Mark Schonwetter speaks about the good of humanity

Image courtesy of Charles Spencer '27.

On Thursday, Feb. 9, Holocaust survivor Mark Schonwetter, his daughter Isabella Fiske and his grandson Jared Fiske ’26 joined Vassar students in packed Taylor Hall 203. Schonwetter spoke about his experience as a young Jewish boy in Poland during the Holocaust. His story is one of perseverance, strength and kindness in the face of the Nazis’ genocide.

Schonwetter’s story began with his father, who was a farmer and the head of the local Jewish community in his small Polish hometown. After Poland’s capitulation in the fall of 1939, his father, Israel Schonwetter, became the link between the Gestapo and the local Jews. His father was forced to inform his community that they needed to wear armbands with the Star of David on them and stop sending their children to school. One day, his father went to the police station, as he often did, but did not return. The family later learned that Schonwetter’s father had been killed by the Nazis after a family friend found his body in a mass grave. After receiving a tip about how the Gestapo was preparing to round up Jews, Schonwetter’s mother, Sala Schonwetter, fled with Schonwetter and his younger sister to their old home, where they were sheltered temporarily by their old tenants. These tenants had helped the family with the farm before the Germans had seized the land and kicked the Schonwetters out. The Polish farm hands were allowed to stay. The farmer’s name was Mr. Pilat, and he would prove crucial to the family’s survival. He helped the Schonwetters despite the danger it posed to himself and his family.

After spending the night with the farmers, the family went to a ghetto where they thought they would be safe, and for a few months, they lived in relative security. They would eat the food provided by the Nazis, which would consist of very thin soup and hard, stale bread. After spending around four months in the ghetto, Antoni Pilat warned Sala Schonwetter that they were no longer safe and should flee. They managed to escape and were sheltered through the winter in a Polish woman’s attic. When the spring came, the woman no longer felt safe with the family in the home, and they were forced to leave. The woman had no idea where the Schonwetters should go, but she mentioned that nearby was a large forest in which they would be safe.

For the rest of the war, that forest would become the family’s home for the summers. During the winters, they would find haven in the homes of kind Polish farmers who would shelter them for a week or two before being forced to move on. They would move between houses under the cover of darkness, sometimes marching for well over 10 miles in dark, cold European night in an attempt to find shelter. The longest they stayed in one place was three months when a farmer dug a one-foot-deep hole under his pigsty for them. This was covered with wood, then hay, and finally, the pigs. While there, the family was unable to leave. They would sleep, eat and defecate all in the same small space underneath the swine.

When the war ended, Poland was liberated by the Soviet Union and was placed under a communist regime. Schonwetter and his family remained in Poland for a few years before moving to Israel in 1957. Three years later they immigrated to the United States.

Schonwetter largely attributes his survival to his mother, who managed to stay positive and take care of him and his sister until the war ended in 1945. Pilat and his family also were hugely important in their survival, and Schonwetter is extremely grateful to both parties. Schonwetter began his talk by stating, “I consider my mom the greatest woman in this world… Thanks to her, me and my sister survived this.”

Schonwetter ended his talk by reminding us that we are all just human beings. We, as people, have a choice. We can choose to treat others with love or with hate. Schonwetter urged everyone in the audience to choose love every time. He conveyed the message that his story must be shared to help remember how bad things were so that humans can prevent them from getting that bad again. Felix Froning, the German Language Fellow, said the following in response to why it is important to teach about the Holocaust: “We need to make sure that those voices will never cease to be heard, especially when hate and suffering in the world seem to grow by the day. Education on the rise of the Nazis and the institutional enabling of genocide start as early as primary school in Germany.” 

Schonwetter and his daughter Isabella Fiske—who also spoke at the event—briefly encouraged us as listeners to become Schonwetter’s voice so that when he is gone, his story will live on. To aid in this goal, Fiske and her sister Ann Arnold founded the Mark Schonwetter Foundation, which aims to provide resources to schools around the country for Holocaust education. Since the foundation was founded in 2019, they have reached over 200,000 students around the country.

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