The daughter of a Holocaust survivor shares lessons of her treasured legacy with the world.
Somehow, memories of good deeds during an era so horrific that many may wish to forget manage to survive the decades as testaments to selflessness. For Ann Arnold, a Bergen County mother, businesswoman and daughter of Holocaust survivor Mark (Manek) Schonwetter, this innate sense of humanity is the sole light in the darkness of her family’s past—a treasure in the ashes to share with the world and remember in her debut book, Together: A Journey of Survival. This true account follows the perilous plight of her father and his family as they fled and evaded Nazi persecution across the Polish countryside. In the process it movingly portrays the strength of a mother’s love and the bravery of good people when all hope seemed lost.
The year was 1939. Sala Schonwetter had everything she needed—a beautiful, well-respected life with her husband and two children in a small Polish town. But her perfect world was shattered in an instant when her husband was taken away, never to be seen again. Mark, only six years old at the time, was forced into the harshness of manhood in order to help his family to survive. Following the courageous lead of their determined mother, he and his sister fled the only home they had ever known. Escaping through a barbed wire fence to avoid extermination by the Nazis, the three took refuge in the woods, fields and farms for three arduous years. At the time of their departure, their village was home to approximately 1,500 Jews. By the end of the war, less than 50 remained.
“Knowing the atrocities endured by my family made me very cynical over the years,” Arnold explains. “I have pretty much always wanted to share my father’s story, but it wasn’t until my second trip to Poland, back to the birthplace of my father’s legacy, that I was truly inspired.”
With nothing left for them but ghastly memories of the catastrophic invasion, no Jews had returned to the village where Mark once lived. That is until the respectful act of a professor, who petitioned to have the demolished town cemetery rebuilt by gathering artifacts and lost tombstones. The tombstone of Arnold’s great grandfather was one of the first to be found. After learning the news, Arnold and her father were invited, in 2009, to attend a special ceremony held in celebration of the project’s completion.
“We were overcome by the welcome we received,” Arnold recalls. “A plaque was erected, and over 600 members of the community came to witness the ceremony, some of whom remembered my father. We were even brought on buses to the local high school, where students and their families home-cooked for us, including kosher food, and learned Hebrew songs to sing to us!”
When thanked for the town’s kindness, the Polish mayor responded that no thanks were necessary; it was simply the right thing to do.
“It was in that moment that I fully realized there are good people in this world,” Arnold says. “After all, it was none other than good people that kept my family alive.”
In 2010, Arnold used this life-changing experience to begin writing a blog. The stories she shared sparked the attention of numerous people, who often asked her about “the coming book.” Actively involved in her father’s successful jewelry business, as well as serving as the CFO of various companies with her husband, Arnold never saw herself as a writer.
“I always wanted to write down my father’s account. Being the daughter of a Holocaust survivor is like wearing a badge on your shoulder. The lessons, hardships and gratitude you hold remain in the back of your mind, urging you to carry the torch to the next generation. Regardless of my apprehension, it finally hit me that this book was meant to be my torch,” explains Arnold, who connected with a publisher that interviewed her father, delving deep into details of his journey, many of which Arnold had never known herself.
Her family’s years spent in hiding entailed surviving off berries with the camouflage of the forest in the summers, and in the attics and barns of welcoming residences in the winters. Arnold describes the emotionally draining process of exploring the unimaginable life-or-death decisions that her grandmother had to make to protect her children. While writing, she often found herself asking, “Would I have done that?”
A mother’s intuition is strong, and her grandmother’s was the strongest. “It was like she had a sixth sense,” Arnold comments. “She had a keen ability for discerning kindness from danger. Every winter, when my grandmother knocked on strangers’ doors asking for shelter, she wisely wouldn’t accept unless she had to beg. The ones that needed the most convincing were the ones that wouldn’t turn them in.” They were also the ones that would make the ultimate sacrifice, putting their own lives on the line, to save those of strangers.
Forever grateful to these people, Grandma Sala kept in touch with many for the remainder of her life, even after moving from Poland to Israel following the war. She consistently sent them money, and generously purchased land and a house for one of the families who chose to make life-threatening and, at times, life-shattering sacrifices on behalf of three strangers.
“One particular family that took them in had a mentally challenged son,” Arnold recounts. “All it took was a question from suspicious Nazis, and the innocent response of an unknowing child, who explained that he had indeed seen ‘two and a half Jews’ nearby—the half being my six-year-old father—for them to brutally put a bullet through his head. He was ‘mocking’ them, they claimed. It was a son slaughtered on behalf of their presence. I’ll never truly understand this heavy burden my grandmother had to bear for all of her 94 years.”
In 2011, Mark returned to his hometown after an etched rock marking the site of his father’s mass grave execution was unearthed deep in the woods. It is thanks to yet another good person, who secretly buried this small tribute in the hopes that it would one day be found, that a memorial was erected. Mark attended a ceremony held at the site, honoring his father and all those lost on that fateful day. While in Poland, he also had the pleasure of meeting more relatives of the people who helped save him during the war, their sacred connection passed down through the generations with no sense of regret, only pride. One family even saved a small corner of the house that once sheltered Mark and his family, building it into a new home to always remember.
“There was nothing but gratitude on both sides,” Arnold comments. “Where there is mutual respect, there is tolerance, and we can certainly use more tolerance in this world.”
Looking upon her father’s past as a lesson for today, Arnold hopes to introduce her book to schools, and even has lesson plans written and prepared for 8th and 9th grade classes to potentially add to their curricula. She describes her father’s history as a vital lesson that all young people must learn and never forget.
Already recognized as an official honoree at the inaugural “Heroes for Tolerance” event held by the prestigious Simon Wiesenthal Center, a global organization committed to promoting human rights and dignity, Arnold is overwhelmed by the positive response surrounding her book’s launch. For instance, she and her father were brought to the center of the field at Yankee Stadium before the game on September 11, 2016, and honored for their incredible story of tolerance during one of history’s most cataclysmic times.
“It’s been a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Arnold says. “I’ve been on TV and the radio since publishing my father’s story. Just thinking about it makes my head spin.”
Deserving every bit of praise, Arnold’s book offers an inspiring message in a world that desperately needs reminding that, above all else, virtue does prevail.
“We need to hear good news today more than ever,” Arnold emphasizes. “Everyone has a bad day, but my father’s story provides a new perspective on it—one that prompts us to seek out the goodness in all situations, because it does exist, and it will heal in every sense of the word.”
Megan Montemarano is a frequent freelance contributor to BC THE MAG.