TAMPA — Holocaust survivor Leon Schagrin thought relatives in Poland during World War II were dead.
He knew his parents, four sisters and brother were carted off to a Nazi camp and put to death for being Jewish.
Upon his release from Auschwitz, Schagrin was told the rest of his family had met the same fate.
Then, in 2011, living in the Broward County community of Sunrise, he released a book, “The Horse Adjutant,” about how he survived the concentration camps.
Leo Adler, a Holocaust survivor living just down Interstate 95 in Broward’s Hallandale Beach, read the book. As he flipped through the pages, he came to realize the author was his first cousin.
Adler reached out to Schagrin. Seven decades later, Schagrin learned they both had survived the camps.
Over the years, Schagrin has connected with other prisoners he knew in concentration camps, some in survivor’s groups and some just in passing. He met one survivor at an airport in New York.
“It is always shocking,” said Schagrin, now 87, in an interview at the Tampa home of nephew Al Rosen. “Anyone who survived was lucky.”
Luck defines Schagrin’s years in the Nazi camps.
He was lucky the he was a Jew with Aryan features. He was lucky he was in a trade, horses, the Nazis could exploit. He was lucky that a familiar face was placed in a position of power and could save his life. He was even lucky when he was struck by a piece of a bomb.
“Actually, luck is not a strong enough word,” he said, after reconsideration, his Polish accent still thick.
Monday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, set aside to honor the millions who perished by Nazi genocide during World War II.
Schagrin was in Tampa on Friday, meeting with a film crew producing a documentary on Holocaust survivors and speaking at Berkeley Preparatory School. He likes to anchor his talks with his reunion tales.
“When I speak to school kids, I don’t like to only focus only on the violence I saw,” he said.
He then furrowed his brow and lamented, “But that is hard to do. There was so much violence.”
It’s been almost 70 years since the Russian army marched into Auschwitz and freed Schagrin from Nazi imprisonment yet the feelings from that day remain strong.
“It was not happiness,” he said. “It’s vengeance. It’s hate. You cannot imagine what hate is. I hate what they did to me. I’ll never forget.”
Schagrin was 12 in 1939 when the invading German forces arrived in his native Grybow, a town in the southeastern tip of Poland near the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains.
Schagrin’s father owned a horse and carriage. The Nazis told him to load the bodies of the town’s murdered Jewish leaders into the carriage. The family knew if he disobeyed, they would find themselves in someone else’s cart. But even if he obeyed, they feared the same end.
Schagrin volunteered to go in his father’s stead. He told his family the Germans may be hesitant to kill him because he was a boy. Plus, he was tall, blonde and blue eyed. Perhaps they would accept him.
“That was my Bar Mitzvah,” he said. “I became an adult that day.”
His Aryan looks continued working to his advantage. He found work building roads for the Germans in non-Jewish work camps near his town. The labor was backbreaking but passing himself off as a non-Jewish worker meant he was well fed. Jewish prisoners got little nourishment and were forced to work until they collapsed.
Schagrin was at the work camp in August 1942 when he heard the news that all the Jews in Grybow were to be transported to a death camp for extermination. He rushed home but his father shoed him away. There was no hope for them, he told his son, but perhaps he could return to work and masquerade long enough to survive.
That was the last conversation they ever had. Eight days later, Schagrin was found to be a Jew but the cattle cars to the death camp had already left. He was sent to a work camp in the ghetto of Tarnow.
The Gestapo there took a liking to Schagrin because of his looks. These secret police appointed him their personal horse-drawn carriage chauffeur. Rather than sleeping in the camps, where prisoners were regularly exterminated, he stayed safe in the stables.
He did not live safely, though.
He often took the Gestapo to a marketplace where he risked his life by making secret deals with vendors for food he smuggled to starving Jews in the camps.
He later was sent to a concentration camp in Szebnie, Poland, where luck again saved him. The horse that led his carriage in Tarnow had been shipped to Szebnie.
The camp’s leaders were taken by the horse’s beauty and considered giving it to their commander. Schagrin explained to them that the cart horse had never been ridden and needed to be broken.
Schagrin got the job and avoided death.
In November 1943, he thought his luck had run out.
Along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, he was stripped naked, crammed into a cattle car, and sent on a three-day journey to Auschwitz, one of the deadliest concentration camps in Poland.
He remembers a light covering of snow on the ground and shivering, naked prisoners when he arrived. Each prisoner was asked his or her profession then sent to one of two lines.
Schagrin said he was a chauffeur for the Gestapo and later a horse trainer for a Nazi commander.
“I thought, maybe this will save my life again,” he said.
He was sent to the left line, one of 1,000 people there. Another 3,200 were sent to the right — to be executed that day.
Schagrin received his ID tattoo, 161744, and spent three months in the camp doing whatever labor was ordered.
His barracks was next to a crematory. He never stopped smelling the burning corpses.
Illness was the norm. Prisoners were underfed and their water was polluted.
Those to sick to work were beaten to death. Some days, Schagrin was beaten for no reason.
“Your mind was separated from the body. You wanted to fight back, but you wanted to survive too.”
He accepted that he would die at Auschwitz.
Once again, he was saved by luck.
Each block of prisoners had a leader. Schagrin’s was a county prosecutor from his home town. When the former attorney was asked to choose prisoners for transfer to a factory, he chose Schagrin.
A Russian bomb struck the factory in late 1944 and shrapnel pierced Schagrin’s neck.
When the prisoners were marched to a new camp, he was left behind, expected to die on his own.
Many of the prisoners were executed on that march.
On Jan. 27, 1945, now the Holocaust remembrance day, the Russian army attacked his factory.
Dazed by infection from the shrapnel wound, absorbing the reality of liberation, he stood and watched as the troops approached.
“Bullets were flying and I didn’t even realize it. My mind was numb.
“It was the morning,” he recalled. “A sunny day. They walked in at about 11 o’clock.”
Schagrin was taken to a hospital.
When he recovered, angry and filled with vengeance, he joined the Polish military.
He doesn’t not know if he killed any Nazis. He could only verify that he “fired a lot of bullets.”
After the war, he married Betty Sternlicht, who survived the Holocaust under the protection of Oskar Schindler, the real-life inspiration behind Steven Spielberg’s film “Schindler’s List.”
Schagrin spent a few years in Israel then joined family who had moved to New York before the war. He owned a few businesses there and later moved to Florida
Schagrin said did his best to lead a normal life, even covering his ID tattoo with a panther.
But he refused to forget what happened in the camps, keeping a promise to his father.
“Son, if you survive, tell the story of everything that happened to us,” he had said as the family was shipped off to the concentration camp. “They must know.”
He fulfills his promise still, even at 87.
“It was an awful thing,” he said. “Terrible.”
When he signs his book, he does so with a simple message.