Whatever happened to the heroes?
The world and the human condition is subject to such rapid change these days, that the differences in the social environment, way of life, technological advancement and globalization which have occurred within just 70 years exceed such developments which occurred between the monolithic period and the industrial revolution.
70 years, however is not a long time. Far from it. Indeed, the most recent of the litany of catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish people since the beginning of the exile from our own land 2,000 years ago occurred approximately 70 years ago at the hands of European brutality, savagery, precise obedience and adherence to a cause which the Europeans did not question, but followed resolutely. Another of these pogroms is, most certainly, on its way to Europe’s streets once again.
70 years ago, Bergen-Belsen camp was liberated by the Allied forces, heroes of the generation that went before many of us, and indeed saviors of our very souls and continued existence today. It would be churlish to refer to the Allies’ victory as the catalyst which allowed us to resume our prosperity from dust and ashes, because we Jewish people did that ourselves, yet again against all odds, with no friends in the European lands, to a level which today sets the world standard in most aspects of life, from industry, to technology, to family life.
How can this be? The revered heroes of the second world war were indeed Winston Churchill, aided by several senior US Army figures. Official, government servants which had political sway over the course of the most appalling war in modern history.
Whilst they were indeed the brokers of peace, it takes more than that.
Many Jewish souls were lost. To their own detriment, they walked quietly from their houses, in an orderly line, to their deaths, and did not stand up for themselves or even so much as question the gruesome antics of the National Socialists. Weak and ashamed, they behaved rather like the Jews of Europe today who pretend to avoid the subject of a return to this situation, and attempt to appease those who hate them.
This week, one particular hero, a Jewish gentleman who was born in Budapest, Hungary, celebrates his 96th birthday.
Born Irvin Schwartz in February 1919, this steadfast son of the owner of a tavern grew up a middle class, educated and urbane member of Hungary’s highly astute Jewish community, enjoying a childhood of arts, music, education and adherence to detail, Irvin grew up to be a sharp young man who maintained immaculate manners, but to whom nobody would ever step on.
Well into his 20s, with the clouds of war approaching and Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party beginning to wage its highly powerful marketing campaign across continental Europe, rallying citizens to invade other nations, install a German single rule, and do away with every Jewish citizen in the process, promising reward of wealth and prosperity and an end to German austerity.
A hospital manager by this time, Irvin was party to some very good friends, and a vast amount of courage.
By 1938, Irvin worked at the Central Jewish Hospital, one of several Jewish hospitals operating in Budapest. He was recruited into the Hungarian army in 1940 and transferred to the labor camps, a situation which spelled the end of the road for many hundreds of thousands of our people at that time. Irvin’s heroic activities began with what may have under other circumstances been viewed as misfortune, however in this case it began his journey toward outsmarting the Third Reich, and saving many Jewish people from brutal Nazi carnage.
He was injured at work, having dislocated his shoulder. Due to his being a military capacity, he was granted exit permits for testing, and some limited sick leave which was taken over several periods. For a somewhat astonishing 44 months, Irvin worked in the labor camps, performing extremely hard work under the cruel Nazi regime.
Whilst on leave, he always came back to work at the hospital, which would become the mainstay of Irvin’s battle of wits against evil, in defense of the greater good.
By this time, Irvin and his parents’ memories of cultured and sophisticated Jewish life in Hungary were beginning to become distant. Even before the German invasion the country, anti-Jewish laws were beginning to be passed.
As far back as 1920, Hungary’s government, which was aligned with many of the ideologies of National Socialism, had produced numerous laws that limited the number of Jews in higher education.
In 1938 the Hungarian government instituted further anti-Jewish laws, civil rights were restricted, there were specific licenses from the government, reduced quotas of Jewish workers in the workplace and Jews were required during military service to work in the labor corps.
In 1939, Hungary revoked Irvin’s father’s business management license, resulting in his family business being null and void thereafter. Irvin no longer had any chance of resuming his profession in hospital management, and things looked bleak.
In 1941, a year in which 846,000 Jewish people were murdered by the Nazis in Budapest alone, the government Act removed all citizenships from Jewish people and made Irvin’s father prove that he and his ancestors had Hungarian citizenship dating back to at least a hundred years previous. Irvin had to travel to Slovakia and get the approvals that his grandfather was born in Hungary.
As Irvin’s future slipped away before his very eyes, he decided not to lie down and take it, but to use his quick wits and unfaltering courage to outsmart the evil Nazi forces.
At the hospital arrived two SS officers, who told Irvin and his colleagues that they have been commanded to convert the facility into a hospital for the SS. One day in March, 1944, immediately after the German invasion of the city, the SS invited Irvin to meet the hospital director. He knew Irvin spoke fluent German.
The Germans came up with a detailed plan that required the hospital to go through the building of a Jewish school in the area that would become the ghetto. Irvin showed the officers the various units of the hospital including its warehouses, medical departments, wards and offices.
The German army officials demanded Irvin to lead them to the room which held the hospital’s inventory which listed the entirety of its medical equipment, furniture, records, drugs, and beds. There were many books in which the hospital staff had over the years registered contents of the hospital. The officer went through all the books in the hospital inventory. Each book was signed by the SS official, and a date stamp added.
From that time on, it was forbidden to remove any equipment from the hospital. In the afternoon, after the officers left, Irvin went back to the office and got another book that he did not show the SS officers. It was a book inventory of small devices. Irvin took the book, went to the boiler, and with a colleague who was not Jewish, he threw the book into the fire in order that he could later remove all of the equipment listed in this book, because the Germans had no way of knowing of its existence.
Irvin gave the housekeepers in one of the workshops instructions to sew aprons “upside down” with pockets inside, facing the body, so that they and their potential contents could not be seen. The sisters started out by removing small amounts of equipment and hospital department staff hid them in their pockets. Irvin remembers that they all looked as if they were pregnant.
The very next evening, most of the small equipment “disappeared”, some of the equipment Irvin left, so as not to arouse suspicion on the part of the Nazis. The next morning Irvin told the director of the hospital, Dr. Levy, what he had done. Dr Levy was terrified and put his head in his hands and shouted: “Man, you know you are doing is illegal?” Dr Levy found it very difficult to accept the change in the situation of the Jewish people, and what must be done and that legality and illegality was replaced with survival or non-survival.
Dr. Levy was a very intelligent man, but he was already becoming elderly and was unable to work under the horrendous pressure of the time.
The next series of events began when employees were transferred to the school building, which the Nazis had allocated for Jewish people, and most of the patients left the hospital. Those who tried to escape were arrested at the train station and deported to Auschwitz where the vast majority met their death. A small number of patients were transferred to the school building.
The doctors had now been replaced by SS doctors, but the SS sent no X-ray and laboratory workers, so they decided that the Jewish laboratory and X-ray scientists would remain in place. A further 16 people remained in hospital under the strict supervision of the SS. Irvin was left in the hospital, because he was employed on a weekly wage and not on a monthly basis. Those who remained were transferred to Auschwitz after six months, due to a false accusation that Jews were using radio transmitters from the Radiology Institute to contact the British authorities.
After four days, Irvin and his staff were ordered to come on Sunday afternoon to a parade to be held on the football field. According to the announcement which was made there, the Germans were to choose the right people to work hard. Irvin thought to himself: “What am I going to do now?!?” Suddenly Irvin saw a young man, aged about 17 or 18. A young man that was familiar to him from the past. At the time before the German invasion, Irvin also took care of refugees in the hospital. Near the hospital was a transit camp for Jewish refugees who fled to Hungary from other European nations which were occupied by the Germans.
If patients were taken to Irvin’s hospital, he would register them. One day, a nice boy who was a Polish Jew that escaped from Poland on foot and reached Budapest arrived. He was about 14 or 15 back then. A month later he had to return to the camp. The day before the intended release, Irvin took the child to the basement of the hospital, and rubbed his chest with a floor brush. The next morning, while doing the last test before releasing him, the child’s body was red. Irvin explained to the SS officials that the hospital could not release him and that this is probably an infectious disease which would spread across the region, and that as a result he must not leave the hospital for at least a month and a half.
The boy then was able to escape and never return to the clutches of the Nazis, whilst assisting Irvin in his mission. Over time, he learned Hungarian and he and Irvin got into the same camp, thus giving the boy the status of a Hungarian Jew. He took his papers from the officials, as it would be better for him to be in a labor camp with Hungarian Jews rather than as a Polish Jewish refugee walking around without papers.
Irvin then went back to the camp after being transferred to hospital, and worked with the boy to make himself look scruffy and unable to work. Irvin disguised himself by twisting his glasses, wearing poor, soiled shoes, instead of his highly polished ones, and replaced his smart briefcase with an old sack. The Polish boy helped to disguise Irvin as a poor German man, whilst Irvin helped the boy appear as though he was unwell. The two German guards looked at eachother, and saw that Irvin appeared poor and unwell, and they received neither of them to the labor camps.
Irvin was then able to go and see what had become of the area that he had lived in, and its people. By this time, his old home no longer had its Mezuzah on the door, and he found that most of the Jews from the whole area had passed away. At the entrance to the neighborhood was a sign which read “emptied of Jews”.
Some of them were held in concentrated circumstances by the SS in the Great Synagogue, and some of them in the brick factory.
Hungarian police kept the Jews in these places. The situation was terrible. Ten thousand people packed into tight spaces and made to stand up continuously. There was no place to sit. Because Irvin’s father had owned a tavern for many years, Irvin knew many police officers who used to drink with him. With a Police officer he knew, Irvin rescued his parents and his sister from the synagogue that the SS had locked them into.
At this point, Irvin’s leadership of a covert mission to save as many Jews as possible began. He ordered the remaining 22 workers in the hospital, which had reduced down to nothing due to the catastrophic conditions and state of health which the Jewish patients had declined into following the capture of the hospital by the German forces, to work along side him.
Irvin ordered the workers to wear hats and armbands with the symbol of the International Red Cross, in French and Hungarian. He then, along with the workers, disguised himself as a German medic from the Red Cross, and sent food, supplies and remedies into the ghetto, and also generated false papers.
At that point, the Jews were not allowed to go outside. Irvin and his staff obtained stretchers, and hospital staff worked under Irvin’s direction to bring “patients” from the ghetto to the hospital. The hospital was then used to remove the Jews from the ghetto, under the concept that they were too sick, and this allowed Irvin and the staff to begin the introduction of food and medicine to them.
Of the employees, who was lighter, with Aryan looks, was sent to work outside and those who looked obviously more Jewish stayed inside. Officially, the hospital belonged to the International Red Cross and was a Jewish Hospital .
No person was allowed to walk around without permission. Irvin then obtained a permit to a company of foreign nationals whose work involved going to and from the hospital unaccompanied. To this day, Irvin can not explain to himself how he conducted this operation. Every day each employee was told that he would now work under a different name at hospital No. 10 and he had to enter the ghetto do his job and return to the hospital five o’clock.
Following this, the Swiss Embassy distributed approximately 700 papers for sponsorship, which were called the “Schutz Pass.” These certificates were falsified immediately by the Zionist underground with whom Irvin worked very closely, so that Irvin and his staff were able to generate twice the amount to use them for their operations. He also got a fake certificate for himself, and for his parents and his sister.
Hungarian bureaucracy worked along similar lines to that of Germany, therefore all of the forged documents looked very much like the real thing, and when spot checks of papers were made, they all passed. Irvin walked around the area, dressed as a German doctor, with a fake pass which had been prepared in a workshop. Hungarian offcials accepted notarized passes, and this fake Schutz pass was so similar to the originals, even to the point that the notary signature convinced anyone who saw it that it was a true copy.
As in all countries, in Hungary as well had a representative of the International Red Cross. His name was Born, a Swiss businessman, who along with Dr Otto Komoly served at the top two units, and the World Zionist Organization. He and others gave certificates of sponsorship from the International Red Cross. The brokering of this was the work of the Zionists with whom Irvin was carrying out his covert operation.
. All Jewish institutions hospitals across Budapest received the sponsorship, that is, one sign of the International Red Cross, and signed authorization under which the hospital is under the auspices of the International Red Cross, including the mandatory carrying of a Red Cross doctor’s bag and the seal of the International Red Cross.
On October 15, 1944 the SS caused more Hungarian Jews concern over serious deterioration of their safety. Otto Komoly himself was executed by the SS. That is, from this period onwards, the sponsorship was worth less than the paper on which it was written.
It was that night that Irvin “appointed himself” doctor. He wore a German doctors uniform and carried a case, with his name Dr. Irvin Schwartz written on the uniform. He obtained a doctor’s bag, which was only available to real doctors in Hungary, and he walked around with this bag, elegant dress, and it gave him confidence.
At the time when Irvin served in the Labor Battalion, he was often sent to the offices of the German army. He copied German seals, as it was impossible to steal the real ones just like that, as the German officials would immediately notice their absence.
Everywhere he went, he carried with him all of these documents, and two hard-boiled eggs without shell. He then disguised himself as a cleaner in the offices. The moment he saw the offical stamp, he stamped it onto the egg which produced a perfect negative of the stamp, thus it could make official stamps on anything Irvin wanted.
Irvin instigated an agreement between himself and the other workers that were helping him with this mission, in that if there was a search by SS officials on leaving the building, the eggs must be eaten. Sometimes Irvin ate three in one go! They then covered their arm with the red cross armband and left as normal.
One day, Irvin and his workers were in the engineering department. This department was part of the military service, making infrastructure.
On a table, Irvin saw the cover of a passport, it said “Reise Pass” in German on it
Once he saw that, he knew that German officers were walking around without uniforms or papers, and he then saw that plain-clothes German officials were attempting to catch people out by looking like a normal civilian but hten stopping people on the street to check for documents. It was usually enough for them to see the words Reise Pass on the cover, they rarely checked the actual inside pages.
Irvin took the passport and used it like this. Of course, there was no valid document inside, just a cover.
Irvin worked tirelessly, using this method to hide Jewish people. He provided food, supplies and subverted the Nazi inspectors at every turn from this day until the war ended.
650 Jewish people survived as a result of Irvin Schwartz’ heroic activity, which was truly the work of a calm and measured mastermind, exactly what is required to circumvent the most cruel but calculated pogrom in history. They emigrated to the United States and Israel, and have gone on to have children and grandchildren, with Jewish life prospering for them.
Irvin left Hungary in 1948, as a committed Zionist, to take his part in building our magnificent homeland in its original location, as Theodor Herzl’s dream became modern, civilized reality. He could have chosen the easy option, and gone to New York, immediately gained senior management level employment as a hospital executive, and live in ready-made, Jewish paradise in suburban Brooklyn.
In keeping with his pioneering and remarkable character, Irvin chose to come to an empty, new country where nothing except hope existed. That hope built the nation, and its founding generation, of which Irvin Schwartz is a fine example, led it to become the innovative, world-leading nation that it is today.
Israel has a population of only 8 million, but has more NASDAQ listed technology companies than ALL of Europe with its 500 million population, and is leading the world in medicical technology, science, internet technology, humanitarian and social causes, and energy re-use.
Its major cities are thriving and safe. Without the Irvin Schwartzes of the founding generation, we would have lacked some of this flair as he combines our Jewish values for furthering the cause of humanity with practical application and seeing just what can be done.
Today, at the age of 96, Irvin sits on the board of directors for medical technology company TeleSofia, his life as a founding hospital manager (he opened Beilinson Hospital in Petach Tikva, and worked for Clalit until retirement) has stood him as a man of valuable experience, not only in medicine but also in terms of his will to find solutions to almost impossible situations.
Isn’t that what we all sing about on Hannukah, Pesach, and Purim? How things could have ended badly but because of one of our geniuses, we thrived.
On Holocaust Memorial Day this year, 96 year old Irvin Schwartz will take a day off from his regular fitness workout at North Tel Aviv’s exclusive Dekel Country Club where he swims and exercises in the gym, and he will take his place at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem, where he will hold the torch and light the lamp, adorned with his medals of honor that he achieved from the two Zionist underground networks that Irvin worked closely alongside, Haganah and Lechi, the precursors to the IDF, in 1948 for his services to the Jewish people against European brutality.
Today, the very same European brutality, and the very same economic precipice is rearing its head again, and once again our people are faced with a choice. The difference is, today’s choice, thanks to people like Irvin Schwartz, is a choice of do you stay put, or do you move to somewhere prosperous, free, democratic and full of promise for a fantastic future. When I look at my children, both of whom were born in Tel Aviv, and happen to be great-grandchildren of Irvin Schwartz, I consider myself thankful to Irvin for helping to create our magnificent nation, not just for my own sake, but for the sake of my children, and please G-d, theirs too.
With the terrible condition of today’s European society, Jews yet again living in fear, and unrest on the verge of a repeat, but this time civil, war, today’s Irvin Schwartzes need to come forward and do their bit by using the brain as the most powerful defence against evil and as a provider of a prosperous, free future.
We wish Irvin a happy 96th birthday, and a well deserved long and happy life.
Irvin Schwartz’s full story is on display at Yad Vashem, and he has been the subject of much research and the main character of a movie based on his efforts to do the right thing for humanity at a time when almost all was lost.