Making the most of his hands
LAUGHLIN — A learned trade at 13 turned into a lifesaver and a lifetime of artistic expression for Mike Schwartz.
“I was born in 1926,” said Schwartz. “Exactly 92 years ago. That’s a lot of years.”
Even at 92, Schwartz still has a hefty accent and there’s no question he’s from Eastern Europe.
But his mind is still sharp and he had nearly a century of stories to share — from imprisonment in several concentration camps during the Holocaust to life after the Adolf Hitler regime, with his wives and family, and the craftsmanship that carried him through the toughest times.
Schwartz was born in Romania near the Hungary border, where his father, Samuel Schwartz, was a cabinetmaker and his mother, Marvina Schwartz, was a housewife.
“She was running the family business — cooking, washing clothes,” said Schwartz. “We were not rich, but we were not too poor either, middle class.”
He had two brothers, Ted and Ernie and one sister, Anna. Ernie starved to death during the Holocaust and Anna passed away several years ago. Ted lives in Canada.
Schwartz’s father supported the family as a carpenter, specializing in bedroom sets and living room cabinets with various types of wood, like maple and oak, Schwartz said.
“My father was a very artistic cabinet maker. He did very fine work,” he added.
In the farm town where Schwartz grew up, residents needed furniture, he said, so his father was a busy man.
“In the old country, we went to the school until about 13 year old, then I went to work at my father’s shop,” Schwartz said. “That was the life there. I learned a very fine trade.”
But, the tranquility did not last long.
In 1944, the Schwartz family was told to pack one bag each and prepare to be transported to a camp. Schwartz was 17 years old at the time and life was never the same.
Schwartz and his family were sent to Auschwitz, a combination concentration and extermination camp.
After about three days of train travel in cramped cattle cars, the Schwartz family, along with many others, arrived at the camp, he said.
There was barbed wire everywhere.
“They started to select people,” said Schwartz. “They could see they could use for work and they went left or right, I don’t remember, but women went separately.”
Schwartz described how Josef Mengele, a German Schutzstaffel, or SS, officer and physician, used his cane to separate the people, directing them left or right. Mengele experimented on the prisoners and helped determine who would be killed in the gas chambers, Schwartz said.
Ted, Ernie and Mike went in one direction and his father went in another, he said.
The women were separated completely from the men, Schwartz remembered.
Neither of his parents survived.
“(The Nazis) were exterminating the people,” said Schwartz as he recalled what the camp was like. “About 10,000 a day. Murdered them. Slaughtered them. Put them in gas chamber, machine gunned them down.”
He recounted how from the beginning German soldiers would shoot young people in the head if they opposed anything.
“Our lives were worthless (to them),” said Schwartz.
“When the wind was blowing, especially in the evening, we smelled burning,” he said. “So we asked the Polish people who were there years before — what is that? ‘That’s where your parents get burned.’”
Schwartz and his brother, Ted, were moved from labor camp to labor camp and the Schwartz’s carpentry abilities made them useful in the eyes of the Nazis, which Schwartz believes kept them alive throughout the war.
Schwartz was at a camp that Gen. George Patton liberated and has never forgotten the general’s service paid to the Jewish people, he said.
Schwartz learned later his older brother, Ernie, died of starvation in one of the camps.
“Many people starved to death,” he added.
The surviving Schwartz brothers were down to about 65 pounds each by the end of the war, Schwartz remembered.
“It was quite the ordeal,” he said as the memories weighed on him.
Anna made it home before her brothers, Schwartz said, but the family’s homes were looted and the siblings turned their energies to work and making a life again.
Schwartz has many good, fond memories but the Holocaust never leaves him.
“When I wake up at night, it’s right away come back the Holocaust to my mind,” Schwartz said. “That was something really bad. Human beings can be so savages.”
Ted eventually immigrated to Canada. Schwartz joined the Israeli army, where he served two years before moving to Norway.
Schwartz joined a merchant ship and again made use of his skills as the ship’s carpenter.
“They hoist up the anchor and repair things,” said Schwartz.
He sailed all over the globe and met his first wife, Moana Lind, with whom he had two sons, David and Denny. David is in Edmonton, Canada, and Denny is in Toronto.
The family moved to Canada and Schwartz made good use of his hands once more as a carpenter building sets for the Canadian Broadcasting Company.
The marriage eventually dissolved but Schwartz kept moving forward. He fell in love and eventually married Shirley Freatman and the couple moved to the United States.
“I loved her too much to lose her so I followed,” said Schwartz.
That union prompted the art segment of his life. Shirley was a successful artist and encouraged Schwartz to pursue painting.
Schwartz, who always enjoyed art museums, fell in love it, he said.
“When you start to paint, you just start to paint,” said Schwartz.
The walls in his home are adorned with sailing boats, flowers, landscapes and artwork in memoriam of the Jewish people who died in the Holocaust.
“Shirley was a very, very nice lady, I loved her dearly,” said Schwartz. “We had a good life together.”
Shirley had heart disease and died in 1997 and Schwartz was devastated for a long time, he said.
Schwartz remarried in 2000 to a fellow Holocaust survivor named Anna Deutsch.
The pair both had successful businesses, she was in income real estate and he had his carpentry remodeling business.
Schwartz eventually moved to Bullhead City but Anna didn’t like the area and returned to Los Angeles. They are still married but she resides in Los Angeles with a caretaker.
Schwartz stopped doing carpentry in about 2010 and his art is slowing down due to arthritis in his hands but he is proud to say that at his age his mind is still sharp and he’s grateful.
He will speak at the Laughlin Library, 2840 S. Needles Highway, Dec. 7 at 2 p.m.