By Jessica Easthope
PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Mark Schonwetter considers himself fortunate to still be alive, given his family history.
Schonwetter, along with his mother and sister, fled Brzostek, Poland in 1942, when being Jewish meant your life was in danger.
“The Nazis that at this period of time were getting rid of all the Jewish people, [they were] taking them to concentration camps, labor camps,” Schonwetter, said. “We were lucky that we escaped and were not taken but we had to hide.”
Flashes of dead bodies, the thought of his father in a mass grave, and dark, cold nights hiding in the forest are just some of what Schonwetter endured. When his mother was forced to deny her faith after people suspected she was Jewish, it was a Catholic priest who protected her.
“Sunday came and we had to go to confession. She sits down in front of the priest and she says ’Father, I know when you go to confession your answers have to be the truth.’ She said ‘I am Jewish and I am hiding with two little kids here.’ He looks at her and he tells her ‘My child you do the right thing. You will survive. Have faith in God, He’s going to help you.’” Schonwetter said.
“After services were done, the priest comes to my mom, takes and puts his hands on her shoulder. So, from that point on nobody anymore mention any suspicion about her,” he continued.
Now 80 years later, Schonwetter gives hundreds of speeches every year all over the country educating people about The Holocaust. For him, that priest was proof that interfaith collaboration can make a difference.
“It shows you that the Church can do a lot like he did, be friendly, respectful to other people and make sure that being a human being like we all are, everyone should live in peace and harmony with each other, not in hatred,” Schonwetter said.
In 2019, Schonwetter’s two daughters Isabella and Ann started The Mark Schonwetter Holocaust Education Foundation, raising grant money for schools to bring in educational material, new curriculum and guest speakers.
They’ve reached more than 70,000 students across 28 states and have given out close to $180,000.
“We’ve seen the power of education. There are so many districts who have no Jewish people. They’ve never met a Jewish person and it’s those schools that the teachers realize how valuable it is to teach about the past,” Isabella added.
According to Statista, there were nearly 3,700 incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States in 2022.
Ann’s book, Together: A Journey for Survival, has become more of a learning tool than a biography of her father amid a modern rise of Jewish hate.
“We are stronger together than we are apart and as long as we all decide to use our voices for goodness, we one day will drown out the voices of violence and hatred if we all come together,” said Ann.
Mark Schonwetter can’t erase the past, but his legacy will help others learn from it, to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself.