Our modern, tumultuous world is filled with miraculous things. This story is one of them.
When Henri Landwirth was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on March 7, 1927, his parents, Max and Fanny, felt the family would have more opportunity for success if they moved to Poland. For the first 13 years of his life, Henri and his twin sister, Margot, enjoyed the warmth and security of a close, loving family.
"I adored my parents and sister – when suddenly the horror of the war and the oncoming Holocaust descended on us," recalled Landwirth as he tapped the faded blue tattoo on the inside of his left forearm with the number B4343.
Alarmed by the changing political climate and the increasing hatred towards Jews in Poland, Henri's father made plans to get out of Europe through Russia and China. But his wife would not go.
"As long as I have my family together, we will stay," she insisted.
It wasn't long before the family, along with hundreds of others, was herded into a walled-in ghetto in Krakow. Soon after, Max Landwirth was marched to a mass grave near Radom and shot in the head.
In the ghetto, Henri and his mother and sister were separated – "tearing the very fabric of our Jewish lives," said Henri.
Young and strong and able to work, he was sent to a slave-labor camp where "we made munitions for the Nazis. But one of my fellow inmates showed us how to make little mistakes, so that when the bullets were put into rifles, they would misfire. We were delighted we could do that."
Henri's tortuous years took him to five concentration camps, including Auschwitz and Mauthausen.
Just a few months before the end of the war, Henri's mother was put on a boat with hundreds of other Jews – it was blown up.
A Chance to Escape
"One of the reasons I fought so hard to survive was because I always believed Margot was alive," he said of his twin. "I was determined to find her."
By the end of the war, more than 70 percent of Poland's Jewish population was murdered. Henri and his twin were two of the small percentage who survived.
One day, when the Germans realized that the war was winding down, soldiers took Henri and two other young boys outside to the edge of a forest. "I was sure this was to be our execution," Henri remembered.
One of the soldiers looked troubled and said, "the war is almost over. I don't want to kill these people."
Explained Henri: "He told us to run into the woods as he shot his rifle in the air. I ran into the fields and hid for weeks, hardly eating or sleeping, finally coming to a small town in Czechoslovakia and learning that the war was over. I could hardly believe it."
The first thing he did was begin looking for his sister: "I had heard, somehow, that Margot was in Germany, so I went there and tried to find her. I knew she had gotten married and had a new name, and it was hard to locate her.
"As a child, she and I had a secret whistle to call to each other. I began whistling for days, up and down streets in small towns, until suddenly I heard an answer to my whistle. Miraculously, I had found Margot!"
Returning to Belgium, Henri arranged to have Margot and her husband join him there.
"Although an uncle in the diamond trade offered to share his successful business with me if he could adopt me, I could not agree to it," said Henri. "I had little regard for my uncle, with all his wealth, and I would always feel, with great respect, that Max Landwirth was my father."
Henri had already decided he wanted to go to America: "I went to the docks in Antwerp every day for weeks until a dock worker pointed me to a ship that needed crew members. I signed on to work my way to America."
With $20 in his pocket and a sixth-grade education – not to mention the fact that he knew not a word of English, Henri began the odyssey in his new country.
"I thought not about the horror I had experienced, but of what I could accomplish in this new land," he said. "Although there were difficult days ahead, I was convinced I would be successful, and decided to take any job I could find.
"In New York, I got a job as a bell hop, then a floor sweep. Suddenly, in 1950, I received a telegram from Uncle Sam: I was drafted into the United States Army! I would fight in the Korean war. And I wasn't even an American citizen!"
After two years in the Army, Henri got married, went to Miami Beach on his honeymoon, and liked Florida so much he decided to move there permanently.
Life in Florida
Applying everywhere for employment, he finally got a job at the President Madison Hotel in Miami Beach – and did just about every task in the hotel.
"If they needed a cashier in the bar, I did that. When the housekeeper went on vacation, I cleaned rooms and bathrooms," he said.
For a time, he worked at the Fountainbleu Hotel until he was recalled by the Madison to become manager.
Fortuitously, one day, he was introduced to B.G. McNabb, general manager of the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Division for General Dynamics – the man in charge of making the space program come to life at Cape Canaveral.
But there were no hotels or motels of any kind in Cocoa Beach. After being turned down by many big hotel corporations, McNabb built the Starlight Motel, where the men who would reach for the stars were to live.
At the Starlight Motel, Henri met the Mercury astronauts, including John Glenn and Scott Carpenter, and some of America's great journalists and writers, including Walter Cronkite. Friendships began then that continue to this day.
Coming up with extremely creative ideas, the affable, hard-working Henri Landrith accommodated practically every request; he became the unofficial host of Cocoa Beach. When Holiday Inn Corporation decided to build a hotel on Cocoa Beach, Henri was asked to be general manager.
His close friendship with astronaut Glenn prompted Henri to become a partner for a franchise location in Orlando.
Today, Henri, an active partner in Holiday Inn, lives in Jacksonville, close to the company's latest creation, Nickelodeon Family Suites in Orlando.
"I have always believed that we should commit ourselves to family values," Henri explained, while talking at this innovative hostelry that features kids' bedrooms with adjoining parents bedrooms.
His sister, Margot, is sitting close by; you sense the twins are never far apart.
But Henri's remarkable life was about to begin its most astonishing chapter.
In 1986, Jim Olsen, Henri's hotel manager at Holiday Inn East, told him about Amy, a desperately ill 6-year-old whose last wish had been to see Mickey Mouse. But the travel arrangements wound up taking too long, and the child succumbed to her sickness.
The heart-wrenching story obsessed Henri, who thought, "What if it happened again? What if another family simply ran out of time?"
Henri's had forged a good relationship with the management at Disney. He approached them to help build a village for children who suffered life-threatening illnesses – a place where families could come for a week and enjoy a carefree, delightful vacation, all expenses paid.
After Disney's commitment, countless others donated their help. The list of supporters is seemingly endless: Sea World Orlando, American Airlines, Universal Orlando, Wal-Mart, Eastman Kodak, Equitable Insurance Company, Procter & Gamble, General Electric, National Car Rental – and the Mercury Seven Astronauts.
Holiday Inn is still the largest contributor to what is now the Village: "Give Kids the World."
Before its completion, the program brought 380 families for three nights and four days to Orlando hotels, until Henri bought land in nearby Kissimmee to construct the village. When Disney's president suggested "Give Kids the World" should have a video to show to people, Henri went to New York and asked Walter Cronkite to narrate the video. (Cronkite also wrote a forward to Henri's compelling book, Gift of Life.)
Today, in the 70-acre, garden-like community, 7,000 families a year stay in two-bedroom, two-bath villas with a whirlpool bath, washer and dryer and full kitchen, enjoying a weeklong vacation in Central Florida visiting all the famous attractions at no cost. (Each villa can accommodate up to seven people.)
Families are served breakfast and dinner daily, with food donated, prepared and served by Perkins, the restaurant chain. National Car Rental provides more than 350 complimentary cars each year to the families.
The sick children – from 50 states and 50 countries around the world – must be between ages 3 and 18, who have been recommended by one of 250 different wish-granting organizations (who arrange the airfare for the families).
Since 1986 – when the village was founded – "Give Kids the World" has served more than 69,000 families. "Companies do not take advantage of their charitable donations; there are no signs or logos allowed on the site," said Henri.
Recently added villas have a global theme of architecture, in the styles of Japan, Italy, Holland, Mexico and France. The village, bright and colorful, looks like a page in a book of fairy tales.
Seeking Some Closure Abroad
A few years ago, Henri took his three children; his wife Linda; and his (reluctant) sister to Poland to see one of the concentration camps where he had been held during the war. At the end of the trip, Henri suffered a stroke.
Taken to Rome, he recovered, and is now well and active again. Today, the 78-year-old dynamo lives in Jacksonville, Fla.
Each of Henri Landwirth's three children – Gary, Greg and Lisa – has inherited his love of giving, and each is involved in charitable organizations.
In his mother's memory, Henri established the Fanny Landwirth Foundation, and built a senior-citizen center and a children's school in Orlando.
He has also provided scholarships for underprivileged children in Israel.
Since 1986, the village has welcomed some 4,000 families from Israel.
Henri Landwirth feels he survived his past because it was his destiny to help children and families in need: "I believe to create "Give Kids the World" is the reason I was spared so long ago."