Surviving together

Surviving together

Local author tells her family’s Holocaust story

Ann Arnold
Ann Arnold

Ann Arnold of Norwood always knew that her father, aunt, and grandmother had survived the Holocaust by going into hiding. But it wasn’t until well after her grandmother Sala’s death in 2002 that she got a fuller picture and a greater appreciation for their ability to maintain a positive approach to life despite their traumatic wartime experiences.

Ms. Arnold and her father, Mark Schonwetter, will be on hand for a book signing of “Together: A Journey for Survival” on May 19 at 7 p.m. at Books & Greetings in Northvale. The book is the realization of Ms. Arnold’s long-held wish to record her family story.

“Together” refers to Sala Schonwetter’s determination never to part from her young children, Manek (Mark) and Zosia, throughout their harrowing odyssey to escape the Nazis.

Against heavy odds, she did manage to keep the three of them together through three hungry, dangerous years, hiding out in forests, barns, and holes in the ground. Her husband had been arrested before their escape, and they found out after the war that he’d been shot. In 2012, the mass grave in which Israel Schonwetter is buried was discovered, thanks to a marker placed there by a Polish gentile.

“In 2009, I had the opportunity to go back to Poland to the tiny village of Brzostek, where my father’s family lived before the war,” Ms. Arnold said. The occasion was the rededication of the Jewish cemetery in Brzostek, which is near several former concentration camps in southern Poland. The mayor invited Mr. Schonwetter, his sister, and their families.

“There were 1,500 inhabitants of the village in 1939, 500 of them Jewish, and of those 500 fewer than 50 survived, including my dad, Aunt Zosia, and my grandmother,” Ms. Arnold said. “Not one Jewish person has lived there since 1942.”

To Ms. Arnold’s great surprise, when their entourage stopped in front of her father’s childhood home, neighbors came out to greet them.

“People were saying, ‘You’re the Schonwetters. We remember you. We used to play with you,’” she said. “They were only children then. They told us things they remembered from the war years, like watching a woman being beaten to death outside my dad’s house and not being allowed to help her. These people actually cared.”

Ms. Arnold was astounded to see more than 300 townspeople arrive at the graveyard for the ceremony. She learned that when the cemetery renewal project had begun and the townspeople heard that the Germans had used headstones for masonry work, many of them started digging up stones with Hebrew writing from their walkways and driveways, bringing the pieces back.

“By the time the cemetery was ready to be unveiled, the people of Brzostek had found over thirty original headstones from the cemetery,” Ms. Arnold wrote in her book. “Amazingly, one of the matzevahs (headstones) that was returned was that of my great-grandfather, Fischel Schonwetter.”

After the ceremony, the visitors were escorted to the local high school, where the students had researched Jewish recipes and prepared a homemade spread, including a kosher section, Ms. Arnold said.

“It was a life-changing experience for me. I always knew from my dad’s stories that there were good Polish people, and that without them I would never be alive.”

Her book documents the kindness of several Polish families who were brave enough to shelter and feed the mother and her children. One couple paid the ultimate price, when their own son was shot dead as punishment for their harboring Jews.

“You never know unless you’re in that situation if you could do what they did,” Ms. Arnold said. “If I were a Polish person, would I risk my children’s lives to help someone else? Unfortunately — or fortunately — I don’t know.”

And she can only guess if she could have summoned the wits and fortitude displayed by her grandmother in the face of constant fear and starvation. “My grandmother’s courage, strength, and perseverance will always stand as an example of the superhero-like qualities that can be found in a mother’s love,” she said.

After the war, the Schonwetters stayed in Poland until 1957, and Sala remarried. Then they immigrated to Israel, but because there were not many jobs available, Mark Schonwetter moved near relatives in the United States in 1961. With five dollars in his pocket and no knowledge of English, he found work at a jewelry factory sweeping floors, under the supervision of a man who spoke Yiddish.

Mr. Schonwetter became the factory’s manager within five years. Another five years later, he bought a different jewelry company and turned it into a successful wedding ring and bridal enterprise, which he owned and operated for more than 40 years. Now 82, he and his wife, Luba, live in Livingston, as does Ms. Arnold’s sister, Isabella Fiske. Zosia Schonwetter, now Dr. Sophia Joachims, is a dentist in Israel.

Ms. Arnold, a certified public accountant, helped her father run his business until it was sold a few years ago, and now she is chief financial officer for several companies she owns with her husband, Jonathan. She remains active in jewelry industry associations and is the mother of two daughters, Lexi, 15, and Ashley, 19.

“I wanted to write down my father’s story since I was 17, but I’m not a writer,” she said. “And I was very busy with my career and family.”

However, around 2010 she felt compelled to start blogging about her father’s past.

“Only after I had children myself did I understand parts of the story all the way down in my soul,” Ms. Arnold wrote. “In Poland, where most Jews did not live through the war, and many died in the turmoil and violence that followed the war, Sala Schonwetter not only got both of their children through it, she lived to see her grandchildren and great-grandchildren grow up both in the country of the free and the brave and the country promised to her people by God.”

About a year ago, a reader introduced her to publisher Maximillion Pick of Avalerion Books. Ms. Pick was interested in working with Ms. Arnold. She interviewed Mr. Schonwetter herself to draw out all the details he could remember, transcribed those interviews, and turned them over to Ms. Arnold. Last August, the book started taking shape. “I think I rewrote it about a thousand times,” Ms. Arnold said.

She had no particular age group in mind when she wrote the book. “I hope I can show people of any age that there really are good people in the world. With everything going on today — you can’t turn on the TV without hearing hatred — we need to understand how to be tolerant of each other.

“I hope students read the book and understand that everyone’s not bad. We all need to keep being reminded of the message of goodness, hope, and tolerance.”

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