Agnes Schwartz shares Survivor’s story as community observes Yom HaShoah

By Ken Turetzky

The ideal of forgiveness helps some victims of trauma overcome their suffering.

Yom HaShoah program

That concept is anathema to Agnes Schwartz, who survived the Holocaust in Budapest, Hungary, passing as the Catholic niece of a compassionate family housekeeper.

Agnes was guest speaker for Remember the Past – Transform the Present, the April 15 Yom HaShoah observance co-sponsored with CANDLES Holocaust Museum & Education Center at United Hebrew Congregation.

An audience of about 125 people attended the second annual event on a Sunday afternoon in the Temple sanctuary. Participants from area social action groups lit candles to to honor the 11 million Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

Afterward, representatives from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hosted a reception in the Vestry Room, where guests lingered to discuss the program and visit with Agnes, who signed copies of her autobiography.

No return to her native Hungary

Agnes’s mother died at Bergen-Belsen and Agnes struggled with issues of abandonment when not long after the family emigrated to the U.S., her father left her with relatives and returned to Hungary.

As with Auschwitz Survivor and CANDLES founder Eva Kor, Agnes, who lives in Skokie, Ill., found redemption in telling her Survivor’s story. But unlike Eva, Agnes does not forgive her oppressors, nor will she ever return to Hungary. Vandals desecrated a cemetery memorial her father placed for murdered family members, Agnes says, and her native country is experiencing a resurgence of anti-Semitism.

“No, I can not forgive the people who ruined my life and murdered my family.”

“We talked about this and Eva and I got into a conversation over this,” Agnes told a Yom HaShoah program attendee who asked, “How do you feel about forgiveness issues?”

Agnes replied:

“No, I do not forgive. And a gentleman came up to me while I was signing books and said his grandfather was in the German army fighting but he wasn’t a Nazi. Would I forgive him?

“And I said, well, if wasn’t a Nazi — and I know some people thought that in order to survive they had to join the army — I said, then I forgive him.

“But that was a very hard question for me to answer because how do you know how he really felt?

“No, I can not forgive the people who ruined my life and murdered my family. No.”

New generation offers reason for optimism

But Agnes does find hope for the future:

“And then I got acquainted with the younger generation of German kids who give up a year of their lives to come and serve as interns at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.

“And what a difference in their attitude and as they are so much for democracy.

“I got acquainted with the younger generation of German kids who give up a year of their lives to come and serve as interns at the Illinois Holocaust Museum. And what a difference in their attitude and as they are so much for democracy.”

“So I certainly can’t hold against them what their ancestors did.

“You know, we were discussing after Eva’s movie last night. I said, if you start forgiving for everything, now people are not going to care what they do because somebody will forgive them anyhow.

“That was one of the aspects that I disagreed with strongly.”

Considering their horrific experiences at the hands of the Nazis, Agnes’s assessment of the conflicting sentiment she shares with Eva stands as a dramatic understatement.

“She has her view and I have mine. And she has a very strong opinion. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. We are all the products of our upbringing.”

Select this link to review the program, or right-click to download: Yom HaShoah Observance: Remember the Past – Transform the Present.

Audio: Agnes Schwartz does not forgive

Photos

Audience members pause for conversation in the Temple sanctuary after Agnes Schwartz completes her lecture.

Agnes poses with candle-lighting participants.