The last time Oren Schneider saw his beloved maternal grandfather Alexander Ruziak, the elderly man, who was 92 years old at the time, made an unusual request.
For as long as Oren could remember, his grandfather had openly shared the unbelievable details of how he survived the horrors of the Holocaust. But though the importance of his grandfather’s life story was completely clear to Oren, Alexander had always been unsure it would be of interest to the rest of the world. In the spring of 2019, however, Alexander asked his grandson, for the first time ever, to share his story.
And so, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, shuttered in his Brooklyn home with nowhere to go, that’s exactly what Oren did. He distanced himself from the chaos of the world outside and dove deep into the tales he grew up on. For over a year, he wove his grandfather’s story — including extensive family history research done through MyHeritage — into a beautiful book, The Apprentice of Buchenwald: The True Story of the Teenage Boy Who Sabotaged Hitler’s War Machine.
As the title suggests, one of the highlights of the story is the miraculous chain of events that led 17-year-old Alexander to be part of a massive scheme against the Nazi military. Alexander and his father, Solomon, were captured and sent to Buchenwald, the largest of all German concentration camps during World War II. Sharing a powerful bond, the two bravely survive numerous incidents of severe violence and horrific, subhuman conditions. Thanks to a combination of wisely seized opportunities and pure luck, they win the trust of a high-ranking German and Alexander is assigned to work in a slave labor German armaments factory. There he secretly joins Soviet POWs to sabotage Mauser 337 assault rifles, the personal weapons most widely used by the German army. This is just one of the fascinating twists and turns in Schneider’s historical memoir, whose plot spans from 19th century Slovakia to 21th century U.S. and Israel.
“Listen to me. If we don’t handle ourselves smartly in the coming hours, the cold will kill us. We must sleep, and at the same time we must make sure we don’t freeze in the snow.”
“How do we do that?”
“We will take shifts sleeping on the wooden plate. The person awake will have to continuously rub the sleeping person’s body, head to toe, so we both don’t freeze. It’s critically important that you don’t fall asleep during your shift, or we will both turn to icicles…”
It was the longest night. We changed roles three times during that night, each of us getting two sessions of sleep. My last shift was much less stressful, and I felt my heartbeat settling down.
I was looking around as my hands were rubbing his body. Seemingly, except for me, only the guards on the surrounding watchtowers were awake, the entire camp and bordering nature world were motionless and muted.
(Excerpt from The Apprentice of Buchenwald)
Oren says it is a universal and timeless story, “depicting the loneliness and randomness of an individual’s struggle against an evil of immense proportions.”
Nevertheless, it is also a story about love: the love of a father and son who drew strength from their close bond while facing the horrors of the Holocaust together; and the love between a grandfather and the grandson who felt compelled to share his incredible story.
The strength of the book lies not only in its important, fascinating, and vividly detailed contents, but also in the quality and sensitivity of Oren’s writing, which reflects his enormous love and respect for his grandfather.
Growing up on his grandfather’s stories
Oren’s own life has not been without its challenges. He was only 15 months old when his father, Menachem, a combat pilot, died in the spring of 1976. Out on a scheduled training sortie, he collided mid-air with a fighter jet that was returning from an operational mission. Menachem was only 23, and so was his wife, Maya. At the time of the accident she was pregnant, and gave birth to Oren’s sister, Michal, two months later, exactly on her late husband’s birthday.
Oren’s mother Maya was left alone with two babies, and Oren says that she never fully recovered from the loss. At that point Maya’s father, Alexander, “stepped into a father and educator role,” as Oren writes in the introduction to the book. “My concentration camp survivor grandfather began sharing his World War II capturing and concentration camp survival stories with me when I was five. The year was 1980. Every Friday afternoon, lying next to each other on my grandparents’ grand bed, he would uncover another layer, release another nerve, unveil another painful memory. Details of daily life in the Buchenwald concentration camp, mundane descriptions of a forced laborer’s work shift in an armament factory, and stories about uncles and aunts who died in the gas chambers were as commonly discussed as latest soccer league standings or the soaring inflation in the Israeli economy.”
Oren started documenting his grandfather’s stories at an early age, using old recording devices, and even managed to record a testimony of his great-grandmother, Irena, Alexander’s mother — who at the time was over 100 years old, “but still sharp as a whip.”
Apart from the Holocaust, Oren learned about the family’s life during the many years before World War II, in Sečovce, the small Slovakian (then Czechoslovakia) town where Alexander was born in 1927. The family, formerly called Rosenberg, was very well-established and highly connected to all centers of power. All that collapsed with the rise of Nazi Germany.
You describe the story as a “feel-good tale,”; a surprising description of a story mainly about the Holocaust.
“Thanks to my grandfather, I don’t know any other way to look at things. This story shows how a 17-year-old teenager finds the inner strength to fight and win, against all odds. In some cases the story is even funny. This is my grandfather’s spirit. Even in the greatest darkness of all, there must be light. There is no evil without good. There is no other way but to focus on what is good in life, to develop, progress, and draw strength. I think even physically it is required.
“A boy in Netanya who recites Kaddish [the Jewish prayer for the dead] at the age of 3 over his father’s grave in the military cemetery doesn’t sound like a bright start to life. The dominance of mourning in Israel’s life, society, and culture was hard for me. Cemeteries and memorial services became a part of my life from when I was a toddler and throughout my childhood and adulthood. My grandfather’s point of view was completely different. He insisted on looking at life in an optimistic way, and so did I. ‘Positive thinking’ was his mantra. When he exposed me at a very young age to his stories, he didn’t tell them as a victim. These were stories of coping, of never giving up. Stories of a hero.”
Oren grew up in Netanya, a central city in Israel located on the Mediterranean coast. He earned a LL.B. and B.A. in Economics from Tel Aviv University, and an M.B.A. from Columbia University Business School. After co-founding and working at several tech companies, Oren co-founded Adama Partners, a venture firm in the gem and jewelry industry. He is also the CEO of CIRCA, a trading platform for pre-owned luxury goods. For the past 18 years, his life has been rooted in the U.S., and today he lives in Brooklyn with wife Sharon and two daughters Rio (14) and Ruby (9).
Weaving the memories into a book
The only person who read the book’s manuscript was then-12-year-old Rio. “She was my accomplice for the year I worked on the book,” Oren says proudly. “Her vocabulary is as rich and wide as mine, she has excellent linguistic abilities, and reads a lot, mainly young adult books about the lives of other teenagers from different backgrounds. She is also into singing and the performing arts, and dreams of getting to Broadway.”
Although Alexander and Irena told him everything they remembered, Oren still felt his family history is one-dimensional. “Families of Holocaust survivors are, for the most part, small families, like mine. Compact families. One-dimensional families,” he laughs.
“Two or three representatives per generation from each side, a great lack of information about the past, no one knows or doesn’t want to tell a lot about what happened in previous years. I wanted to learn more and more about the family. I felt the need to find out what other branches our family tree include that I don’t know about, in addition to the tiny and humble branch of my immediate family. There was no one who could provide me with the volume and depth of our family story.
“I joined MyHeritage 15 years ago, and only thanks to the family history research done in MyHeritage, I discovered the missing dimensions and was amazed to find magnificent clans of the family in Ohio, West Virginia, California, and New York. Descendants of Alexander’s uncles. The 3 brothers of Solomon, who left Slovakia for the US years before the war. Solomon also had 4 sisters, but only one survived the war.
Based on Oren’s family history research, “the fragments of my grandfather’s memories were connected to documents and names and generations. I used to tell him about my discoveries and show him how our family tree is becoming thicker and stronger. It was a wonderful way to trigger memories and complete large parts of the story that were still missing. My grandfather has amazing relatives, they look and sound just like him and he would derive a lot of pleasure from getting to know them. I keep in touch with many of them, and once a month we gather on Zoom to catch up.”
Did he meet any of them in the past?
“He met a few of them before but because he chose, or life chose for him, to live in Israel it didn’t evolve into a relationship. It may have pained him to see what would have happened had his family left for the U.S. as well. That thought of the revolving doors occupied me as well.”
How did he feel about your move to the U.S.?
“While the distance and infrequency of get-togethers naturally saddened him, our decision made him very happy. He was a realist and as a survivor felt that it was wrong to put all the eggs in one basket now and it was important to have influence in the U.S. as well. From a very young age he encouraged me to go see the world and feel confident in making all the decisions regarding my path of life.
“One war was more than enough for him. He wanted to live a peaceful life in the U.S., but my grandmother, Judith, insisted on immigrating to Israel. His great love for her made him give up on the American dream, come instead to Israel and fight yet another war, Israel’s War of Independence, less than 3 years after barely surviving Buchenwald.”
While Oren was working on the final drafts of the book in Brooklyn, his grandfather Alexander was drawing his last breaths half a world away, in Israel, quarantined and separated from all his loved ones. But at least Oren knew that he was fulfilling the request his grandfather made of him during their final visit, when Oren was in Israel in 2019.
The Apprentice of Buchenwald is a tribute to Oren’s love for the grandfather who raised him. Accordingly, the book opens as follows:
“To my beloved grandfather Alexander, I hereby fulfill your last wish; your wounds and sacrifices are carved deep inside me; your life philosophy made me the optimist I am.”
The Apprentice of Buchenwald debuts on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2023, and can be purchased on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Book Depository (which offers free shipping worldwide) among other bookstores.
The Hebrew edition of the book will be released by major Israeli publishing house Kinneret-Zmora-Bitan Dvir in April 2023.
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Source: My Heritage