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Auschwitz Survivor Passes Along Gift to Others

As a youngster, he lived because of strangers' kindness. Now hotelier helps grant wishes of terminally ill children.

October 15, 2000|SUSAN VAUGHN | 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.

"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.

"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.

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.

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