “they won’t meet a survivor.”

Source: Al Jazeera