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Take Five: Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, author and Holocaust survivor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 23, 2009 - Even 65 years later, there is no happy ending, no soothing thoughts about surviving the Holocaust for Dr. Gustav Schonfeld, a St. Louis doctor who was just 10 when Nazis forced his family into a filthy railcar for a brutal trip to Auschwitz.

Schonfeld, 75, the former chairman of the Department of Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine, has aptly titled his new memoir "Absence of Closure.''

"There is always a scar there,'' he said. "The scar may be strong. It may cover the wound, but it is a scar.''


From "Absence of closure"

A passage about Auschwitz, from "Absence of Closure," a memoir by Dr. Gustav Schonfeld:

"Every day, bodies of those who had died were loaded onto the little railcars and taken to an area at the back of the toilet building, separated from the rest of the building by a six-foot-high wall made of loosely fitted wooden boards. I would frequently peek through the wall, transfixed by the dozens of naked, pale, thin male bodies stacked like cordwood.

"Much later, when I was in medical school, our instructors of anatomy would complain about the scarcity of cadavers for our anatomic studies. German medical schools in the 1930s and 1940s did not suffer similar shortages. They merely had to place orders for various anatomic specimens with the appropriate concentration camp authorities to obtain prime Jewish bodies and organs. Some of the bodies I saw behind the wall may have been among those shipped off to teach German doctors-to-be anatomy. Some of these specimens were preserved for the benefit of German medicine, and used for many years after the war. The Jews were a gift that kept on giving."

Schonfeld was 10 in March 1944 when the German army invaded Munkacs, his hometown in what was then Czechoslovakia, and began rounding up Jewish residents. Schonfeld and his father, a physician, would survive imprisonment in the Warsaw Ghetto, Auschwitz, Dachau and Mulhdorf before being liberated a year later by American soldiers. Schonfeld's mother also survived, but his baby brother and grandmother were put to death. Half of his relatives died in the camps.

After the war, Schonfeld emigrated with his parents to the St. Louis area, where they had relatives. Determined to put his past behind him, Schonfeld earned a bachelor's degree and a medical degree from Washington University and went on to have a distinguished career in medicine. He is known for his work on heart disease and cholesterol.

Schonfeld said that writing the book has not only brought up disturbing memories but worries for the future, particularly regarding the nation of Israel.

"This whole new road that I've taken has not given me any tranquility at 75,'' he said. "It's just the opposite of tranquility.''

Schonfeld was to give a lecture at the School of Medicine Thursday in honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was April 21. Here are some excerpts from a recent interview with the Beacon:

What motivated you to write this book?

Schonfeld: My children asked me to do it -- that was my first reason. My children knew I was in a camp, and over the years we talked about it. I didn't tell them everything in great gory detail, but the reason I wanted the book is that it's all there, in one place and they can use it as a reference after I'm gone, or their children can read it.

The longer the generations stretch out, the more faded the memory becomes, and I think the more important it is to have a written record. How much do we remember of the first world war, much less the Civil War? If you're interested, you have to go back and read the accounts of the people who were there. I hope to be one of those accounts that people may refer back to.

And then as I was thinking about it, I was very perturbed with the Holocaust deniers, and I was uneasy about the possibility that the deniers would either succeed in casting doubt on the veracity of the story of the Holocaust or they would succeed in minimizing what happened. I don't pretend that this will become a world-busting bestseller, but to the extent that I could put my own experiences down, that was what I wanted to do.

Was it difficult to reach back and relive those memories?

Schonfeld: My determination to write the book has changed my life in a way that I hadn't expected, and I'm not really very pleased with it because my aim in life was to have a profession and to succeed in my profession and to succeed as a family man. I didn't want to concentrate on the events of the past, particularly the Holocaust because it is unpleasant to think about. I had never read about the Holocaust until I started writing this book. So, I've become much more knowledgeable about the Holocaust and much more preoccupied with it than I want to be.

It has actually opened up some wounds and areas of inquiry that don't necessarily lead to greater peace of mind -- the whole business about Israel, which I feel very positive about as a refuge for my people.

Some people feel strongly that it is not justified to have a separate country for the Jews. And other people may feel that it is justified, but the Jews are misbehaving, vis-a-vis the Arabs.

And these are very disturbing things to me because I remember when there was no Israel, and I remember when the Europeans stood by silently and watched us die. And now they have found the nerve to criticize Israel. These are not happy thoughts, but that's just the way it is.

Through the years, what has been the reaction of acquaintances when they learned that you had survived the concentration camps?

Schonfeld: Most people were very surprised. As I said in the book, I took a great deal of trouble to blend in -- to learn to speak English without an accent. So, I had the option of telling people or not telling people. Once you start talking about these things, they tend to become long conversations, and I didn't always want to embark on a long conversation.

Do you think you will ever find closure?

Schonfeld: Not as long as the Middle East heats up, I really don't expect it. And I never believed that there was such a thing for important issues in life. I think that the people who speak of closure probably mean if you have an argument with your girlfriend about what you're going to eat for dessert. You have closure about that. You can kiss and make up if both of you like the dessert.

But something really important in life? Do you ever really get closure when your parents die? You really don't. You really miss them for the rest of your life, and even if you had wonderful experiences with them and had a wonderful relationship, you still don't get closure. So, I think the whole concept of closure somehow got sold, as I say, by the purveyors of psychobabble and I really don't think it exists, not for really important issues in life.

What do you want people to take away from your story?

Schonfeld: One, that the Holocaust happened. And second, that it's possible to recover from such an experience and to go on with one's life.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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