Survivor Dana Schwartz: Dark past can’t hold back this ‘American girl’

February 24, 2017
Photo by David Miller

“Don’t hug him. Don’t kiss him. Say goodbye like you hardly know him,” Lusia Schapira instructed her 7-year-old daughter, Dana (then Danusia), as they re-entered the ghetto in Lvov, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine), from which the two had recently escaped.

No longer wearing their Star of David armbands and posing with false papers as Christian Poles, they had come to say farewell to Syd Schapira, their father and husband, under the guise of conducting some small commercial transaction. As they stood with Syd near the guardhouse, Dana politely said goodbye, tensely holding her shoulders and arms and suppressing an urge to scream. “I was very painfully aware that I may never see him again, and I can’t hug him,” she recalled. Syd walked away; Dana and her mother exited the ghetto. It was June 1942.

Dana, who was born on Jan. 30, 1935, was an only child. Her university-educated parents both worked for the Polish national lottery, owned by a man named Sam Safir. The family was upper-middle class, living in a comfortable apartment with several servants.

When Dana was 4 1/2, in September 1939, her nanny uncharacteristically allowed her out of her stroller to play in the park, where she spotted a beautiful daisy. Though forbidden, she stepped on the grass and picked the flower just as a loud boom exploded. Terrified, Dana was convinced that God was expressing his anger at her. She then noticed that everyone was running, and she hurried back to her nanny. A man came by with a large, white dog. “Go home,” he said. “The war has started.”

Soon after, Syd rented a car and driver, and the family set out for the Romanian border, which Syd hoped to cross by bribing a guard. Dana was frightened only when shooting erupted, as when a biplane strafed their car, forcing them to jump into a cornfield to hide.

When they finally arrived at the border, at the bottom of a hill below a small guardhouse perched halfway up, Syd paced back and forth, listening to Lusia tally the possessions they would relinquish if they left. These included their Persian rug, their paintings and the silver they received as a wedding present. Syd yielded to his wife’s wishes, and they returned to Lvov.

Not that he found solace. The Soviets, who occupied Lvov in accordance with the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, conscripted Syd into the army. He soon escaped but was pursued by the Soviets and forced into hiding. “You must never tell them where father is hiding,” Lusia warned Dana. “Otherwise you may never see him again.” More than once, people questioned her, but she never revealed his hiding place in the attic. “I was always proud that I did not give him away,” Dana said.

Dana was confined mainly to the family’s apartment. But one day in the summer of 1941, with the Germans now in control of Lvov, she was playing with the janitor’s children when a Nazi soldier approached her, steering her to a landing between two floors. There, with a gun in one hand, he began sexually abusing her with the other. Despite fears he would shoot her, she made a run for it, bounding up the stairs to the safety of her apartment.

Several months later, Lusia answered a loud knock at the door to find a tall German officer, accompanied by two lieutenants, who proceeded to inspect the apartment. “We’ll take it,” the officer announced. “Be out in half an hour.” After the Germans left, each member of the family packed a small valise, and they walked to the ghetto. Dana remembered how her parents strode straight ahead, their shoulders erect in a show of courage.

Inside the ghetto, the family shared a 1 1/2-room apartment,  plus a kitchen, with Dana’s uncle, paternal grandmother and another elderly woman. “I learned how to do nothing,” Dana said.

Occasionally venturing outside with her mother, Dana noticed three stains on the side of her apartment building. Later she learned that German soldiers had taken three toddlers by the ankles, trying to splatter their heads against the wall on the first swing. “Everyone drew away. It was horrifying,” Dana said.

Around March 1942, Syd announced that an aktion, a roundup and deportation of the Jews living in the ghetto, was imminent and they needed to hide. He first found a place for the older women. Then, at night, he carried Dana to the courtyard where he and Lusia crawled behind three stone steps attached to a walkway. There they lay on the dirt floor with eight or so others, venturing out only at 3 a.m. every day to stretch and drink water.

Dana had been hiding a week or two when Lusia offered their former neighbors, a Ukrainian couple, a ring in return for taking Dana for a week, knowing she would be safe. The couple put her in a bedroom with only a large pile of newspapers. After seven days, the husband returned her to the courtyard.

Dana sat on the stone steps, whispering to her father that she was back, careful not to reveal the hiding place. “Go down to the cellar,” he instructed. There, in the basement of their apartment building, she found her mother, who herself had spent the week in hiding. When the lengthy aktion was over, the three returned to their apartment.

Two months later, Dana and Lusia had false papers that Syd had purchased, enabling them to leave Lvov. (As a circumcised male, he knew he couldn’t pass as a Christian.) Lusia drilled Dana on her new name, Danusia Marysia Schabinska, and taught her Catholic prayers.

After Dana and her mother bid farewell to Syd, they made their way to the Lvov train station, where they met a farmer Syd had paid to take them to his village, Zaklikow, about 130 miles northwest of Lvov. The farmer told other villagers that these were his cousin’s wife and daughter, people he felt obliged to assist.

Another farmer rented them a space in his livestock barn. For food, as they were starving, Lusia approached the baker, bartering her silk dresses, platinum watch and engagement ring for a daily piece of bread. (In 1989, after a trip to Zaklikow, Dana succeeded in buying back her mother’s ring from the baker’s daughter.)

Meanwhile, Syd had been taken to the Janowska labor and transit camp on the outskirts of Lvov. There, he smuggled out three letters to Lusia and Dana, informing them, in the last letter, that “Syd is planning to take a vacation,” code for an escape. Dana and her mother never heard from him again.

Finally, in the summer of 1944, the Soviets liberated Zaklikow. Dana and Lusia hitched a ride in the back of a Soviet military truck to Lvov, where they found no surviving relatives and where a man Lusia had recently met rented a room for them.

One night, a drunk Soviet army officer attacked Lusia in the courtyard of their building, holding a gun while trying to rape her. Dana, then 10, was the only one who responded to Lusia’s calls for help. She jumped on the officer’s back, kicking, scratching and disorienting him, enabling them both to escape. The next morning, Lusia told Dana, “I am going to take you to America.”

Around June 1945, Dana and Lusia moved to Bytom in western Poland, and from there, in 1946, they immigrated to Sweden.

In Stockholm, Lusia remarried. “It was not a happy marriage,” Dana said, but her mother’s husband had a green card, enabling them to fulfill their dream of immigrating to the United States. On Dec. 7, 1949, they arrived in Los Angeles, where Sam Safir, Lusia’s former employer at the Polish national lottery, now lived.

In the U.S., Dana, then 14, had two wishes: to become an American girl, like the other teenagers she saw wearing Levi’s jeans, and a flamenco dancer. She took flamenco lessons for only a few weeks but, more important, attended school, graduating from high school in June 1952.

Lusia died of cancer four months later, and Dana, with the help of Safir, who became her guardian, attended college. She became an elementary school teacher, working from 1958 to 1961.

During this time, Dana met Wilbur (Bill) Schwartz, an American physician, and married him on Nov. 22, 1959. “I was finally safe and in love,” she said. The couple had three sons: Steve, born in 1961; Rick, in 1963; and Jonny, in 1969.

When Jonny was 5, Dana began to volunteer at The Maple Counseling Center in Beverly Hills. She returned to school, earned a master’s degree in psychology and worked as a licensed therapist from 1980 to 2013.  Bill died in November 2014.

In 1994, when the USC Shoah Foundation was founded, Dana began conducting interviews and training interviewers, including those who spoke Polish and Swedish. “I loved my work,” she said.

She also has been active with the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust since the 1970s and currently is a member of the Survivor Advisory Board as well as a regular speaker.

Dana, now a grandmother of six, feels blessed to have so many rich memories.

“I’m not just an American girl like I wanted to be,” she said. “I’m also that person who went through all that stuff. And it lives with me. It’s the foundation of who I am.”

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