How a councillor’s grandad survived Nazi concentration camp
- Credit: Archant
The grandfather of Islington’s soon-to-be education chief Kaya Comer-Schwartz was seized for putting furniture back into a Jewish family’s home and taken to Dachau concentration camp. Here, she recounts his story of survival and not seeking revenge.
Paul Schwartz, the eldest of three, was born in Hungary in 1920, but his family moved to Vienna while he was still a child.
And he had an early experience of the Nazis in medical school, when he arrived late one day.
“They were literally finding Jewish students wherever they were at in the building,” said Cllr Comer-Schwart. “And throwing them out of whatever window.
“So being on the first floor would have been more of a humiliation but if you were higher...
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“So he was late and not in the building but obviously on the list, so he wasn’t able to continue to study. He then became an apprentice at a local café where he learnt to bake, but after a while the Nazis stopped them from working there too.”
He joined a resistance group which would hide things for Jewish families and help after businesses and homes had been vandalised. In 1936 whilst putting furniture back into a home he was seized and taken to Dachau concentration camp.
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Cllr Schwartz said her family members were spat at in the street an not allowed to sit on park benches in the years building up to the war.
“My aunty Monika (Paul’s sister) would have been little and she wasn’t allowed to sit with my great-grandfather on a park bench because they were Jewish,” she said. “My grandad was taken to Dachau, a labour camp, and he said, obviously, that was horrific.
“One of his lasting memories of the camp was when an older gentleman who took him under his wing and taught him things like saving bits of food so you could give them to cats so they would become tame and you could hold them to keep warm. He died in camp and my grandad’s first thought was he could have his blanket, something he felt guilty about for the rest of his life.”
Cllr Schwartz’ great-grandad, Karl, was taken to Auschwitz concentration camp, in Poland.
But she’s seen records suggesting he was killed during the forced march.
“My grandad was exceptionally lucky,” she said. “Because the Quakers found a loophole in the way Dachau was being run – they argued it wasn’t right as he wasn’t an Austrian national, he was Hungarian.”
On the basis of this technicality, they got him out of the German camp on the pretext of moving him to a similar facility in Hungary – but really they were “rescuing him”.
Cllr Schwartz added: “They said to my grandad: ‘Where do you want to go: Soviet Union, China, or England?’.
“He didn’t want to sound stupid but the only thing he knew about England was he had seen a football match once, so he said: ‘I want to go to Aston Villa.’
“They dutifully obliged and he was taken to London and then to Birmingham.”
Paul took a job in Barrows bakery. He felt “bread had saved his life” because it enabled him to be able to work after being stopped from studying and it helped him stay alive in the concentration camp where he worked in the kitchen. It was in this bakery he met his wife Sheila, who was working as a cake decorator.
“My mum said that my grandad would suffer from night terrors because of what had happened,” she said.
“And that was one of the reasons he worked in the bakery because he could work at night and sleep in the day.
“Even if they went on holiday he would find a job in a bakery.”
She said Sheila really wanted fitted cupboards but Paul refused, saying they’d need things to burn when the war started again.
“He was the loveliest most intelligent man,” said Cllr Comer-Schwartz.
“But his experiences shaped his whole life because he couldn’t get over it, I think he had PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder].”
She added: “He was a massive role model in my life and one of the reasons I’m involved in politics – and it’s interesting, both his daughters worked in mental health services and there’s a really strong thing in our family about helping people and social justice.
“He went back to Vienna, he never had any animosity towards anyone. I said to him ‘how can you not want revenge? How can you not be livid – I’m livid’.
“And he said: ‘What good is revenge? I’ve seen what revenge looks like, my revenge is living a happy life’.”