Mike Shwartz: Holocaust survivor became local ‘Cheeseman’.

December 18, 2020

Meyer “Mike” Shwartz stands outside the Sugar Grove Market.

Mike Shwartz: Holocaust survivor became local ‘Cheeseman’.

Around the County is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Editor’s Note: Last week, in honor of Hanukkah, we told the story of the Benow and Schoenberger families and their influences as Jewish merchants Scottville and the surrounding area, including Ludington (read the story here). Those two families operated stores in downtown Scottville — Benow’s Department Store and Schoenberger Food Store — beginning with the Benows in 1917 until 1977 (two generations) and the Schoenbergers from 1931 until 1983 (Morris Schoenberger, father of Abbie Schoenberger, who owned the Scottville store, had operated a meat market in Ludington since the late 1800s, making Abbie’s business also second generation). Another Jewish merchant, Meyer “Mike” Shwartz, arrived in Mason County much later than the Benows and Schoenberger, and had a much different story. Both the Benows and Schoenbergers arrived in the United States, and Michigan, many years prior to the Holocaust. Meyer Shwartz, on the other hand, was a victim of the Holocaust who eventually immigrated to the U.S. following World War II. Shwartz, who passed away in September of this year, owned Sugar Grove Market in Sherman Township and Wiley Store in Eden Township during the 1970s.

Myer “Mike” Shwartz stands next to his father, along with his aunt and uncle. His aunt and uncle left Poland in 1938 for the U.S. and escaped the Holocaust.

Meyer Shwartz (Srebrnagora) was born on Aug. 25, 1929 in Łódź, Poland, located 83 miles (134 km) southwest of Warsaw. He was an only child but part of a large family that included parents, grandparents, aunt, uncles, and many cousins. His family was part of the Zionist movement, to restore the Jewish homeland of Israel. 

Meyer’s father and uncles were furriers. He attended a private school because his father wanted him to become a doctor. His mother worked in a restaurant owned by his aunt and uncle. 

Shwartz’s grandfather initially left Poland and came to Patterson, N.J., prior to the start of the war. However, he returned to Poland to be near his grandchildren, according to a story published about Shwartz by the Holocaust Memorial Center.

According to the article, Meyer was in a day camp when the war started, his mother coming to fetch him in a horse drawn cart. The Germans entered Łódź within one month after the war began.  The family hid their furs, silver and other valuables in one room. Meyer’s father employed five people. 

The ghettoization of Łódź was decided on September 8, 1939, by an order of SS-Oberführer Friedrich Uebelhoer, seven days following the German invasion of Poland. His top secret document stated that the ghetto was only a temporary solution to “the Jewish question” in the city of Łódź. Uebelhoer never implied the long-term survival.

The ghetto was sealed on April 30, 1940 with 164,000 people inside. It was the second largest ghetto in German-occupied Europe after the Warsaw Ghetto. It was originally intended as a preliminary step upon a more extensive plan of creating the Judenfrei province of Warthegau. The ghetto was transformed into a major industrial center, manufacturing war supplies for the German army, the Wehrmacht.

Meyer and his mother.

The ghetto was administered by an agency known as a Judenrat, a Jewish Council of Elders. Leading the Łódź council was Chaim Rumkowski (1877-1944), a former insurance salesman who history remembers as giving a notorious speech to his fellow Jews: “Give me your children,” delivered when the Germans demanded compliance with the deportation of 20,000 children, 10 years old and younger, to Chełmno extermination camp. Though his actions and motives have been debated, Rumkowski is credited with convincing the Nazis that the Łódź ghetto workers could be used as slave laborers to help manufacture items for the war effort. 

In addition to managing basic services such as communal kitchens, infirmaries, post offices and vocational schools, common tasks of the Judenräte included providing the Nazi regime with slave labor, and rounding up quotas of Jews for “resettlement in the East,” a euphemism for deportations to extermination camps in the deadliest phase of the Holocaust. 

In 1944 Rumkowski and his family were part of the last transport to Auschwitz concentration camp where he was beat to death by Jewish workers at the camp.                  

Meyer’s family lived in a fourth floor walk-up with his aunts, cousins and grandfather.  The ghetto was the size of half of Oak Park, Michigan and housed 200,000 people. Like all the other Jews in the ghetto and throughout German occupied Europe, the family members wore a star on their front and back.  Meyer said that everyone was submissive. Everyone worked in factories, working for the Nazis.  He and his father worked in a fur factory.  They stood in line for hours to get one loaf of bread per week. 

The Łódź ghetto was known as having the most advanced schools compared to other Polish ghettos. Meyer attended the schools that taught Polish and German history, likely skewed toward the Nazi agenda. 

Meyer’s parents.

Meyer said he remembered that selections were being made very week and people were told that they were being sent away to work. His family avoided the selection by moving to different locations within the ghetto. He called his mother a “benevolent dictator” who was able to make the family’s food last. His aunt, who had owned a restaurant before the war, worked in the ghetto food service. 

Meyer also recalled that people were required to watch public hangings as a way to enforce compliance.

In 1944, Meyer’s family could no longer hide and was selected to be transferred to concentration camps. The entire ghetto was dismantled in August 1944. 

There were Jewish spies who said that his father was hiding furs, so he was badly beaten.  The Germans also beat his aunt, breaking all her fingers. He recalled people dying in the cattle cars on the way to the concentration camps.                                                                                                                                                     When they arrived at Auschwitz, 150 miles (245 km) south of Łódź, 250,000 children were separated from their parents. At that time, Meyer was told that his father was sent to work in a coal mine. After several years of research, Meyer found out that his father died in Dachau concentration camp 10 miles northwest of Munich, Germany, on March 3, 1945, two months before the camp was liberated by the U.S. Seventh Army. In late 1944, a typhus epidemic occurred in the camp caused by poor sanitation and overcrowding, which caused more than 15,000 deaths. It was followed by an evacuation, in which large number of the prisoners died. Toward the end of the war, death marches to and from the camp caused the deaths of numerous unrecorded prisoners. 

The Dachau camp was German’s prototype concentration camp and operated longer than any other one, from 1933 to 1945. The camp was then used by the Allies until 1948 as a prison camp for SS officers awaiting trial and then as a resettlement camp of Germans who had been expelled from eastern Europe. The U.S. military also used the camp as a base until it was closed in 1960. 

Meyer worked with an Auschwitz historian and the American Red Cross to find out what happened to his mother, but never solved the mystery. It was common practice for women with children to be sent directly to the gas chambers. Otherwise, prisoners were tattooed and documented. There is no record of his mother being documented, which likely means she was immediately killed. 

Meyer “Mike” Shwartz stands outside Auschwitz Barrack 13A, where he was assigned at age 14 in 1944 during a visit 2013.

All the young boys were tattooed and marched to the camp. A total of 87 of Meyer’s family members died in the Holocaust. Only one of his cousins, along with himself, survived.      

As part of the selection, a child had to be tall enough to touch an extended board.  The shorter boys were never seen again. Meyer’s group was given uniforms and wooden shoes, bread and watered down soup.  Everyone had their own container and spoon. If they lost those items they could not eat. They were taught to lay bricks and were assigned to Barrack #13A.  Their bunks had straw mattresses.  They showered with cold water every night.  Meyer was so cold that he only wet his left arm.  They were sprayed with a de-louser, for diseases  food was scarce.  There were 250 children in the group. 

Meyer recalled how there was an orchestra at Auschwitz that would play John Phillip Sousa marches. When he immigrated to the U.S. and first heard the marches on TV he became ill.    

Meyer said he was beaten with a whip when he was caught with salamis in his pants.                                                                                                

All of his group survived and were marched to Lieberose, Germany, 458 miles (284 km) away.  Their average age was 14. Their next stop was Mauthausen, Austria. 

Meyer recalled that by this point in the war, as the Allied Forces were advancing, there was no longer work and people were starving. The children had developed secret codes among them about stealing food. While working with dogs he would steal the dogs’ biscuits to feed his group of friends. 

The group was eventually moved to Sachsenhausen, German, Brandenburg, German, and then Gunskirchen, Austria. According to Meyer’s daughter, Roz, he also had been in concentration camps in Chelmno, Poland and Birkenau, Germany.

Auschwitz

Meyer was liberated by the U.S. Fifth Army on May 6, 1945 at the age of 16. He said the liberation was a total surprise even though they had heard bombing leading up to the liberation. 

He was initially sent to the displaced persons (DP) camp in Wels, Germany, where he was given a shoer (he had not washed in 18 months) and deloused. He was also given a never-before-word German military uniforms (the swastikas and other patches were removed). Later he was given civilian clothes and moved to a DP camp in Salzburg, Austria. Located in the American occupied zone, in Dec. 1946 about 13,200 Jews were dispersed among Salzburg’s three permanent, and five transient camps. For a time, 2,000 persons entered the DP area daily. 

United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) administered the permanent camps: Bad Gastein, New Palestine, and Braunau. The transient camps were led by UNRRA and partially by the The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC): Frenz Josef, Beth Bialik, Puch, Riedenburg, and Saalfelden. Salzburg’s transient camps commonly sheltered larger groups of DPs. Most of the camp’s Jews came from Hungary and Poland; others came from Romania and Czechoslovakia. 

From there, Meyer went to Italy and then Palestine where he joined the Israeli Defense Ford (IDF) and fought the 1948 war for Israel to become a state. He was wounded in the war and lost an eye. He then went to Italy for rehabilitation. He then found an uncle, John Shwartz, in Patterson, N.J., who had left Poland before the formation of the Łódź Ghetto. Meyer came to the U.S. on a ship and was reunited with his uncle in 1951. He became a U.S. citizen in 1955 while also keeping his Israeli citizenship. 

He worked for a time as a furrier and then in high fashion clothing and women’s fur coasts in New Jersey. He then worked as a chauffeur in New York where he met his wife, Betty Blecher, who was a model. After they got married in 1954 they moved to Detroit where Meyer worked as a salesman for Standard Drug Company and sold products to clients like Smokey Robinson. 

A visit to Auschwitz.

Betty and Meyer had two children, David and Rosalinda (Roz). After the 1968 Detroit riots, Meyer no longer felt safe raising his family there. The family had often driven up the west shoreline of Michigan on trips up to the Mackinaw area. Meyer had fallen in love with Scottville and Ludington, Roz said. “He felt this is where he wanted to raise his children and we moved to Scottville in 1972 where he became self-employed owning Sugar Grove Market and Cheese Shoppe (located on the northeast corner of US 31 and Sugar Grove Road) and WIley’s Country Store (located on the northeast corner of Scottville and Meisenheimer roads). 

Mike and Betty at the Sugar Grove Market.

Locally, people called him the “Cheesman”, Mikey or Mike.

He retired from the stores and moved to Kalamazoo where he worked as a salesman for Karmer Fancy Food Co. Following his second retirement from that job, he and Betty moved to Israel in 1994, Betty passed away on Aug. 22, 2009.

“He was loved and respected by all,” Roz said. “He spoke to schools, newspapers, the military and Steven Spielberg, and gave his testimony of his accounts of the Holocaust. His testimony is in all the museums of Yad Vashem worldwide. He wrote two books about his life reminding everyone about the atrocities that occurred. He would give his testimony and talk freely of the Holocaust to all who would listen. He was a tough but exceptional father who taught me to be strong and independent. He loved to travel and spoke nine languages.

Meyer “Mike” Shwartz died on Sept. 6, 2020 in his home in Ashdod, Israel. He was 91-years-old. 

Please consider helping to fund local news. Mason County Press and Oceana County Press are available for free thanks to the generous support of our advertisers and individuals who support our service. Click on the PayPal donation button located on the top right of our website. 

This story is copyrighted © 2020, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

Help Fund Local News

Please consider helping us keep local news active by sending a PayPal payment.

Legally Speaking: Consent to search

Subscribe to MCP via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this site and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 21,326 other subscribers