Holocaust survivor David Schaecter with a model of the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, whose creation he was a part of. (Courtesy of Sydney Carpel)
Holocaust survivor David Schaecter with a model of the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, whose creation he was a part of.

Courtesy of Sydney Carpel

Holocaust Survivor David Schaecter’s Story

Apr 9, 2023

Children screamed and dogs barked. He watched as his family members got ruthlessly torn away from him, most of which he would never see or hear from again. The imminent threat of death lingered as the months dragged on and the fuzzy difference between life and Auschwitz had never been so hard to see for that innocent 11-year-old. Holocaust survivor David Schaecter’s story is one that, deplorably, is shared by countless other Jews who lived through the genocide of World War II.

But beyond surviving, Schaecter took it to the next level and lived a good life after being taken to America, getting educated, married and eventually having kids. However, Schaecter never forgot his past, telling his survival story to the younger generations of South Florida and spreading his experiences during the holocaust.

Life in Europe During WWII

David Schaecter was born Aug. 4, 1929, on a farm in Czechoslovakia. With his grandfather escaping the Austria-Hungarian War in 1812, Schaeter’s life revolved around his nearest village, called Snina. This area was a wine country, nestled between the Vihorlat foothills and the Bukovec Mountains. It was home to seven to eight other Jewish families in the area. Growing up, Schaecter rode horses, harvested grapes, brewed wine and studied to read in school, an old wooden synagogue.

Schaecter’s family consisted of his father Isador, his mother Serena and his two younger sisters, Leah and Miriam. Most importantly, he had an older brother named Jacob, who was three and half years older and played a key role in his life.

Despite Schaecter’s seemingly normal life as an 11-year-old, the world was in unrest, with an imminent WWII approaching. In March 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, causing Slovakia to secede and align with the Germans. Just a couple of months later, in December 1939, Slovakia became one of the first Axis partners to consent to the deportation of their Jewish residents. An organization called the Hlinka Guard was responsible for rounding up the Jews in the country. Germans did not occupy Slovakia but the Hlinka were just as cruel as the Germans were.

Not long after, Schaecter’s father was taken away to a labor camp, never returning home. In the winter of 1940, his life turned upside down as a result of Slovakia’s decision to deport Jews from the country. Schaecter’s family and other Jewish families in the area were taken to the nearest railway crossing. When the train came, the brutality began, with innocent families being pushed, beaten and stolen from.

The Hlinka forced Schaecter and the other Jews into train carts designated for shipping cattle. Inside these train carts, people were trampled to death and screamed. On the jam-packed cattle cars, there was no bathroom, just one bucket of water and children crying. Keeping the family close, Schaecter’s mother huddled his two sisters over. Unaware of where he was going, Schaecter would eventually see wooden stable barracks and fences saying “Abeit Macht Frei,” not knowing he arrived at the infamous concentration camp known as Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Thinking back to his arrival at Auschwitz, Schaecter remembered the barking dogs and screaming in German, people falling over each other and his mother still holding on to his sisters, refusing to let go. One of the Jews that had ridden alongside them to Auschwitz noticed his small appearance, telling Jacob that Schaecter should stand in front of him and step on his feet to appear taller because children under 12-years-old were killed and he was only eleven and a half. Jacob tried to go to his mother on the other side but was hit and shoved away.

Split from their family, Schaecter and Jacob never saw their mother or sisters again. Upon arrival, they were marched to the place where they were undressed, sprayed, haircut and left with just shoes.

“I couldn’t understand how grown people could be so brutal and so determinedly mean and aggressive. They were not very selective in who they were beating and who they were hitting and who they were kicking, whom they selected to kill. It was almost like at will,” Schaecter said.

In Auschwitz, the Jewish people were dehumanized. Like many others, every morning started off with barking sounds and officers screaming. They were “fed” a measly tea and bread. But at this point, the people here still had the desire to live, comply, walk and work. They were all assigned to a work detail; Schaecter, his brother and others in their group were assigned to clean the railway cars that came in. This work consisted of taking out knee-high human waste, gathering personal belongings and scrubbing the floors clean.

“We thought we would cope with it, but it wasn’t easy. As a matter of fact, it was impossible. You were always aware that sooner rather than later you would get hit in the head, and you would get beaten, and you would get pushed,” Schaecter said.

Jacob comforted Schaecter, feeling protected by his older brother and always being with him. Jacob took beatings that were meant for him, shared his food and was more aware than him, even showing his brother how to boil water. The brothers survived 18 months at Auschwitz before they were moved by train to Buchenwald in September 1943.

At this concentration camp, they were assigned the same work of cleaning trains. Schaecter was 13-years-old when Jacob fell weak with sickness lying down. His stomach swelled up, unable to walk and with an expired desire to live until his time came. For two more months, Schaecter stayed in Buchenwald, until German soldiers moved him to Regensburg, Bavaria by train.

On the train, Schaecter noticed a sign that said Passau, Bavaria, orienting him. About one hour after this, American airplanes bombed the train, setting it on fire and wreaking havoc. People ran everywhere and the train stopped, allowing Schaecter to jump out and escape into the forest.

I could see the face of the American gunner in that airplane. They soon realized what they did,

— Schaecter

He recognized the forest, Schwarzwald, as one well-known for exclusively having oak trees. With this information, he dug himself underground and lived off nuts from the trees. On a cold night, Schaecter went out of his hiding spot and heard two people speaking Czech. Yelling as loud as he could, he tried to get their attention. Recognizing a voice, they found him in the forest and rushed him to a secret Czech underground hospital, where they nurtured him to health.

In 1945, the US freed Plzen in Czechoslovakia and the Americans took Schaecter and others to Prague, where he was allowed to go back to Slovakia, to his family’s farm. Soon, however, wanting to leave his stained past, Schaecter returned to Prague and remained in the hospital there until 1949.

Surviving Reality


Courtesy of Genesis Javier

Holocaust survivor David Schaecter smiles with freshman Genesis Javier after his presentation.

During his time at the hospital, Schaecter never found another survivor in his family.

For two and a half years, he had an index card with his information on a billboard in Prague, as did countless other survivors in search of their families. Finally, after checking back on the billboard every weekend, he was informed that one of his cousins, Naftali had tried to contact him. That same year, she decided to move to Israel and partake in the Israeli War of Independence in May 1948, where she was soon killed, leaving Schaecter on his own again.

In December 1949, wanting to start a new life, Schaecter moved from Prague to Ireland and with help from political leaders, he was smuggled to Northern Ireland, Scotland and finally England. Soon after, he was informed of an opportunity to be an exchange student, sheltered by an American family who was willing to take him in. Aboard the RMS Queen Elizabeth, Schaecter was bound for the United States.

Upon arrival in New York on Jan. 2, 1950, he was pleasantly surprised to finally be treated like a human of worth by a worker named Maria Fleming. She informed Schaecter of his acceptance into the University of Colorado, a state that would closely resemble his home in Czechoslovakia.

Schaecter would stay with his host family in Denver, Colo. for two years, before transferring to the University of California Los Angeles. There, he received an industrial engineering degree and married his first wife Marvis. They moved all across the country starting from San Fransisco to Seattle and eventually Miami. Years after her death in 2005, Schaecter decided to continue onwards and marry his second and current wife Sydney. This is where his story with Gables would begin.

“Each time I hear David’s story I am moved by his strength and optimism. It motivates my students to overcome adversity in a positive way and live life to the fullest,” Ms. Leal said.

Already having a piece of the Cavalier family in his own, through his own children, grandchildren and wife, Schaecter continues to be a memorable figure in Gables, sharing his indelible experiences with World Religion and Holocaust Studies, taught by Ms. Leal. Having presented four times in previous years, Ms. Leal schedules Schaecter to share his story with her class, a tradition that will continue for as long as possible. Students who get the opportunity to listen to his story share empathy toward him and all other Jewish people who experienced the Holocaust.

“He keeps telling his story even though it is painful for him so that others can learn from an eye witness. David was only an 11-year old boy when he was taken away from his home and everything he had known.  It seems that when he shares his experience with students, they try to imagine how they would feel if they were placed in such a situation.  He seems to have a significant impact on most of the students who hear his presentation,” Schaecter’s wife Sydney Carpel said.

Throughout his storytelling, Schaecter mentions his sorrow for all the children killed during the Holocaust, all while staying motivated to educate and raise awareness among the younger generations. Ending his presentation, Schaecter expressed his joy in seeing all the young faces of Gables, the future people of the world and the hope in humanity.

Take 20, 40, 50 seconds, take an hour, take a day, and try and reflect on that million and a half children, what they could have accomplished, what they could have contributed to the humanities, to the world of art, to the world of music, to the world of medicine, had they been given a chance to live. And they are no more. And this is one of the things that for the longest time has tormented me,

— Schaecter

“What all those survivors saw… I want it to be a way of life for us to remember. I am always trying to convince someone else to remember,” Schaecter said.

Despite all the terrible things humans have done to Schaecter, he never gave up and persevered until the end, resulting in his survival. He did not just stop there; always carrying his past experiences, his presentations enlighten students as well as raise their grasp of the growing antisemitism. Schaecter serves as an inspiration, not only to Gables but to anyone who hears his story.

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