Holocaust Survivor Dana Schwartz, 89, Recorded Interviews with More Than 125 Survivors

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 9:57am
Dana Schwartz (left) with Holocaust survivor Helen Chalef in 2004
Dana Schwartz (left) with Holocaust survivor Helen Chalef in 2004

We mourn the passing of Dana Schwartz, 89, a Holocaust survivor and dedicated interviewer for the USC Shoah Foundation, who died on May 9 in Los Angeles.

Dana, who later became a teacher and marriage and family therapist, was four when the Second World War started. She and her mother escaped the Lwów ghetto and survived in hiding.

Dana was among the earliest volunteers when Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation  was founded 30 years ago, conducting the twelfth interview for what became the Visual History Archive. The organization, now known as the USC Shoah Foundation, relied on a team of volunteers to collect 52,000 testimonies in its first six years.

Dana supported and evaluated hundreds of interviewers and conducted 128 interviews for the Visual History Archive, which now contains more than 56,000 interviews with survivors and witnesses of the Holocaust, the Armenian Genocide, contemporary antisemitism, and other events of mass violence.

In July 1994, just months after the USC Shoah Foundation was established, Dana interviewed Holocaust survivor Helen Chalef, who survived four concentration camps and a Nazi death march.

Recalling the interview when Helen and Dana reunited to mark the Shoah Foundation’s 10th anniversary in 2004, Helen said, “The softness of Dana’s voice, the way she encouraged me without probing, made it possible for me to continue.”

Dana recorded her own testimony for the Visual History Archive in 1996. She was interviewed by Renée Firestone, herself a Holocaust survivor who conducted more than 200 interviews for the USC Shoah Foundation.

Born as Danuta "Danusia" Szapira on January 30, 1935, in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine) – a city that was home to more than 100,000 Jews before the war – Dana was the only child of Icnacy and Ludwika Szapira, university-educated professionals who provided her with piano and ballet lessons.

In early September 1939, as Dana picked daisies in the park with her nanny, a loud "boom" rang out.

Seconds later, she recounted in her testimony, a man shouted, "Go home, the war has started!"

Nazi Germany had invaded Poland.

Amid the first weeks of fighting, Dana slept in her clothes so her father could quickly carry her to the cellar. Her parents stopped working, and the maids left.

The family soon decided to flee and drove southeast toward the Romanian border. The journey was harrowing – they had to hide in a cornfield when fighter planes strafed the area, and they ran out of gas and had to switch to horse and buggy. But as they neared the Romanian border, her mother began expressing doubts about the property and possessions they had left behind.

The family returned to Lwów.

By the end of September 1939, a pact between Germany and the Soviet Union handed control of Lwów to the Soviets. Dana’s father was conscripted into the Russian army, but he soon escaped and returned home. Dana recalled being confined mostly to the house, with her father hiding in the attic from Soviet authorities.

In June 1941 Germany invaded Russia and quickly moved in on Lwów.

Dana, then six, remembered a German soldier taking her into a corridor in her building and groping under her skirt. She ran away, defying the soldier’s threat that he would kill her.

A few months after the invasion, a group of Germans entered the Szapiras’ apartment and gave the family 30 minutes to leave. Dana and her parents were forced to move to the Lwów Ghetto, occupying a small apartment with other family members.

Around March 1942, Dana’s father was warned of an impending roundup. Her father hid in the attic, and Dana and her mother, along with a few others, hid in a narrow space between the ground and the foundation in the building’s courtyard. They stayed in the spot for a few weeks, crawling out at 3 a.m. to stretch and get water.

Eventually, Dana’s father obtained falsified papers so Dana and her mother could leave the ghetto, but her father couldn’t join them. In preparation, her mother taught Dana Catholic prayers and their new last name.

Dana and her mother escaped the ghetto, but on the train ride, an official goaded Dana, calling her “a cute little Jewish girl” and asking if she prayed. With her mother’s instructions well memorized, Dana confidently crossed herself.

When they arrived at the farm, arranged by her father, Dana and her mother received a large, comfortable bed and "a mountain of scrambled eggs." Dana remembered the stunning landscape with its rolling sand hills.

Over the next three years, they lived under false identities on several different farms, often enduring harsh circumstances and sometimes having to barter clothing for food to avoid starvation. Dana and her mother were liberated by the Soviets in the summer of 1944.

Upon their return to Lwów, they learned that Dana’s father had been killed.

In the summer of 1945, they moved to western Poland, and in 1946, they moved to Stockholm, Sweden. In 1947, Dana’s mother married a Polish Jew who had been in the United States and could expedite their immigration.

On December 8, 1949, Dana arrived in New York aboard the Gripsholm.

They moved to Los Angeles, where Dana attended UCLA. She met her husband, Dr. Wilbur Schwartz, at a college party, and they married in 1959.

After college, Dana became a teacher, wanting the elementary school experience the war had denied her. She stopped teaching when she had her first son, Steven, and later had two more sons, Richard and Jonathan.

In addition to volunteering for the USC Shoah Foundation, Dana was an active member of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust and a founder and board member of the Holocaust Museum LA. She and her late husband, Dr. Wilbur Schwartz, co-founded and ran the Concern Foundation, which raised millions of dollars for cancer research, primarily in Israel.

Dana’s legacy is her wish for her children to never face the antisemitism she endured.

“I hope they never have to lie, be under buildings, and be ashamed of who they are,” she said.

Dana is survived by her sons, Steven, Richard, and Jonathan; her daughters-in-law Jennifer and Rebecca; and her grandchildren, Lana, Sara, Harrison, Sidney, Wilson, and Micah. 

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Laya Albert
Laya Albert, a descendant of Holocaust survivors, is a journalism student at USC's Annenberg School and an active contributor to Annenberg Media. She is the Celina Biniaz Student Intern at the USC Shoah Foundation.