Oscar Swan was a Slavic language and literature doctoral student in Berkeley, Calif., in the early 1970s when he was approached by Leokadia and Józef Schmidt with an unusual request. The Schmidts, friends of the parents of one of Swan’s colleagues, wanted Swan to translate the detailed diaries that Leokadia had kept during World War II, including the time they were enclaved in the Warsaw Ghetto.
As far as part-time gigs go, it was a good one. Not only did the job provide some extra cash to the young doctoral student, but the story Swan was translating was mesmerizing, filled with intrigue, improbable tales of escape and several brushes with death.
Swan translated the journals as requested in 1972, but through the years he forgot about the manuscript, and lost track of Leokadia and Józef.
Swan, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh since 1974, was contacted in 2017 by one of the Schmidts’ sons, Marian, eliciting help in finally publishing the diary. Swan learned then that Józef died in 1975 and Leokadia died in 1980.
“Rescued from the Ashes” was published this past January, on the 74th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. Swan has been told the book is a “page-turner.”
That the diary itself survived the Holocaust also is improbable. The Schmidts recovered it after the war from beneath the ashes of a shed where they hid in Warsaw while their infant son was being cared for in a Catholic orphanage. Leokadia then tucked the diary away in a drawer, where it remained for a quarter century until 1972, when the Schmidts were ready to have their story translated into English.
The diary tracks the Schmidt family through the eyes of Leokadia, then a 28-year-old housewife. It covers their time confined to the ghetto in 1942, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1944, the Schmidts’ incredible evasion of a roundup to Treblinka, and their ultimate survival despite a number of “near-death” experiences.
The first-person account demonstrates how unlikely it was for a Jew to make it through the war alive in Warsaw, according to Swan. The Schmidts survived due to their ability to pay bribes — Leokadia years earlier had received a large insurance settlement after being in a train crash — help from others, and on “what Mrs. Schmidt repeatedly calls the intervention of divine providence,” Swan said.
After the war, the Schmidts eventually left Europe and found their way to Phoenix, Ariz., by way of Venezuela. Although they and their two sons survived, all of their other close relatives were murdered by Nazis.
The diary, Swan said, “is written very simply,” by a person with a high school education and not a “university type.”
“There was no way to make it world class literature,” he acknowledged. Still, the story itself is gripping.
“Toward the end, it is so unbelievable you would think they made it up,” Swan said. “At the end, they are finally arrested out in the countryside, and they are put into a Gestapo prison to be shot the next day. At that point, the Soviet army came through and released the prisoners. They went through three years of war, and were scheduled to be executed on the very last day of the occupation of Poland.”
Leokadia’s account of her family’s wartime experiences is “extremely important,” Swan stressed. “This was written when things were happening, and not from retrospect 20 or 30 years later,” as are many memoirs. “It’s very objective.”
As an eyewitness, Leokadia’s real-time perceptions recorded during the war add a significant contribution to the historical record, according to Swan.
“People who have the right to express an opinion are those who lived through it, not the sons of those who were there,” he said, alluding to Poland’s recently enacted law prohibiting speech accusing Poland of complicity in the Holocaust.
The diary, he noted, portrays Poles in an “objective light,” and shows that often it was not necessarily anti-Semitism that motivated them to turn Jews over to the Nazis.
“To tell the truth,” Swan said, “people were more interested in turning [Jews] in for money, and not because they were anti-Semitic. In one case, the husband was arrested, and then they gave him advice on how not to get caught the next time. It wasn’t your ‘mother’s milk’ anti-Semitism.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at