Learning to milk cows saved Morris Schnitzer’s life. A young German Jewish refugee, he worked in a farmstead in Friesland, a rural province in the Northeast Netherlands, from 1939 to 1940, before the invasion of the country. The farmer, a gruff, unfriendly man, insisted the 17-year-old learn how to milk or leave.
“My principal job was milking cows. It may look easy, but it’s not. You have to learn the techniques and develop the right muscles. I finally got it,” said the city boy, unused to farm life or the cold-hearted Friesian farmers. “The farmers never invited me into their homes. I never got anything from them, not even a kind word.”
Things were only going to get worse. That was the beginning of his five-year odyssey to avoid capture by the Nazis, who never stopped hunting him. During this time, he adopted multiple fake identities and survived through many narrow escapes. After the war, he immigrated to Canada, where he got an education and became a respected soil scientist. He died in Ottawa on June 9 at the age of 98.
Morris Schnitzer was born on Feb. 4, 1922, in Bochum in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, near the industrial centre of Essen, home to Krupp and other manufacturers of steel and armaments. His father, Hermann, had immigrated to Germany from Poland in 1908 and had served in the German Army in the First World War, earning an Iron Cross. The Schnitzer family prospered and owned three small department stores; the family lived above one of the shops. Young Morris was a bright, curious boy, though not as good an athlete as his red-haired brother, Benno.
Morris suffered his first anti-Semitic attack when he was six, in 1928. Children from a Catholic school threw stones at him. He learned to travel in a group for safety.
After Hitler came to power in January, 1933, life for Jews quickly deteriorated. More of his classmates started joining the Hitler Youth – wearing uniforms to school. “Eventually I was the only one in class who didn’t belong to the Hitler Youth,” Mr. Schnitzer wrote in My Three Selves, his autobiography.
In 1935, he left for a separate Jewish school in Berlin. His father also insisted he learn English, which came in handy later. As the persecution of Jews increased, his uncle Jozef was severely beaten and left for Palestine, but Hermann Schnitzer and his wife, Rosa, stayed in Germany.
“My father misjudged Hitler completely,” Mr. Schnitzer wrote. Reality soon hit home. By 1938, the Schnitzer stores were seized, and Hermann was arrested and sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. There he and others were made to stand, and if they fell, they were shot. Hermann was released and went home and advised his son: “Remember, whatever you do, never enter a concentration camp. Never put your foot in a concentration camp, because once you are there, you’ll never get out. It’s torture.”'
A short time after that, Morris left on a Kindertransport taking children out of Germany. In December of 1938, his brother Eddi went to England; Morris went to the Netherlands. At first he was arrested, but he soon went to live with relatives and then went with other Jewish refugees to work on the farm in Friesland.
German troops occupied the neutral Netherlands in May, 1940. For the next four years, Mr. Schnitzer moved across the Netherlands, Belgium and France, with a short foray into Switzerland, avoiding German soldiers and police.
After the invasion of the Netherlands, he and some friends went to Amsterdam, but they soon saw it was unsafe and he returned to a different farm in Friesland.
In the fall of 1941, he received a letter from his brother, Eddi, who had been shipped from England to an internment camp in Fredericton with German “aliens,” many of them Jews.
Around that time, the Dutch police showed up at Mr. Schnitzer’s farm with the Gestapo. The farm workers were all lined up for transport when Mr. Schnitzer asked if he could go inside for his jacket. He left by the back door, ran and eventually took shelter in a dog house.
He then changed his name to Eli Hart and worked as a domestic. In April, 1942, he received a postcard from his parents, saying: “We’re leaving for the east.” He never heard from his parents or his brother Benno again.
In Amsterdam, he met a friend, Piefke Levy. They moved to another house which was raided by the Gestapo, and they hid in the rafters. “We escaped detection by sheer luck.” The two young men decided to escape to Switzerland or Spain. They began a trek across Europe that first took them to Belgium, where Piefke’s uncle found them false identity cards. Mr. Schnitzer had another name: Jan Van Capelle. They took trains across Belgium and France, heading to the Swiss border and were helped by a Catholic priest and an Archbishop. Eventually, the two of them were at the Doubs river, heavily patrolled by German soldiers. Piefke swam to the Swiss side, but Mr. Schnitzer couldn’t swim so he took a rowboat across. Safe in Switzerland. Or at least they thought they were.
"There are too many Jews in Switzerland," the police told them. "You'll have to go back."
They were sent into France. Piefke was shot dead, but Morris escaped. He contacted the Archbishop, who put him on a bus to Vichy, France, which was not yet occupied by the Germans. Before he could make it into Vichy, he was arrested. His Belgian ID saved him, and he was shipped back to Brussels. “There I was in December, 1942, a free man Brussels.”
He then joined the Belgian resistance, acting as a lookout while his colleagues blew up rail lines and executed German soldiers. In February of 1943, a group of them were expecting to be shipped out to England. But the Germans arrived, shooting everyone they saw. Mr. Schnitzer leaped from a window and escaped, all the while being shot at.
Milking cows again came next. Mr. Schnitzer found himself in rural Belgium. A farmer named Degive hired him once Morris could show him the milking skills he had picked up in Friesland. He was treated well, given extra chores and was once sent in a horse-drawn wagon to pick up a German officer and bring him to the farm. The farmer stayed friendly with the Germans. When other farms were burned down in searches for the Resistance, his was untouched. Still, Mr. Schnitzer spent about a year at the farm. When the Allies liberated Belgium, the Resistance came for Mr. Degive. He pointed to Mr. Schnitzer. “Ask that man what I’ve done for him.” The farmer was freed. “The old farmer had saved my life, and I’d saved his,” Mr. Schnitzer wrote in his memoirs.
Soon Mr. Schnitzer started working as a translator for the American army. Eventually, they gave him a uniform and he stayed with the U.S. Army until after the war.
Cut to 1947. His brother convinced him to come to Canada. After hopscotching flights across the North Atlantic – Scotland, Iceland, Newfoundland – he landed in Montreal on May 7, 1947. The next summer he worked as a counsellor at a summer camp in the Laurentians and met Leah Paltiel and they married a few months later.
During his life as a fugitive, Mr. Schnitzer dreamed of learning and going back to school. “He came to Canada because he could study and spent the first few months cramming for his university entrance exams. He was hungry to learn,” his daughter, Eve, said.
He went to McGill University and, by 1955, earned a PhD in chemistry.
Mr. Schnitzer worked as a chemist for Alcan, then went to work for the Department of Agriculture doing research in soil science at the Central Experimental Farm in Ottawa. He retired in 1991, but continued to work until his sight failed him.
“My father was not only a Holocaust survivor, but he used his long pent-up energies and talents to build a brilliant and productive scientific career,” Eve said. “He taught students from many countries who really appreciated his kind manner and generosity, he was much in demand as a teacher and speaker.”
Among those who sought his advice was Arnold Wiegersma, a farmer who operated a greenhouse in Bluevale, Ont., north of Kitchener-Waterloo. His soil had become contaminated, but he did not want to use chemicals because he had young children. He contacted Dr. Schnitzer and found a way to solve his problem.
Mr. Wiegersma now runs a business, Alpha Agri, providing the same natural soil solution on a giant scale. Mr. Wiegersma is of Friesian descent, and his grandfather’s farm was close to where Mr. Schnitzer had learned to milk cows. The two men got to discussing the war and the root of Dr. Schnitzer’s interest in soil. “I asked Morris, ‘Why study soil science?' He said when he went hungry in the war years and saw plants in the field, plants that could feed you, he wanted to know what makes them grow.”
Mr. Schnitzer published hundreds of papers and received many awards, including a Fellowship of the Royal Society of Canada in 1991 and the Wolf Prize in Agriculture in Israel in 1995.
Mr. Schnitzer was not a bitter man, but he hated injustice and despised fascists.
“He was upset when I moved to Spain when Franco was still alive,” Eve said. “It took him decades to return to Germany. When an academic called him and asked him to [do] a conference there, my father told him: ‘I am not a German hater, but I will never go back to Germany.‘”
He did eventually travel there, though. He also wondered if Switzerland had a record of him. “In March of 1999, after 25 years of repeated enquiries, my Swiss colleague, Jean Neyroud, managed to secure an extract of the 1942 record from the prison of La Chaux-de-Fonds. It stated that M. Schnitzer, prisoner No. 249, a person of the Jewish religion, was returned to the French border on August 28, 1942. Thus, 57 years after throwing me to the Germans, the Swiss police confirmed the event – without an apology.”
In Ottawa, he and his wife, Leah, helped found the Adath Shalom Synagogue, an egalitarian congregation where women are treated equally. “Morris encouraged his wife, Leah, to lead services,” said Fenja Brodo, member of the congregation. “Morris was a brilliant man, well-read with a fabulous memory that he kept until the end.”
Last November, Mr. Schnitzer gave a talk in Montreal, concluding with a version of the advice his father had given him in 1938: “We must never give in. We have to always fight oppression. Never give in.”
Mr. Schnitzer leaves his daughter, as well as his grandson, Jan Torrents, and three great-grandchildren.
Morris Schnitzer’s memoir, Escape from the Edge will be published in November 2020 by the Azrieli Foundation.