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Monday, May 28, 2018
HomeColumnsHenri Landwirth, Holocaust survivor who forgave — and then gave kids the world

Henri Landwirth, Holocaust survivor who forgave — and then gave kids the world

As far as I know, Henri Landwirth never made it to Alaska, but he will be remembered on the Last Frontier at least by one person — me.

A Holocaust survivor, Henri Landwirth has passed at age 91. I will never forget him.

Henri and his family were forced into a ghetto in Krakow, Poland, during the Nazi occupation. His father wanted to flee Poland because the anti-Jewish sentiment was rising, but his mother would not leave. Germans invaded their home and robbed them of every valuable possession. The suffering was unimaginable, but would only get worse.

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As a young teen, Henri survived Nazi death and labor camps, including Ostrowitz and Auschwitz. His father was arrested, shot in the back of the head and dumped in an unmarked mass grave.

After months in the prison at Ostrowitz, Landwirth learned his mother was living on the other side of the camp. He snuck over to see her, and found her at death’s door. She asked him, “You wouldn’t have an extra piece of bread, son, would you?” He did not have anything to feed her and he never spoke with her again, never heard her voice nor felt her touch, although later in Auschwitz he thought he saw her from a distance.

At the end of World War II, Henri was marched into the woods to be shot, but a Nazi soldier spared his life and ordered him to run. Miraculously, he limped into the woods. “I never knew what my life would be like. Frankly, I didn’t know if I would live,” he said.

He made it to an empty house, where he collapsed. Covered in sores and down to skin and bones, he was found by kindly country people who nursed him back to health.

Later he learned that his mother had been loaded on a boat with a thousand Jewish prisoners and then floated into a harbor and blown up.

Then somebody told him they had seen his twin sister, Margot. Against advice, he hitched a ride back into Germany and to the village where she was believed to be housed with several other women. Using a secret whistle that only she would recognize, he walked through the village whistling, until he heard her whistle in response: They were reunited on their 18th birthday. Margot died last year.

WHAT HENRI DID NEXT

Henri survived and chose to forgive the atrocities he witnessed. He chose love over hate, and grace over fear. He came to America with $20 and a Torah and started out at the bottom of the hotel business.

In 1954, he became the manager of the Starlight Motel in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in partnership with astronaut John Glenn. As he worked his way up and learned his trade of hospitality, and grew his fortunes in hotels. And ultimately, he gave it all away to help disabled and dying children and their families experience one last vacation together, a holiday that is filled with joy, where Santa visits every day, and the tooth fairy comes and leaves presents every night. The rides at “Give Kids the World” are all accessible to disabled children, and it’s all free.

In his late 70s, Henri finally returned to Auschwitz to visit. His children went with him and a documentary crew filmed his experience and made a documentary, “Borrowing Time.” The trip was not easy for Henri and the film has not been shown but a few times.

Read Henri’s autobiography: “The Gift of Life.”

A beautifully crafted short history of his life is here.

 

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Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • Henri did indeed make it to Alaska on two separate trips. We fished together for salmon and halibut out of Ketchikan in 1990. He loved the clean water, snow covered mountains and American eagles.

  • Thank you for remembering Henri.