“Not just tolerance. I don't like the word tolerance. Tolerance means I am superior than you are. I don't want to be tolerated. I don't want to be a second-class citizen. I want respect. Mutual respect and mutual understanding.”
Rabbi Arthur Schneier is a Holocaust survivor and a human rights activist. He shares harrowing memories of his childhood in Vienna and later in Hungary after the Nazis came to power. Many of his family members were murdered, including his grandfather, a prominent rabbi who died in Auschwitz. He was determined to also become a rabbi in his honor, and to make a new life in the United States.
From the Park East Synagogue in New York City, Rabbi Schneier has dedicated a lifetime to promoting peace, reconciliation, and inter-faith and inter-cultural dialogue. UN Secretary General António Guterres has called him “an inspiration for the world and for the United Nations.”
Transcript and multimedia
Melissa Fleming 00:00
From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming and this is Awake At Night. My guest today is Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor and a promoter of peace, reconciliation, unity, and interfaith and intercultural dialogue. He has held a number of positions connected to the United Nations. Indeed, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called him “an inspiration for the world and for the United Nations”. We are speaking today from the synagogue he leads in New York City, which is called the Park East Synagogue. Rabbi Schneier, I want to ask you about your diplomatic work and your Appeal of Conscience Foundation a bit later but first, can I ask you about your childhood in Vienna, Austria in the 1930s and how your life changed after the Nazis took over in 1938?
Arthur Schneier 01:15
I was a very, very happy child in my birthplace Vienna. Unfortunately, I lost my father at the age of six. So it was just my mother and I and I attended school. Many, many, many friends, Jewish friends, Christian friends, but on March 13th, I still remember listening to the radio. There was supposed to be a referendum about Austria joining Germany. But Hitler beat them to it. And then the Nazis took over. My life overnight changed. I became a pariah. Many of my Christian friends, we used to go to soccer games. We had fun together in school. We celebrated holidays at their home, at our home. It's not the children, not my classmates, who broke the relationship. Parents taught them ‘do not have any further contact with a Jew’. You could not enter a park. I had to shed my lederhosen.
Melissa Fleming 02:42
You wore lederhosen?
Arthur Schneier 02:44
No dirndls, no lederhosen, okay? Anyhow, it was a concerted drive to break ties and bonds between Austrians who lived together in peace all these years. And it was very painful, very painful. And again, it taught me a lesson that children are not born with hatred. They are taught how to hate. Taught how to hate. When you dehumanise, whether it's a Jew or any other ethnic group or racial group or minority, then it's very easy to evoke hostility. Okay. And that's exactly what happened.
There was a very famous statement by Heinrich Heiner who said ‘those who burn books…’ and I saw those book burnings, by the way, in Vienna. ‘Those who burn books will also burn human beings’. I saw my synagogue burn on Kristallnacht on November 9 and 10th. And the police and firemen standing by and jovial, only wondering how to protect the neighbouring building. I still remember seeing Jewish men lined up on the way to Dachau and Buchenwald, the first time I heard about these, okay?
And we couldn't come to the United States because we didn't have a visa so on September 1 ‘39, my mother and I fled to Hungary. Okay, we were illegal aliens in Hungary for a while hoping to get a visa to the United States. War broke out. That never happened. Okay. And unfortunately, my grandparents was the first victims. First the ghetto, and then straight to Auschwitz. Yes. So I've seen the best of man and the beast of man. And why do I say the best of man? Because there were some diplomats like Wallenberg, like Carl Lutz of Switzerland, like [Gabriele] D’Annunzio or [Angelo] Rotta in Hungary. The Spanish Ambassador, the Portuguese ambassador, who actually, when the extreme regime took over in 1944, managed to get a commitment of establishing some safety houses. And I owe my life to the International Red Cross and Carl Lutz, the Swiss Consul General who, like many other diplomats, defied orders in order to rescue human lives.
Melissa Fleming 05:36
You described just a shocking set of circumstances and instances that defined your childhood. I mean, this must have been incredibly difficult for a child to comprehend. What was your mother telling you about what was happening then?
Arthur Schneier 06:02
My mother was always very protective. Parents are protective. So I could have gone on a Kindertransport to London, where the British were ready to receive 10,000 Jewish children. But I'm the only child, widow. She said, ‘No, we’re going to stick together’. So it was a matter of trying to find ways to get out of hell. So our hope was to come to the United States. And strangely enough, at that time in 1938, Hitler just wanted the Jews out. But there was no place to go. At the Évian conference, he heard many, many nations saying, ‘We cannot afford to take in so many refugees’. Alright? So we were stuck. Then we fled to Hungary.
Melissa Fleming 07:14
I believe you wrote a letter as a young boy to the United States?
Arthur Schneier 07:18
I wrote not one, ten drafts on a letter that I wrote to President Roosevelt.
Melissa Fleming 07:27
What did the letter say?
Arthur Schneier 07:28
Begging, begging to come to the US.
Melissa Fleming 07:32
So it said Dear President Roosevelt, and then?
Arthur Schneier 07:36
Melissa Fleming 07:39
So there was no country that would receive you. And you and your mother were trying to figure out where to go. Describe what happened next. You mentioned that you went to Hungary because your grandparents were living in Hungary and, although it wasn't really a safe place to move to, but yet it was out of Vienna, but why Hungary?
Arthur Schneier 08:06
Well, Hungary in 1939, already had numerous restrictions on Jews. There was already some anti-Jewish laws enacted. But, by comparison to what happened in Poland, Hungary was really a hopeful, safe haven. And when the whole thing collapsed, when Horthy tried to make a special ceasefire with the Soviet Union, and the Nazis, the Germans, moved in March 1944, occupied Hungary. Then the deportations started with Adolf Eichmann and so forth. And then there was the most brutal young thugs, hunting down Jews, even from safety houses, pulling Jews out of the safety houses of embassies that were right on the Danube, shooting them right into the Danube.
Melissa Fleming 09:25
What was your personal experience as a young...you were a teenager?
Arthur Schneier 09:30
Well, fortunately, there was one home that became under the protection of the International Red Cross, and also the Swiss Safety Pass, and so 800 of us were in that place. And then the Red Army moved in on January 15, 1945.
Melissa Fleming 09:54
Your grandparents were deported.
Arthur Schneier 09:57
I discovered later on that they were deported from the ghetto in Mátészalka on May 15, 1944, straight to Auschwitz. So I know what persecution, what suffering is, you know, there's nothing like experience having gone through war, hunger. Okay? Being chased. All that gives you really is a worldview and a resolution. And if you survive and that was my pledge that I made when I discovered that my grandparents were burnt at Auschwitz. That if I survive, my grandfather was always concerned, he was a very famous Rabbi of the whole region and he had no sons, he had only his daughter, who would succeed him? So I made a pledge, whatever I do in life, I'm going to study in his memory to be a rabbi. I still had a dream of coming to America, okay? And it happened. First, I went back to Vienna.
Melissa Fleming 11:13
Can I just stop you there though and ask you, what must that have been like? After all that you had gone through in Vienna, all the hatred, antisemitism, you had seen. You then knew what happened in the Holocaust to your grandparents and to your friends, and you went back to Vienna and went to school?
Arthur Schneier 11:36
Well, you have to understand that Vienna was occupied by Soviet, British, the four zones, okay? And I believe every conflict comes to an end but too much pain and too much human loss. My uncle, who had to flee Vienna after Kristallnacht, was a good sportsman, a great skier, and managed to go on skis to Switzerland. And then finally ended up in the United States. Joined the United States Armed Forces. He served in France and Germany and in 1945, he came back to search for my grandparents on my father's side. And the only one he found was my mother. And he became the commandant of all American districts. Okay. So I had my first ice cream at a USO function with my uncle.
Melissa Fleming 13:05
Do you remember the reunion with him and what that was like and what you first said to him?
Arthur Schneier 13:10
Oh yes, it was marvellous, having lost my dad. I lost another uncle Michael who was deported to Auschwitz. I lost my grandfather from Vienna, deported to Theresienstadt, and met his death in Lublin. I don't want to go back so much to the past. But I think that at least this has been my commitment. I was not better to the one and a half million Jewish children who didn’t have a chance to survive. In fact, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I visited Jerusalem with Pope Francis, he came out of the Yad Vashem, the children's museum, and I said to him, ‘You know, you also will have heard my name among the ones there but I survived. So, you pay back on a daily basis, that’s what it is.
Melissa Fleming 14:32
And you certainly have. Can I just ask you a couple of questions about your mother? I mean, she came back with you to Vienna, how did she cope and how did she pick up the pieces of her life after that?
Arthur Schneier 14:49
Actually, she was very spoiled. After the death of my dad, you know, she had to assume some of the business, the department store that he had. And so she tried to... we, first of all, got our apartment back. But it was very clear that we would not remain in Vienna. So the idea was really the United States. That was a dream, starting already after in 1938. She was born in Romania, and with the Romanian quota, there was a 15 year waiting period to get to the United States. I was born in Vienna. So I was able to leave Vienna in 1947. She remained in Vienna for another two years and then finally got to the United States in 1949.
Melissa Fleming 15:58
Just a couple of other questions, then we'll I know you're anxious to move out of the dark past and into your life beyond. I'm just curious when you came back to Vienna and you went into Gymnasium. Did you encounter any of the students that you had known before and where you had such painful experiences with them?
Arthur Schneier 16:26
Yes. Not in school but do you know what ein Hausmeister is?
Melissa Fleming 16:32
Yes. I lived in Vienna for many years of my life.
Arthur Schneier 16:36
So the Hausmeister (janitor), Herr Tanzer. Okay. His son, at the age of 18, became an SS man. This young man was fed by my parents before the Nazis took over. Clothing, you name it. Okay? He led many of the SS guys that I saw, plundering. Okay? So young Tanzer, SS Man. Okay. When I returned to Vienna for the first time in 1964, after an Appeal of Conscience Mission, I went to our apartment house and who stood in front of that building? Hans. I said ‘Hans?’ At first, I didn't know how to react. And I decided you know what? He is still a superintendent, he is still a Hausmeister, and look, who I am today? Okay. And that was it.
You cannot just live your life being paralysed by the past. You remember you're scared but otherwise, you just don't move forward. I've known every...I’ve not known, I’ve dealt with every Pope since Paul VI. Okay. And when you see the transformation of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community and the Jewish people in the Vatican too, it gives you an idea that there was hope. You don't give up. Don't give up, repeatedly. I keep on emphasising. World War One. World War Two. Korean War. Vietnam War. Cold War. Everything comes to an end. Every conflict comes to an end.
Then when you think when you go to the military cemeteries, there’s so many human lives lost for what? And the greatest joy that I have when I have the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day service, the United Nations, in the first row, you have the US ambassador. You have the Russian ambassador, the Israeli ambassador, you’ve got the German ambassador. And I say to myself, ‘They were enemies at one point’. Okay. So that's why coming back to the United Nation, when Ronald Reagan wanted to give me an assignment on behalf of the administration. So I said, ‘You know, I'd be honoured to accept.’
Melissa Fleming 20:21
You went on to somehow overcome bitterness and that's something I just think that most people wouldn't be able to do.
Arthur Schneier 20:31
You know, I'm a graduate of the University of Life, in addition to all the other degrees. But you have to develop compassion and sensitivity, based on experience, life experience. And as I said, I went through the entire gamut; brutality, humanity, poverty, hunger, persecution, oppression. One reason I established the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, in 1965 having lived under the communist rule, and the Nazi rule, knowing the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union, being placed as a Rabbi of a congregation that faced the Soviet mission to the UN. And they were stupid to move from Park Avenue to right across from a synagogue.
So I said, ‘Wait a minute, if I am here, and I don't open my mouth.’ So I got Robert Kennedy, Mayor Wagner and there's still a plaque in front of the sanctuary. Hear the cry of the oppressed: the Jewish community in the Soviet Union. The first demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jewry, I organised right here on an interfaith basis, an Appeal of Conscience, including Martin Luther King, on an interfaith basis became page one and page two in The New York Times and all the media. And you'd think that the Soviets after what happened, would not grant me a visa. They did.
"It is so important that religion should become a healing force not a force -as in the past- for destruction"— Appeal of Conscience (@The_Appeal) April 21, 2021
-- Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Founder and President The appeal of Conscience Foundation#RespectTheOther pic.twitter.com/S6OIluHLMZ
And I led the first delegation of the Appeal of Conscience - two Jesuits and myself in 1965 December to Moscow. And that established a relationship with a Russian Orthodox church because not only it’s not only the Jewish community. Russian Orthodox churches were closed by Krushchev. Catholic churches were closed. Baptist, you name it. So I went through the entire difficult period of suffering that occurred by religious communities in the Soviet Union until the arrival of Gorbachev. So I was privileged to deal with Gorbachev.
I can tell you stories about dealing with Ceausescu and being involved in bringing about peace in former Yugoslavia, dealing with Tudjman, Milosevic, Izetbegović. Making sure that this ethnic conflict should not become a religious conflict. Bringing to Switzerland for the first time together the leaders; the patriarch of Serbia (Palve), and Cardinal (Franjo) Kuharic of Croatia, and then sitting with them, but all with the support from the Pope and the Vatican, from the US administration, from the UN. And saw an end to this tragedy in Europe, okay. Or Sarajevo or standing in Srebrenica with 75,000 parents who lost a loved one, I was the first non-Muslim speaker to address them.
Melissa Fleming 24:44
Tell us why you founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation? I mean, this was your idea. You were here in the US, you had gone to Yeshiva University. You chose the path of becoming a rabbi in honour of your grandfather. You knew something about psychology which probably helps you in what you did after that. You became a rabbi, but then you also founded an organisation called the Appeal of Conscience Foundation. What are your proudest achievements from that work?
Arthur Schneier 25:16
After the first demonstration on behalf of Soviet Jewry which was January 17th, 1965, we made such an impact that the congressman Francis Dorn who was a Republican, Catholic, and many of the others said, ‘Wait a minute, we should really establish a foundation’. ‘But,’ I said, ‘if we do that, that has to be not only dealing with Soviet Jewry, but religious freedom and human rights’. So our first mission to the Soviet Union was actually in December of that year. And then, on the way to the Soviet Union, stopped in Rome to get the first briefing from the Vatican, as to the fate of the Catholics.
So we didn't only speak in terms of Jews, we spoke about Russia and established a relationship with the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Jewish community, the Muslim community. So we have an ongoing relationship to this day. I dealt now, with Nagorno Karabakh, the conflict, pushing for a ceasefire. We're engaged now to try to have some humanitarian exchange of prisoners and so forth.
Another mission was Northern Ireland. Catholics and Protestants fighting one another, okay. Delegation to Northern Ireland. Spain, the treaty between the United States and Spain had to be renewed. And there were 15 Protestant ministers on a hunger strike in Madrid. Landau, who was in charge of relations in Spain, the State Department, called a rabbi. ‘Appeal of Conscience has to help us, we cannot afford to lose the agreement.’ Okay. So we went to Spain; a Presbyterian minister, two Jesuits, myself. The Ambassador at the time was Angier Biddle-Duke. Finally, so, that’s all I need on this, a religious delegation so, okay.
And the Cortes enacted the very tough law requiring the registrations of every non-Catholic by the police, so we met the Minister of Justice. So anyhow we worked it out, we worked it out. Okay. So, when you deal with, whether it's Northern Ireland, Spain, the Czech Republic, I mean, Czechoslovakia, China. I mean, first delegation, first delegation China 1981, I had to get the visa in Ottawa because we had no relations. So I dealt with every permanent representative at the UN going back to George Bush.
Melissa Fleming 29:04
And it seems like you've dealt with almost every conflict that has had a religious dimension. And I know you've been called upon to undertake diplomatic missions to help in peace negotiations. But you also had an association with the United Nations. When did that start and what is your involvement? You mentioned the founding of the Alliance of Civilizations and your involvement there if you can just elaborate a bit?
Arthur Schneier 29:33
Well, it actually started when I was the Deputy Permanent Representative for the General Assembly. My assignment was the Third Committee.
Melissa Fleming 29:44
From the...You were working for the United States?
Arthur Schneier 29:47
As a Holocaust survivor who fought for religious freedom and human rights to sit there representing the United States of America - I mean, this is something which was just pure elation and joy. Okay. So I saw the advantage of not only being an outsider but working within the system and knowing how to put things on the agenda.
Melissa Fleming 30:15
It is highly unusual, I think, for a diplomatic mission to bring in somebody who has not come through the Foreign Service.
Arthur Schneier 30:26
I was a public delegate, confirmed by the United States Senate, like Coretta King who was also a public delegate. We have public delegates, usually, it’s a senator or Congressman, or any public figure. So that was really my engagement within the UN system. Although then I dealt for instance when Gorbachev came, there was the Armenian earthquake. And also what I did, very interesting, I developed a relationship in the worst days of the Cold War with the Permanent Representatives of the Soviet Union. So these are personal relationships that have enabled me to carry forth the message of not being biased one way or the other, always keeping the door open but stressing the importance of human rights and religious freedom and respect. And not just tolerance. I don't like the word tolerance. Tolerance means I am superior than you are. I don't want to be tolerated. I don't want to be a second-class citizen. I want respect. Mutual respect and mutual understanding.
Melissa Fleming 32:00
So you've split your career between working for respect for human beings, the dignity of human beings, and peace and unity, but you've also led a congregation. What do you have the most passion for and talk just a little bit about what it's like being a rabbi?
Arthur Schneier 32:27
When you lead the congregation, you're not dealing just with issues. You're dealing from birth to death with life itself. The problems that people have. The need for spiritual guidance. So you really come in contact with life situations. That gives one the touch going to beyond… The problem actually, with you know, being just focused on diplomatic activity [is] that you're not really in contact with the daily human life experience. You know, like I gave it just a sermon the other day and when you go through life, when we lose a loved one, we are brokenhearted. We just had it with COVID. We’re brokenhearted. Sickness; you're brokenhearted. But life is volatile. So, we have some wholehearted experiences of joy; the birth of a child, a wedding, whatever, a graduation, but then you will also have some brokenheartedness, okay. In dealing with everyday human needs, it gives you a better motivation.
You know, when I stood in Srebrenica and dealt with the parents who for years, didn’t even know, didn't even have the remains of their loved ones. And then that is the human contact. That is critical. So I think that if you want to be a really good diplomat if you want to be a good representative of the United Nations or any government, you have to feel the pain and the joy and the suffering of your constituents.
Melissa Fleming 34:57
Rabbi Schneier, there's a question that I ask everyone because the title of this podcast is Awake At Night. What is keeping you awake at night these days?
Arthur Schneier 35:07
The turmoil in the world today. The lack of faith and trust in leadership. No faith and confidence, whether it's the United States Congress, whether it's in Europe, in France, in Germany, across. Lack of trust in leadership. And I said that many times to my friend, the Secretary-General. He is a moral voice of conscience, with limitations. But he's a moral voice of conscience. And he addresses some of the issues. But if you look at the leadership of the world today, that is the problem. And we are going through this is a transition period with technological and societal changes, exacerbated by the pandemic, by COVID. Hatred, violence, division. And I must tell you, on a personal level, I mean, I stood at the synagogue in Pittsburgh the morning after 11 worshipers were killed. They were still in the blood-soaked sanctuary when I was there.
Particularly as a holocaust survivor, I never thought this would happen the United States, and look what happened - all the demonstrations in New York and now this antisemitism. Yes, I was afraid in Europe to be identified as a Jew, meaning I was marked with a yellow star during the Nazi era. But you felt always fearful, you know, what the reaction might be? Now you have it, people Jews sitting in a restaurant in Los Angeles, okay. Jews being beaten up right here in the streets of New York. That's worrisome. That's very worrisome. And I think the social media is a curse. Everything God created has a positive and negative everything. Nuclear energy; positive or negative. Okay. We thought nuclear energy will solve many situations. We had Hiroshima, right? Okay.
Again, the technology that has been developed; cyberspace, ballistic missiles, nuclear race, and climate. I mean, we have so many issues, that if we just had the right leadership and have...my famous saying, ‘United, we prevail. Divided, we fail’ and I hope and pray that your children and grandchildren can look forward to a bright future.
Melissa Fleming 39:40
Well, thank you, Rabbi Schneier, also for your contribution to humanity and to peace and to inter-religious faith and understanding. Thank you for all you do and thank you for joining us here on Awake At Night.
Thank you for listening to Awake At Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night. On Twitter, we're @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Subscribe to awake at night wherever you get your podcasts and please take the time to review us. It does make a difference.
Thanks to my producers Bethany Bell, and the team at Chalk & Blade: Laura Sheeter, Cheri Percy, Fatuma Khaireh, and Alex Portfelix, and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Darrin Farrant, Angelina Boniface, Tulin Battikhi, and Bissera Kostova.
The original music for the podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier. The sound design and additional music was by Pascal Wyse.