By LOU WILIN
A 92-year-old Holocaust survivor held over 500 Liberty-Benton students spellbound Friday as he shared his story of persecution, displacement to a concentration camp and loss of family.
The last week of January marks the 75th anniversary of the first liberation of prisoners from the Auschwitz concentration camp complex. But Martin Lowenberg’s message was not confined to horrific events over a half-century before the Liberty-Benton high schoolers were born. He also weaved in warnings that something like the systematic, industrial-style mass murder of Jews could occur again.
“Unfortunately, we are living in a world today where people are hating others because somebody else said so,” Lowenberg said.
“‘Oh yes, I know those people.'”
“What do you know? You don’t know them. You have never shaken their hands,” he said. “You never smiled at them.”
He showed a picture of the village in Germany where he was born.
“It’s not any different than many of the villages that are out here,” Lowenberg said to the Liberty-Benton students.
Lowenberg’s parents and grandparents and other ancestors were born in Germany and had lived in Germany for hundreds of years.
“We were all German,” he said.
They spoke German. Their religion was Jewish, or Hebrew, he said. They lived a German lifestyle. Their meal recipes were all German.
But by the time Lowenberg was 5 years old in 1933, his hometown was awash in the tide of Nazism and hatred of Jews. The Lowenbergs’ Jewishness became their defining trait.
“We had neighbors who didn’t want us to live, who didn’t want us to enjoy life. Neighbors! Next door neighbors, they tried to burn down our house on March the 16th of 1934,” he said. “That’s when we lost our house and we almost lost our lives because they didn’t want the Jews as next-door neighbors.”
“What had we ever done to them?” he asked with pain in his voice.
“You damn Jew.”
“Why?” Lowenberg asked again rhetorically.
People helped his family build another house, he said, “because we couldn’t afford it anymore. We didn’t have anything. Nothing was left.”
Then school became a dangerous, humiliating place; his classmates became bullies; the teacher, a thug ringleader.
The teacher falsely accused Lowenberg, then 8, of sticking out his tongue at a picture of Hitler. The teacher then incited Lowenberg’s classmates.
“‘Come up, boys, beat him up,'” Lowenberg recalled. They complied.
After that, his parents sent Lowenberg to a boarding school. For two years, he seldom saw his family. He only saw his family during the boarding school’s vacation time, which did not include holidays, he said. It was a very lonely two years for him.
He got reunited with his family when it had to move again because of more persecution. The Lowenbergs moved to a larger city where more Jewish people lived. Their new neighbors were strangers, who soon became friends with whom they could pray.
That situation, too, came to an end.
Lowenberg still remembers the dates: Nov. 8-9, 1938.
“All of a sudden they didn’t want us anymore,” he said.
“We don’t want anything Jewish. We don’t want those Jews.”
“They destroyed our synagogues, and not only that, on November the 8th and 9th, the communities, they destroyed communities,” he said. “The streets were full of shards of glass, smashing windows of stores, Jewish shops and so forth.”
It was carnival of destruction.
“Oh, they had such a wonderful time. Such a good time,” he said. “Who could stop them?”
He showed a photo of a synagogue with windows smashed out.
“This is the day of Nov. 9th, when they destroyed our synagogue. In flames,” Lowenberg said. “We were afraid and we lived very close to that.”
“‘Where should we go? Where can we go? … We went right behind the windows, and looking out the cracks, and hoping that nothing was going to happen to our little apartment,” he said. “Everything was in shambles.”
It got worse. The next day, Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. Lowenberg’s father, who was an officer in the German army, was arrested.
Jewish people were not allowed to eat meat or fish. Lowenberg’s mother could not buy clothes. She had to make shirts, pants and socks from other clothing and fabrics.
In November 1941, Lowenberg and his parents, two older sisters and two younger twin brothers were shipped off in a train with many other people for a four-day ride to the country of Latvia. Lowenberg’s father had to pay for the trip to a ghetto there encircled with barbed wire.
There they could not even find friendly quarter with the few Latvian Jews remaining. Before the Lowenbergs and other German Jews arrived, masses of Latvian Jews were machine-gunned down. The Nazis blamed it on the German Jews, saying they had to make room for the newcomers, he said.
Eventually, Lowenberg’s parents and younger twin brothers were sent to Auschwitz and did not survive.
It still hurts to talk about his younger brothers and their fate.
“Yes, those were beautiful little boys,” he said. “But unfortunately, at the age of 9, they were taken into Auschwitz.”
Then he changed his voice to a cajoling evil tone: “Come here, little children, let’s go. We have to clean you up. You have to take a shower. Come on, everybody.”
Lowenberg did hard labor in Latvia and then was sent to a concentration camp in Hamburg, Germany. He was issued a striped uniform, a hand-me-down from what he believes was another boy who had been executed by gunfire.
He did more hard labor and was given a meager diet.
“They gave us a watered-down something from vegetables you didn’t even recognize,” Lowenberg said. “That’s why so many people died of starvation.”
Sometimes in the middle of the day he and the others were given a thin slice of bread.
By the time he was released from the concentration camp at the end of World War II in 1945, Lowenberg, then 17 years old, weighed 76 pounds.
Both of his older sisters survived the war and settled in Palestine. Lowenberg came to the United States. He was in New York for a couple of years, then moved to Akron, where he became a U.S. citizen. He slowly became accustomed to a normal life, he said.
“When you think, ‘Could this have happened to my family?’ Yes,” Lowenberg said to the students. “There are vicious people around, people that just don’t care about others … selfish, thinking that they can be more powerful to hurt somebody else. Why are they hurting? Because they hate.”
He left the students with a request.
“Let’s live in peace without hate.”
Wilin: 419-427-8413 Send an E-mail to Lou Wilin