THE BLOG

Transcending Buchenwald

04/03/2013 11:08 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

He was an unlikely hero of the American civil rights movement, the frail 92-year-old who sat in my living room years ago, telling his story in heavily accented English.

Born in Germany in 1914, Hans Ruprecht Wilhelm Schwab came from a family of such patriotic Germans that his father named him for Crowned Princes of Prussia and Bavaria. The S.S. arrested him in 1939 because he was a Jew. They took him to Buchenwald concentration camp, where, Schwab wrote later, "I was shaven bald, received a striped prison uniform and a number I will never forget: 10052." Buchenwald held, at various times, Elie Wiesel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Bruno Bettelheim. It killed an estimated 56,000 people.

Schwab didn't die there; instead, he was able to secure his release just months before war broke out in September, 1939. "We would have never gotten out of there after that date," he wrote later. He and his family paid a "flight tax" to the Nazis to leave for the United States. "How much was the Tax?" Schwab later asked, rhetorically. "'How much money have you got?'" The family left with 10 German Marks, the equivalent of $4.20 at the time.

He made his way to Chicago, where his German accent and name made him suspect. At a friend's urging, he changed his first name by one letter to "Hank," modeled on the baseball player Hank Greenberg.

Hank Schwab didn't want to enter the insurance business, but it was the only business that would have him. He quickly learned that in 1940s America, African-Americans either couldn't get insurance at all, or paid twice as much as whites for half the coverage. In my living room, he read from one such policy, his voice shaking with age and indignation: "If the insured hereunder is of a race other than Caucasian, all benefits under this policy will be one half of what otherwise be payable." It reminded him, Hank said, of the notice his family had gotten cancelling their insurance because they were Jews.

Hank did something no one else had done: He sold insurance to blacks at the same rates for the same coverage as whites. His business thrived. He partnered with Jesse Owens, the African-American who ran for gold in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, in the presence of Adolf Hitler. Hank joined the Chicago Urban League, advocated for all races to have the equal rights denied to him in Nazi Germany, sat in the third row when MLK Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech.

At the heart of it all was Hank's belief that "[w]e are all children of the Almighty -- all brothers and sisters."

I met Hank on a summer day in Chicago, when he was standing outside the headquarters of Operation PUSH, waiting for a ride. He was small, bald, gripping a cane. One of the sons of Rev. Jesse Jackson, Jonathan, briefly told me Hank's story, explained why this unlikely man was there.

I knew instantly the person I wanted him to meet: John Boyle. John is a minister at Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, an octogenarian who, as a 19-year-old U.S. Army sergeant in 1945, helped liberate the concentration camp at Dachau. After the war, John entered ministry because he wanted to work for the opposite of the horrors he had seen at Dachau.

I invited John and Hank to speak at an event for my murder victims' family group. More than 20 years ago, a killer took the lives of my younger sister, her husband and their unborn baby. I belong to an organization of murder victims' family members who oppose the vengeance of the death penalty. We seek instead to honor the lives of our loved ones by working to prevent further bloodshed. Hank and John knew something about that.

So it was that we gathered in my home, leaned forward in our chairs as John and Hank told their stories of evil, heroism and redemption.

Hank Schwab, German Jew turned civil rights activist, died on March 28, 2013. He was 98 years old. He had outlasted Hitler by almost 68 years. John Boyle, Presbyterian minister who helped free prisoners at Dachau on April 29, 1945, the day before Hitler took his own life, outlives him still.

Thanks be to God.