Paul and Sharry Schwarzbart on Yom Kippur morning, 2022.
Paul and Sharry Schwarzbart on Yom Kippur morning, 2022.

An 89-year-old survivor reflects on his ‘different’ life

How am I different? For I am indeed different. And yet, I always strove not to be different, but I always was. Am I still?

When my parents and I smuggled ourselves from Vienna to Belgium in 1938 to escape the Nazis, I was different. I didn’t speak the language. My father was away at a labor camp to pay off our residence permits, and my mother was gone all day working (illegally), so as a 5-year-old kid, I was all alone, all day long. That was different.

When my father returned from the labor camp after six weeks, he and I spent every daylight moment together from then on. Those were some of the most wonderful months of my life, really getting to know my Papa. We were both learning French, but he was also studying English assiduously because we were awaiting our visas to America. That was different.

When I reached the age of 6, I was admitted to elementary school. I was the only foreign kid in my class, learning the language along with everything else and competing with the other kids on their home turf. I quickly rose to the top of my class, a distinction that won me some nasty beatings during recess.

While the teacher proudly referred to me as “the Austrian,” the other kids now called me “the other dog” by changing only one vowel in the French noun. Every afternoon when my father picked me up, he was always the only man, for all the others were mothers. My, how different.

On May 10, 1940, Germany began invading Western Europe, and my father was arrested that very morning in Brussels for being Austrian. My mother and I were suddenly left alone. Under Nazi occupation, we had to fend for ourselves and try to evade a horrible fate. My father was sent to French concentration camps in the Pyrénées, but we maintained a steady correspondence until 1942, when he was shipped off to Auschwitz. His last letter that reached us was his 99th.

We were forced to wear a large yellow cloth star on our chest, easily targeted. Jews were soon forbidden to attend school, leaving me again on my own all day while Mutti was at work. But it was different, for now I was almost 10 — and I was a target for killing.

By May 1943, things were pretty dire in Brussels. The Jewish underground offered to hide me, and my dear mother allowed me to leave into the unknown. For two years I lived in the Ardennes in an all-boys school, passing for both Belgian and Catholic. I was even baptized. Isn’t that different, assuming such a role at the age of 10? (In 1988, I was invited back to the Ardennes for a reunion of the Jewish boys hidden there, and thus found out there had been some 83 of us among the 124 boys!)

It was a role I maintained until the school was liberated by American infantrymen in October 1944.  I made my way back to Brussels and, incredibly, ran into my mother on the street! She, too, had survived. How different is that?

In May 1945, the war finally came to a close, and we reapplied for the American visas, in abeyance since 1938. Meanwhile I was attending school, as though I were a normal kid continuing my education.

Some three years later, the visas came through at long last. It had been a 10-year long wait, and it had cost my poor father his life.

The author and his mother, Sidi Schwarzbart, in Brussels, May 1940.
The author and his mother, Sidi Schwarzbart, in Brussels, May 1940.

We reached New York in December 1948, wide-eyed and breathing hope. Once again we were alone in a strange land and culture, but this time we would make them our own. I was 15 and embarking on a brand new life. Very different, but not life-threatening this time.

My maternal grandmother, who had survived in England, was awaiting us. Only the three of us had survived the Shoah.

We quickly learned English, and soon we traveled to California, where I met my aunt — one of my father’s four sisters — and uncle. After a couple of difficult months, my mother and I moved to San Francisco. We found a room in a Jewish household and I immediately started a full-time job in one of the Union Square hotels, the Sir Francis Drake.

I also continued my education at the prestigious George Washington High School. Going to regular school and holding down a full-time job, that’s different. Not too much sleep. Working seven days a week prevented me from enjoying any extracurricular activities at school, thus completely curtailing my social life. Again, quite different for an American teenager.

By now Mother was quite ill with rheumatoid arthritis, suffering constantly.  I gave her injections, boiling the equipment to keep it sterile. It was really tough on her and her anatomy, but it had to be done and I had to do it. We moved into our first little apartment and, after two years, I graduated from high school and continued on to higher education. I obtained my A.A. degree from City College of San Francisco and my B.A. from Cal, all while holding many jobs to keep us sheltered and fed: printing matchbook covers at the St. Francis Hotel, managing several movie theaters on Market Street and selling shoes at Macy’s of Union Square.

My grandmother, my mother and I became very proud naturalized citizens. I was subsequently conscripted into the U.S. Army. I could not get a deferral to take care of my mother, and for some 17 months she had to fend for herself on the pittance the Army sent her directly. While stationed in Texas I corresponded with my mother almost daily, and somehow that courageous lady managed. In 1957 I was named soldier of the month for the entirety of Fort Hood, making my mother and my C.O. very proud.

After I returned from Texas and earned my M.A., I  was offered a teaching job in Mill Valley. The salary was a godsend, so I abandoned my Ph.D. studies to grab that lifeline. That “temporary” position lasted 29 years, allowing me to properly take care of my mother. By now she was no longer able to care for herself, but true to the promise I made my father as we kissed goodbye so long ago, I took care of Mutti.

I now owned my first car and we lived in our own house in San Rafael. I hired a housekeeper to be with my mother most of the day, and with the help of two jobs we were making it. Different.

In 1969 I met the woman who would become my first wife. Nine days after we married, my mother died.

Of what am I proudest?

First, of keeping the promise I made to Papa on May 10, 1940, to be the man of the family and to always take care of Mutti. And second, of being the father of two fantastic and loving men.

With stick-to-itiveness and a solid work ethic and much luck, here I am. Certainly different, however, from anyone who did not have to emigrate and restart his life — twice.

Paul Schwarzbart

Paul Schwarzbart, 89, lives in San Rafael. He taught French for 45 years at Tamalpais High School in Mill Valley and through UC Berkeley Extension and the Alliance Française. He is the author of two memoirs.