By Robbie Pleasant
Take a moment to think of some historically influential Jews. You may think of Woody Allen, Elie Wiesel, or Albert Einstein. The first person I think of, however, is not anyone you’ll see in history books, but someone whose story is still worth telling; someone who has had a personal and important impact on my life. I’m talking about none other than my grandfather, Leo Schweitzer.
Leo was born in Lodz, Poland as Lolek Schweitzer. In 1939, before he was even in his teens, he and his family were forced into the ghetto, where he had his Bar Mitzvah. Three years later, they were taken away to Auschwitz. My grandfather spent years imprisoned in the camp and was deprived of human rights, barely surviving. He was separated from all of his family, save for his brother. Finally, as the war ended, and after the notorious death march, they were liberated.
Yet life could never return to the way it was for Lolek. His family was torn apart, and the home in which he once lived was no longer his. In a stroke of good fortune, he and his brother were reunited with their father after the war, though they were the lucky few; most of his family was gone. In the early 1950’s, he moved to America, and as Leo Schweitzer, began building himself a new life.
When he came to the United States, Leo worked miscellaneous jobs. He spent some time working as a tool and dye maker, then as a truck driver in New York. Those who have attempted to drive in New York City can attest to the fact that this is no mere feat. While he spent the days working and helping support his father, he took classes at night, studying diligently to learn English.
Over the course of several years, he became an American citizen. Leo was always athletic, and continued his interest in sports, such as tennis and soccer, living a healthy, active lifestyle. He married my grandmother, Constance, and had three children: Blair, Lisa, and Dan. Leo co-owned JAM Knitting Mills, a sweater factory in Brooklyn, where he was known for treating his workers with a fairness and humanity uncommon for that time; so much so that they actually refused to unionize. Eventually he retired and now lives a relaxing life with his wife, spending the winters in Florida and the summers in New York.
For as long as I’ve known him (which, suffice to say, is all my life), my grandfather has been a constant source of kindness and inspiration. I’ve gained much from him, from tennis skills to the ability to mimic a Yiddish accent, but most of all an unbreakable spirit. He’s survived much and overcome many obstacles throughout his life, which has made his story one worth remembering and passing on. He still has many years ahead of him, and each year I look forward to visiting him. Leo Schweitzer, my grandfather, has always remained, and will always be, the loving, caring man I’m proud to call family.
Published on page 56 of the Spring 2011 issue of Leviathan.