Survivor who later graduated from WashU returns to campus

Holocaust Survivor Eugen Schoenfeld returned to his alma mater, Washington University in St. Louis, to speak to students on Monday evening. Photo courtesy Mira Fradkin

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

Some of Professor Eugen Schoenfeld’s remarkable worldview was shaped by a cup of coffee — delivered under the most unusual of circumstances.

While Schoenfeld was in the process of being transported across Europe aboard the Nazis’ infamous boxcars, he recalls being amazed by an S.S. guard, a tall, blond, blue-eyed German, who leapt out at every station to get coffee for the captive Jews. The man even apologized at one stop when only water was available.

“In that train, something stirred in me,” said Schoenfeld who would later become a Washington University graduate. “If an S.S., indoctrinated with the Nazi philosophy, can still have mercy on us, compassion on us, feel for us and bring coffee, if this S.S. can even come and apologize to us for [only bringing us water], I was certain there was hope for this world. I believe there can be a future, that we can create a better world.”

That was one of the messages Schoenfeld, a survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau, delivered to dozens of students Monday afternoon at his alma mater during a talk that the 92-year-old said would be among his last speaking about the Holocaust, something he’s been doing since he studied here in his early 20s.

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“Seventy years is enough, I think,” he told the group. “King David lived only 70 years, you know.”

Schoenberg’s hometown, a Carpathian shtetl in Czechoslovakia that is now a part of Ukraine, fell under Hungarian control just before the outbreak of World War II where Jews quickly became targets for oppression. After surviving the Holocaust and moving to St. Louis, Schoenberg completed his education at Wash U and later went on to chair the University of Georgia’s sociology department. He has authored two books, “My Reconstructed Life” and “Faith and Conflict: Reflections on Christian Faith’s Impact on the Rise of the Holocaust.”

Schoenfeld’s talk was punctuated by a video which featured him speaking about his experiences during the war. He watched during one march as Nazis shot thirsty prisoners simply for trying to drink from a river, recalled his mother’s tears as she worried he would not have the chance to grow up, and remembered how his identity was exchanged for a number — 90138 — at Auschwitz.

Still, his overall message was one of optimism as he spoke repeatedly about the value of qualities such as hope and faith. He also talked of the importance of determining the reasons why Nazism swept Germany and whether such a fate could befall other nations. 

Invoking Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself” speech, he said that this primal emotion made humans vulnerable to demagogic appeals.

“The great curse of mankind is fear but what President Roosevelt did not tell us is where fear comes from,” he said. “Why are we fearful? What brings fear to us?”

He blamed economic dislocation as a factor, saying that individuals often value stability over abstract concepts like self-determination.

“Most people would gladly give up liberty, gladly give up freedom, for one other condition, and that is the certainty of life, certainty of conditions,” he said.

Taking note of a recent neo-Nazi rally in Georgia, Schoenfeld said similar forces could be at work today as the digital economy moves further from America’s manufacturing and industrial roots. He said that people depend on an “if/then proposition” that if they work hard, invest wisely or get a good education, society will reward them with a comfortable life. 

“But what happens when the if/then proposition fails you? When it no longer works?” he asked, recalling the hyperinflation of Weimar Germany that wiped out savings and destroyed the economy. “That brings on fear and fear is associated with anger and anger with punishment.”

However, he stressed that hope is a deep part of the Jewish faith. Unlike Christian concepts where Original Sin polluted a pristine world perfected at creation, Judaism sees the planet as a work in progress.

“In our faith, our sages told us that God deliberately did not finish creating this world,” he said, noting that it was the job of humans to make it a better place.

Schoenfeld argued that Jews believe in the perfectibility of humankind.

“God created us human and he gave us a test,” he said. “The test is to put an ‘e’ at the end of human so we can change ourselves from being human to being humane. That will only occur if you have hope.”

Schoenfeld encouraged listeners to pick up the baton and complete the task of improving humanity.

“You can create that hopeful future,” he said. “I’ve done my job. I’m the past generation. You are the future.”

Mackenzie Glassner, 19, was among the organizers of the event, which was hosted in cooperation with Chabad on Campus and the Chabad Student Association.

“I just thought it was really important to have Eugen come talk because he went to Wash U,” said Glassner, a freshman psychology major. “A lot of times, it is hard for young people to connect to an event like the Holocaust that happened decades ago. Just having that personal connection with a survivor who is speaking, I think is really important for people to internalize the message more.”

Attendee Jeffrey Kahn Blackman, a biomechanical engineering senior, said the biggest takeaway for him was not to give up hope for tomorrow.

“It is up to us to make goodness in the world,” said the 22-year-old. “It is not going to bring itself and it is not just going to come upon us because we pray for it. We have to spread our faith in humanity, not just our faith in God, our faith in humanity.”