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Auschwitz Survivor Passes Along Gift to Others

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Czechoslovakian couple’s unexpected generosity at the end of World War II changed Henri Landwirth’s life. It also led him to found Give Kids the World, a 51-acre Florida resort for terminally ill children that has hosted more than 32,000 families from 50 states and 47 countries.

During the war, Belgian-born Landwirth lost everything, including hope. His parents were killed. He was imprisoned in concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Twice he was brutalized and left for dead by German soldiers.

Somehow he survived. Starving, nearly delirious and covered with festering wounds, Landwirth, 18 at the time, wandered the Czechoslovakian countryside at war’s end.

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“I wanted to die,” he admits today. “I really didn’t want to live.”

This might have been the end of Henri Landwirth’s story, were it not for the Czechoslovakian couple who discovered him. They brought him home, fed him, bathed him and summoned doctors to treat his wounds. But their greatest gift was a spiritual one, Landwirth said: They rekindled his will to live.

“They treated me like family,” Landwirth said. “They showed me there was still good in the world, and they asked nothing from me in return.”

It was an epiphany Landwirth embraced. He eventually adopted it as his credo.

Landwirth emigrated to New York in 1949 and worked briefly as a diamond cutter before being drafted into the army during the Korean War. With only a sixth-grade education, Landwirth worried deeply about his future. How could he support himself and, eventually, a wife and children? After finishing his tour of duty, he forged a plan: He’d begin a career in the hospitality industry, and to impress employers, would try to excel at each job assigned him, no matter how humble.

“That would be how I’d build my job security,” Landwirth said. “That would prevent me from being fired.”

First, Landwirth took courses at the New York Hotel Technology School. Then he sought employment in the industry. He kept his vow: No job was beneath him. Each, he believed, could teach him something about hotel management.

Landwirth uncomplainingly toiled as a bellhop, changed linens, cleaned bathrooms and did night desk duty. In 1954, he moved to Florida and nabbed a job as innkeeper of the 100-room Starlite Hotel in Cocoa Beach, near Cape Canaveral. There he hosted the original crew of Project Mercury astronauts. They became his lifelong friends.

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“He took to the business like a duck to water,” recalled former Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), a Project Mercury member, who has known Landwirth since 1959 and has been a partner with him in several hotel ventures. “With his background, it would have been easy for Henri to be bitter. But he’s an American success story. Out of his successes, he’s now giving back.”

Landwirth eventually parlayed his hotelier and money management skills into a position as franchise owner of several Holiday Inns in central Florida. But another life-changing event awaited him in 1986, when the manager of his Holiday Inn Main Gate hotel near Disney World in Orlando informed him that the parents of a critically ill 6-year-old girl had canceled their visit.

Landwirth’s worst fears were confirmed. The little girl was dead. Her final wish--to meet Mickey Mouse at Disney World--had gone unfulfilled because various agencies had taken nearly two months to arrange her visit.

Furious, Landwirth began making calls. He learned that most wish-granting foundations required six to eight weeks to finalize hotel accommodations and travel arrangements and to secure amusement park tickets for terminally ill children.

“Time was these children’s worst enemy,” Landwirth said. “It was something I had learned in the camps; every moment is precious.”

Landwirth decided his next project would be cutting through the wish-granting foundations’ red tape.

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And that was how Give Kids the World was born. Landwirth enlisted the participation of Disney World, Sea World, nearly 90 Orlando hotels and the Project Mercury astronauts. He asked corporate sponsors for funds and services. Working from his Holiday Inn office, he was able to facilitate the visits of 329 families of terminally ill children to Florida that first year.

But the hotel owner wasn’t satisfied. In 1989, he purchased acreage in Kissimmee, Fla., just 20 minutes from Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios Florida. There he began building Give Kids the World Village, a children’s fantasy world with its Gingerbread House Restaurant; Ice Cream Palace; Castle of Miracles, where children can play video games for free; Amberville Train Station; and 100-seat Safari Theater. There’s also a water park, several wheelchair-accessible nature trails and pony rides at the site.

Landwirth built Give Kids the World Village so families of terminally ill children could stay in two-bedroom, two-bath villas for one-week, all-expense-paid vacations.

For most, it would be the first respite from doctor visits, hospital stays and medical bills. It would enable them to socialize with families confronting similar challenges, said Landwirth, who now oversees a volunteer staff of 2,000 and works with 300 wish-granting organizations.

“We now have the ability to bring the children here overnight,” he said with satisfaction.

Many corporate sponsors have been generous to the village, Landwirth said. Disney World, Universal Studios and Sea World provide the families with tickets to their attractions and send characters to the village to greet them. Sprint provides them with free long-distance service. BellSouth offers cell phones to families awaiting medical news or transplants. And K-Mart donates nearly $2 million each year.

The letters Landwirth receives show him Give Kids the World is making an impact.

“You made my grandson forget about his illness for a little while,” wrote a grandfather. “For a brief time, he was the happiest and the most excited that I have ever seen him--Darrell passed away on Aug. 8, 1996. He left this world knowing that there are people that still care about children, their hopes and dreams, and that they care enough to do something about it.”

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Landwirth is quick to point out that projects such as Give Kids the World Village need not be anomalies. Doing something is key.

“A lot of people have good ideas, but they don’t take action, they just talk about them,” Landwirth said. “One of the secrets to success is following through. Don’t just write a check. Get involved personally.”

At 74, the Jacksonville, Fla., resident is showing no signs of slowing down. He’s launching a new nonprofit, Dignity U Wear, which provides clothing to the homeless.

Landwirth believes that individuals can do their most important work in their senior years, after having completed youthful explorations and fulfilled midlife responsibilities. But everyone can help, he said.

For inspiration, he presents guests at his village with a framed copy of a poem:

One hundred years from now

It will not matter

What kind of car I drove

What kind of house I lived in

How much I had in my bank account

Nor what my clothes looked like.

But the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Working Smart, With Your Heart

Henri Landwirth, an Auschwitz survivor who founded Give Kids the World (https://www.gktw.org), a 51-acre Florida resort for terminally ill children, was a successful hotelier before he launched his organization. He offers five tips for working smart, with your heart.

1. Give employees and customers what they want, rather than what you want. Be attuned to their needs.

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2. Show appreciation for jobs well done. People thrive on encouragement.

3. Put your personal touch in all you do. In business, all details are important.

4. Surround yourself with a team of supportive, caring workers who share your values.

5. From your successes, find ways you can give back to your community. Share your good fortune with those who have less.

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