Ann Schonwetter Arnold’s debut novel, Together: A Journey for Survival, offers the disquieting tale of how her father, Livingston resident Mark Schonwetter, then known as Manek, survived the Holocaust with his mother and little sister in his native Poland.
Manek’s father, Israel, an affluent leader of the Jewish community in Brzostek, knew the enormity of what was going on around him and chose to die with his fellow Jews. But the night before the Jews were to be rounded up, Manek’s mother, Sala, got word and fled with him and his little sister Zosia. They spent most of the next three years in hiding, helped more than once by Antony Pilat, a Polish Christian, family friend, and former employee and tenant of the Schonwetters.
The book opens just before the German army invaded Poland in 1939, when Manek was six. Although many Holocaust survivors’ tales, especially those from Poland, offer a damning portrait of the Poles, Arnold’s perspective is colored not only by those non-Jews who saved her father’s family but also by her experience visiting Brzostek as an adult.
The book was published by Avalerion Books in early May.
On Thursday, June 16, at 6 p.m., Arnold, who grew up in Livingston, will be speaking and signing books at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston, where her father is a member.
Arnold spoke with NJJN by phone from her home in Norwood in Bergen County.
Throughout her long career in the jewelry business, Arnold said, she harbored a desire to be an author, but her book had to tell one particular story — her family’s. It was something she attempted on and off since she was 17. Although she has no formal training as a writer, she had published a few poems while in her 20s, before becoming a CPA and joining the family jewelry manufacturing business, Lieberfarb. She eventually became CEO, sold the company, started a consulting firm, and is now chief strategy officer for a consulting company in the jewelry industry.
It was a 2009 “life changing” family trip to her father’s native Brzostek — for the re-consecration of the Jewish cemetery there — that set her on a course to finally write the novel. (See related story here.)
That experience, said Arnold, “restored my faith in mankind.” As the daughter of a survivor, she said, “I really did grow up with that cynicism.” But in Brzostek, the people “opened their arms to us and brought us into the community.” She was moved to find that the family of her family’s rescuer, Antony Pilat, had created their own ways to ensure that what happened would never be forgotten.
Sala left the Schonwetter family home to the Pilats when they left Poland after the war. When they did extensive renovations, the Pilats retained part of an original wall as a kind of shrine to the Schonwetters and the rest of the Jewish community that had vanished. During the Schonwetters’ visit, another member of the Pilat family pulled a photo of Manek and his sister as small children out of his wallet, where he keeps it. Arnold’s conclusion? “It’s as much a part of their story as it is ours,” she said.
So after a lifetime of cynicism, “We went and saw the goodness of people who didn’t owe us anything.” And when Arnold returned last November with her own children, she learned that after the cemetery was consecrated, someone discovered a mass grave where Jewish victims had been massacred. “A righteous Polish person marked the area,” she said. “People just want to do the right thing.”
As a result, the novel is not just about hardship and horror, but about goodness. “The message is never forget what happened, but also, never forget that good people exist and you have to be a good person,” Arnold said. “There’s so much hatred and intolerance in the world…. No one talks about the good people. But why was my grandmother saved? Because my grandfather treated everyone around him with respect, and they were good people.”
Her grandmother Sala is the focal point of the novel. “She was always a larger than life person to me. Now that I’m a mother, I can’t imagine doing what she did. She always fascinated me.” In some ways, the author added, the book is “a testament to her will.”
After the 2009 trip, Arnold started a blog, where she captured the results of interviews she conducted with her father over the course of six months. That testimony also provided the basis for the book. With the help of her publisher, she also interviewed her aunt, with whom her grandmother Sala lived until her death in 2002, and re-interviewed her father. In that second process, she found parts of the story “that my father had never told us, or that he had softened for us,” she said. And she heard new stories along with different versions of her father’s stories, from her aunt. “I definitely had to weed through some noise,” she said. “But I feel what I wrote is true to the spirit of what happened.”
She hopes adding dialogue and some color will engage readers. “Honestly? People are not interested in reading a documentary,” she said.
As for dealing with Holocaust deniers, she said, “We could shout from the rooftops, which we’ve been doing since 1945, and not change their perspective. What I need to do is make sure the next generation hears this story loud and clear.”