February 17, 2006

Faithful Lines / Shirley Vogler Meister

A ‘hidden child’ from World War II shares his story

Near the end of the ’90s, my husband, Paul, and I visited the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.

Our principal purpose was to deliver a suitcase of personal papers belonging to former Jewish neighbors who escaped Austria during the German occupation and World War II. Our museum tour exposed heinous crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Nazi regime. However, I do not dwell on such horrors here. Instead, I concentrate on two lessons: one from the museum; the other a recent edifying reminder.

The lesson: One room in the museum held photos and information about the men and women who saved lives during the Holocaust, many who were Catholic. Years before, I read The Diary of Anne Frank, Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place and Elie Wiesel’s Night (a current Oprah Book Club selection), but the museum filled in the gaps about the extinction of Jews and others deemed “undesirable” by Hitler.

Second, the edifying reminder: I received a remarkable book by a retired California university professor, Paul A. Schwarzbart, who by pure happenstance chose a Bloomington, Ind., publisher (AuthorHouse) for his book Breaking the Silence: Reminiscences of a Hidden Child. Schwarzbart shares his Jewish background, family and memories as a “hidden child.”

He recalls how the Austrian flag hanging over his Viennese school was replaced with a Nazi flag: “From that moment on, everything deteriorated rapidly.”

Schwarzbart’s 10-year-old life changed in the spring of 1943 when, through the Jewish Underground, he was hidden at a Catholic boys’ castle-school owned by the Sisters of Charity near Luxembourg. For two years, he assumed the role of a Belgian Catholic named Paul Exsteen. A model student, he became an altar boy and a Cub Scout leader—and was even baptized in secret. His experiences are extraordinary.

Schwarzbart’s diaries assure the book’s authenticity. Abundant photographs add to the reality of his experiences, which inspired a television documentary, “Shattered Dreams: A Child of the Holocaust,” by Ken Swartz. For this, Schwarzbart returned to the scenes and the acquaintances of his childhood, adding a special depth to his book.

An important part of his story is the first Hidden Children’s Conference held in New York in 1991, with more than 2,000 survivors attending from all over the world (even Australia and Korea). Subsequent conferences have been held, too.

Schwarzbart has spoken at nearly 300 venues, including schools (some of them Catholic), colleges, organizations, businesses and synagogues. He will present his program on March 9 at St. John the Baptist Church in Napa, Calif., and on March 16 at St. Thomas More Church in San Francisco. Criterion readers can pass this information on to West Coast relatives and friends.

(Shirley Vogler Meister, a member of Christ the King Parish in Indianapolis, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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