Arthur Schneier: „ I Saw the Best and the Beast in Man“

Die Presse, November 11, 2018

By Christian Ultsch

German Original:

The legendary Rabbi Schneier tells how he experienced the Anschluss and the November Pogrom as an eight-year old boy in Vienna, how he met Adolf Eichmann in Budapest and escaped death in the Holocaust by a whisker, and how he rose to Rabbi – Diplomat in New York knowing everyone: from Reagan to Trump, from Gorbachev to Milošević.

You were eight years old when you saw your Synagogue on your street, Leopoldgasse 29 in Vienna’s Second District, go up in flames. What does this do to a child’s soul?

Arthur Schneier: You never forget. It did not start with Kristallnacht. I can still hear Chancellor Schuschnigg during his last speech on the radio: “God protect Austria.” Half an hour later, Nazi flags were hanging from the houses. My beautiful world was turned around during one evening. I had lots of Christian friends. Over night I became a pariah.

You did not have one single contact left?

No. Like all Jewish children I soon had to leave my elementary school. A separate school was established for us. I had to walk from Leopoldsgasse to the First District. I was afraid of the Hitler Youth. This is why I always joined older kids on the way to school so nobody would think I walk alone. I always wore Lederhosen (traditional leather pants). But Lederhosen all over sudden were forbidden for Jews. At the confectionary, at the park, at the movies Jews were no longer welcome. We were banned from society. Then came Kristallnacht.

Can you remember?

Very well. There are incidents in life that stay with you. The name of our caretaker’s son was Franz. On Christmas, on holidays, he always came to our apartment; we gave him clothes, different things. During Reichskristallnacht he led the SS to every single Jewish apartment in the house. They dragged our neighbor, Mr. Nachtigall, directly to Rosauer Kaserne (Rosauer Barracks). They took the men, not the women.

Your father, too?

My father had already passed away in 1936 at the age of 45. He had a small convenience store in Nussdorfer Strasse, offering installments: police officers and civil servants could shop without having to pay for everything right away.

Did you see the Jews in front of the barracks?

I saw thousands there. For the first time I heard the names Dachau and Buchenwald. Many did not return. Their families had to pay to get their remains back. I also stood in front of the burning Synagogue. The firemen and police officers were just watching. They were only worried about the neighboring buildings remaining intact.

Can you remember any form of sympathy from a non-Jewish neighbor in this situation, a word of compassion or regret?

(Thinks about it for a long time). Actually no. But I am sure there were people against this inhumanity and brutality. I escaped with my life because a Swiss consul in Budapest, Carl Lutz, risked his diplomatic career to save Jews.

You and your mother already wanted to go to the United States in 1938/39. Why did that not work out?

I was born in Vienna, my mother in Romania. She would have had to wait 15 years for a U.S. visa. I sent a letter to President Roosevelt, asking for a visa for my mother. I wrote it in German and re-wrote it several times to make sure it would be perfect.

Did you receive an answer?

No. Shanghai would have been a possibility. But the waitlist of the shipping company was long. You couldn’t go anywhere. There was unemployment everywhere. During the Évian Conference the states agreed to take in only a few thousand Jews. On September 1, 1939 we fled to my grandparents’ in Hungary on a tourist visa.

On the day World War II began.

We hoped to continue travelling from Budapest to the United States. But we got stuck. Since my dad had passed away, my grandfather was my second father. He was a famous chief rabbi in the Carpathian Mountains. In 1944 he and my grandmother were deported to Auschwitz.

You survived in Budapest.

Yes, but it was no easy life as an illegal. My mother and I hid in several apartments. Between April and the end of June, 1944, 430,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz, also from Neupest and Kleinpest. On July 6, deportations from Budapest were set to begin. Through pressure from the King of Sweden, the Pope, and the Roosevelts, Horthy stopped the deportations. The worst time was the Szálasi – era of the Pfeilkreuzler (paramilitary unit of fascist Hungarians) after Horthy’s overthrow in October 1944. The Swiss consul Carl Lutz, the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and the apostolic nuntius, Angelo Rota, wrung some safe houses from the regime. My mother and I received a Swiss Schutzpass (safety passes). We survived in a safe house. But it was not safe there, either. These grimaces dragged Jews out of the houses and threw them into the Danube.

How close were you to Death?

At the end of October 1944, I was selected for a Death March from Budapest to Hegyeshalom at the Austrian border. My U.S. affidavit in the colors pink, blue, yellow and white saved me. I showed the young guy who had arrested me the paperwork and told him I was an American. He let me go. On October 17, 1944, I was already sitting at Ostbahnhof (Eastern Station), awaiting deportation. I had only three sugar cubes in my pocket, rationed them, one half in the morning, another half in the evening. After three days we were freed due to Swedish pressure. Afterwards, the time in the Ghetto began. But that is the past. I made a deal with god.

What deal?

I was no better than the one and a half million children who died. They were the first ones that camp doctor Mengele sorted out in Auschwitz. They did not have a chance. God must have saved me for a reason. I repay every day so that others do not have to suffer what I had to endure.

In 1946, you first returned to Austria. You were the only Jewish student in high school. How did you feel about the Austrians?

After my experiences in 1938, I did not engage in any social activities. I focused on my studies. I did not want to get hurt again.

You must have felt lonely.

Yes. This is why I decided to go to America.

Why did you become a rabbi?

Good question. My grandfather had only one daughter and always wanted a successor as a rabbi. I decided to undergo the training in his honor. I did not want to practice. I wanted to become a psychiatrist and also studied the subject in a parallel track. The president of Yeshiva University said: You want to become a psychiatrist? You only want to have 30 patients? You can do more. You are a gifted leadership figure.

Since Kreisky, every Austrian Chancellor has visited you in New York. Was it difficult for you to re-establish relations with Austria?

I was focusing on the Society Union and Eastern Europe. Before travelling behind the Iron Curtain, we always spoke with Bishop Casaroli at the Vatican. He was in charge of Eastern policy and was involved in getting Cardinal Mindszenthy out of Hungary and into Vienna in 1971. This is how I met cardinal König, a friendship developed.

When did you first meet Kreisky?

In New York, after this terrible appearance by PLO head Jassir Arafat with the pistol at the UN General Assembly. Kreisky had a deal with him. Arafat promised not to attack any Jews who migrated from Russia via Vienna. In return, Kreisky supported him. Look (shows a catalogue of his foundation Appeal of Conscience), I knew them all, from Reagan to Trump.

How did you make connections in high circles as a Viennese rabbi?

It began in 1965 with a demonstration for religious freedom in front of the Mission of the Soviet Union to the UN. The „appeal of consicence“ was such a great success that this coalition of Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox Christians became active in the Soviet Union, in Eastern Europe, in China. I dealt with Ceausescu, with Kadar, Gorbatchev, Jiang Zemin, Tudjman, Milošević. They called me the Rabbi-Diplomat.

How did you gain access to those mostly brutal dictators?

With Milošević I developed a relationship as he told me about the suicide of his parents. He was worried about his son, who was a racecar driver.

What did you achieve with Milošević?

When he came to Dayton, US Ambassador and Bosnia – negotiator Richard Holbrooke called me. He said: I hate to call you at ten at night, but we are not making any progress, because Milošević refuses to sign the agreement as long as the Patriarch refuses to give his approval. So I called Patriarch Pavle and asked if he would co-sign an advert for peace in Bosnia by Appeal to Conscience in The New York Times. He agreed. This strengthened Milošević’s position for the Dayton Agreement. But in my experience: every tyrant means what he says.

What does that mean for the present?

Hitler or Stalin. They mean what they say. If Iran’s leader Khamenei says he will destroy the Zionist state, he means it.

Is talking to the Iranian regime a waste of time?

Never close the door. Once it is closed it is very difficult to open it again.

You met Eichmann, the organizer of the Holocaust, in Budapest…

I brought him a list from the Jewish Council, Jewish houses that needed to be evacuated due to bombing raids.

Do you recognize evil in a person?

This is difficult. Family men send Jews into the gas in Auschwitz and perform Mozart in the evening. I saw the best and the beast in man.

Arthur Schneier

Arthur Schneier is born in Vienna on March 20.

Schneier and his mother escape the Nazis to his grandparents’ in Hungary. He survives the Holocaust in Budapest.

After receiving his high school diploma in Vienna, Schneier emigrates to the United States.

He becomes the head of Park East Synagogue in New York, which he still heads today.Three years later he founds the foundation Appeal of Conscience. Since then, Schneier has continued to engage himself for freedom of religion, tolerance, and peace. This past Friday, on the 80-year commemoration of the November Progrom, Rabbi Schneier gave a lecture before Parliament in Vienna. He still speaks German fluently - with an American-Viennese accent.