Imagine you lost everything to a murderous regime. Your family, your friends, your home, your country, all gone. Would you be able to move on? I know I’d struggle. Recently I met someone who did just that, a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated his life to spreading peace and understanding.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier has every reason to be bitter. And yet having survived the murder of 1.5 million Jewish children in Europe, the Austrian American diplomat and religious leader was determined to use his life to advocate for peace.
I recently spoke with him for my podcast, Awake at Night, during a week in which the world paused to remember the plight of refugees. Meeting him, I couldn’t help but marvel at his capacity to overcome his past and cultivate compassion in himself and others.
“You cannot just live your life being paralyzed by the past,” he told me. “Don’t give up […] Every conflict comes to an end.”
Rabbi Schneier’s childhood in Vienna was derailed when the Nazis took over Austria in 1938. His Christian friends broke off contact, while he and his mother were denied basic rights. He watched in horror as his neighbours graduated from burning books to burning synagogues. Worse was to follow.
On the eve of the outbreak of war in Europe, he and his mother fled to Hungary, where his grandparents were living, in the hope of securing safe passage to the US. It wasn’t to be. Countries around the world balked at accepting so many Jewish refugees. They were stuck.
Frustrated and frightened, the young man wrote to the US president begging to be allowed into the country. No answer came. Then, in 1944, the Nazis occupied Hungary and began a murderous hunt for all Jewish residents, deporting anyone they found to Auschwitz and other extermination camps.
Only the protection of a Swiss diplomat, Carl Lutz, and the International Red Cross saved Rabbi Schneier and his mother from being murdered in the Nazi camps, a fate that befell most of his family members, including his grandparents.
After the war, on hearing of the death of his grandfather, a well-known rabbi, the young man pledged to succeed him. He returned first to Vienna before relocating to the US to study. In 1962, he became the senior rabbi at the city’s Park East Synagogue, where he still serves today.
In 1965, he organized a demonstration raising awareness of the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union. Attended by Senator Robert Kennedy, and supported by Martin Luther King from Oslo, the high-profile event gave birth to the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which blossomed into a global force advocating for human rights and religious freedom.
In the decades that followed, Rabbi Schneier undertook countless diplomatic missions, advocating for peace in conflicts with a religious dimension from Northern Ireland to China, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Latin America.
In 1988, he was appointed US Alternative Representative to the UN General Assembly, a role he accepted with “pure elation and joy.” He is still active in the UN today, with General Secretary António Guterres recently describing him as “an inspiration to the world and the UN.”
Looking back, Rabbi Schneier says that far from stopping him short, his early experiences drove him on. “I know what persecution, what suffering is. There’s nothing like experience of having gone through war, hunger. Of being chased. All that gives you really is a worldview, a resolution,” he said.
Working with religious and political leaders across the world over five decades, Rabbi Schneier describes his job as knitting together personal relationships so that he can remain a neutral advocate for human rights, religious freedom, and mutual respect between peoples.
“Not just tolerance. I don’t like the word tolerance. Tolerance means I am superior than you are.”
“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,” he said.
Rabbi Schneier’s life experiences are a warning from history. Yet his resilience in the face of such horror and his life-long mission to bring unity also carry a powerful message for all of us contemplating the turmoil in the world today: Only together can we overcome.