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Holocaust survivor shares his story with students, teachers

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Alfred Schnog, Holocaust survivor, speaks at a workshop sponsored by the NC Council on the Holocaust at South Central High School on Nov. 8, 2018. (Molly Mathis/The Daily Reflector)

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By Amber Revels-Stocks
The Times-Leader

Friday, November 9, 2018

WINTERVILLE — When he was seven years-old, Alfred Schnog’s mother held a paring knife to his throat and told a Nazi border guard that if he did not allow her sons to come with her, she would kill Alfred and his twin, Norbert, before killing herself.

Fortunately, the guard let her whole family through and Schnog was able to share his story with the teachers and students who packed South Central High School’s media center on Thursday afternoon.

The N.C. Council on the Holocaust, in conjunction with the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, held an all-day workshop at the school on Thursday.

The highlight of the event was a discussion with Schnog, who escaped from Holland only 40 days before the Nazis invaded.

The Schnog twins were born in 1931 in Cologne, Germany, and lived there through the rise of Nazism until 1938 when the family escaped.

“I went to school in Germany and learned a lot of things about anti-Semitism, propaganda and what was going on,” Schnog said.

His family had lived in Germany for more than 200 years, integrating fully into German society and being considered German citizens until 1935 when Adolf Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws, which stripped citizenship from Jews and made relationships between “non-Aryans” and Germans illegal.

“All of the problems existing in Germany were blamed, by the population and by the Hitler government, as being the fault of the Jews,” Schnog said. “It’s so easy to find a scapegoat whether you are a child on a school bus or a German living under the Hitler regime.”

When he was young, Schnog attended a German school. The students would often be shown propaganda, such as the weekly newspaper “The Storm,” which had the tagline “The Jews are our misfortune” and advertisements warning that interracial friendships would result in people being “Race Violators.”

Unfortunately, the propaganda worked.

Signs proclaiming “Jews are not wanted here” began to appear at local beaches and historic sites, including the castles along the Rhine River that runs through Cologne.

Their parents trained them how to hide their Jewishness, including covering themselves when they went to the bathroom, so others could not see that they were circumcised.

“We learned early on that in order to exist in Germany, we would have to live an undercover life. We would have to hide what we were because if we didn’t, we’d be thrown out of almost every place,” Schnog said. “Always we had the thought that we can’t really admit who we are. It’s strange for a child to (think) that. To not be able to say, ‘I am who I am.’”

He added, “The psychological effect on someone who is four or five — we lived through that.”

Schnog’s grandparents lived across the Hohenzollern Bridge from where his family lived in Cologne. His father would drive the family across to the Jewish quarter on weekends and holidays.

One day, his father pulled the car over to the side of the bridge and pulled a gun out of his pocket.

“Then, he began to proceed to dismantle it into its several pieces,” Schnog remembered. “He stepped out of the car, went over to the edge of the bridge and threw the pieces into the Rhine River.

“My brother and I were startled. When he got back into the car, we said, ‘Why did you do that?’” Schnog said. “He replied, ‘Well, the Nazis have promulgated a law that says Jews are not able to own firearms, so I’ve gotten rid of it because I don’t want the Nazis to have it to use God knows where.’”

For Schnog, that was the first time he realized his parents were going to resist the Nazis rather than just give in to them.

“This was my father’s part. His way of resisting,” Schnog said. “My mother’s part came later, but it was even more dramatic than that.”

In 1938, the Schnogs began the process of relocating to Holland, now the Netherlands. On Nov. 9, their belongings were taken to Amsterdam; the Schnogs booked a room for the night at the Dome Hotel in downtown Cologne. The hotel was on a high-end shopping street; Jewish shopkeepers owned most of the shops.

“My brother and I were very excited about leaving the next day to go to Holland, so my parents had trouble getting us to go to sleep. We had just about fallen asleep when our parents had us go to the window,” Schnog said. “We looked down, and we could see that street with all the shops. We saw utter chaos.

“Sturmabteilung (Nazi paramilitary troops) were marching down the street. They were followed by Hitler Youth and rabble-rousers of every sort. They were picking up rocks and throwing them into the shop windows. Then they would climb into the shop window, gather up the merchandise and throw it out the window, shouting with glee.”

Schnog continued, “Kristallnacht is something I can’t ever forget. It was 80 years ago tomorrow, and for me, it was as though it had happened yesterday.”

The next day, the family boarded a train to Amsterdam. When the train reached the border, police officers removed the Jewish passengers and placed them in a local jail. The family was questioned and let go after Schnog’s father claimed he had official governmental business in Amsterdam.

A border guard decided to let the parents go but keep the twins as “collateral” until their parents returned.

“There are periods of terror in your life that you will never forget. This was certainly a period of terror for us,” Schnog said. “My mother carried with her in her pocketbook a small paring knife, which she used to peel apples. She reached in and got that paring knife out, and she looked at the Nazis and said, ‘Our children are coming with us. If you attempt to stop me, I will cut their throats right here. Then, I will cut my own throat.’

“Would she have done it? No question in my mind,” Schnog said.

The guards let the whole Schnog family into Holland. From there, the Schnog twins and their parents flew into England, leaving their grandparents and aunt behind. They took the Britannica to America, arriving in New York on April 1, 1940.

Forty days later, the Nazis invaded Holland. There was no chance for the rest of the Schnogs to join the family in America.

“My grandparents and my aunts were taken from Amsterdam,” Schnog said. “They were sent to Sobibor (an extermination camp in what was now eastern Poland).”

Originally, Schnog did not want to tell his story to others because he felt like “one of the lucky ones.”

“I didn’t live through the camps, but I escaped Germany at the last moment when it was still possible to do so,” Schnog said. “My journey was one that took place on the very edge of history. I was able to observe what was happening and escaped just as the door closed behind me.”

Fortunately, his wife, Anita, and Rabbi Harley Karz-Wagman convinced him to share his story. Schnog has spoken about his experiences more than 150 times, according to Karz-Wagman. He and Anita live in Wilmington and travel throughout eastern North Carolina.

“I share this story to honor my parents and grandparents,” he said. “The country is not going to change unless we educate people on hatred and the inability to accept people for who they are.”

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