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Holocaust survivor describes experiences to TACOM audience

Martin Lowenberg, a Holocaust survivor, addresses the audience at TACOM Life Cycle Management Command's Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance April 25, 2017, as his mother's picture is projected on a screen behind him.

This is the last Lowenberg family photo before the Holocaust, taken in 1937. Back row: Margot, 17; Sally (father); Eva, 14; Martin, 9. Front: Fritz and Kurt, age 3; and Klara (mother). The two oldest children fled to Palestine several years earlier.

Martin Lowenberg in second grade, 1935, at a boarding school in Bad Nauheim, Germany.

Martin Lowenberg with his sisters, from left: Eva, Berta and Margot; inset is Hans. Date unknown.

During the Holocaust, 30,000 Jewish men between ages 18 and 60 were arrested and taken to Buchenwald, one of three concentration camps. Their heads were shaved and everything they had with them was confiscated.

Martin Lowenberg remembers a tree in the small village of Schenklengsfeld, Germany, where he was born in 1928 and lived until he was 8. The tree is more than 1,000 years old now, but the generations of Jews who once celebrated its annual blooms are no longer there. “They were driven out,” Lowenberg said. “They were harassed, they were hated.” His family was among them.
Now 89, Lowenberg was the keynote speaker for TACOM Life Cycle Management Command’s Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance April 25. He described his life experiences from ages 5 to 17, including the years he fled from the Nazis or fought to survive slave labor, starvation and other abuses at six concentration camps.
“Jews were hated,” he said, “and ‘hate’ is the worst word in the dictionary.”
As a Jewish boy in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, Lowenberg knows the damage hate can do. He relates each letter of the word to the way Adolph Hitler and other Nazis treated Jews during the Holocaust.
To Lowenberg, the H represents harassment, horror, humility, hunger. A is atrocities, anger, awful. T is for torture, torment, terror. E is execution, elimination, evil.
“I’ve seen that evil,” he said. “I met that evil when I was 5 years old,” the year Hitler came to power in Germany. “For 12 years, I saw that evil every day. It wasn’t so much in the beginning, but after 1939 that devil was there all the time. … And of course we all know who that devil was, who poisoned everyone’s minds, and there were many, many people who played along with him with the word ‘hate.’
“I feel very well protected here,” he told the audience at the beginning of his presentation. “I wish that had happened more than 80 years ago, that I felt protected; however, unfortunately I was not that lucky, I was not that happy.”
Born as the fifth of seven children, Lowenberg said his family life was normal until he was 5. His father sold goods to farmers, just as his grandfather and great grandfather had done in the same village. But Hitler turned people against them because of their religion and his supporters burned the Lowenberg’s house down with everything in it. Already poor from the fire, matters got worse when people stopped buying goods from them and selling them food.
In 1933 or 1934, Lowenberg’s two oldest siblings, Berta and Hans, left Germany for Palestine as part of a Zionist youth movement after experiencing their own abuse. Margot, the third-oldest sibling, later emigrated to the United States with the family for whom she worked as a nanny. With three of her five children safely out of the country, his mother gave birth to children number six and seven, twin boys, in May 1934.
Lowenberg left public school in his hometown when he was 8 after his teacher instructed several students to beat him up because the teacher said the Jewish boy had stuck out his tongue at a picture of Hitler. The teacher meted his own punishment by placing a board covered with tacks and nails onto a chair and pushing the young Lowenberg onto it. He never went back to that school.
For the next two years he attended a Jewish boarding school in Bad Nauheim, Germany, 150 miles from home. As a 10-year-old, he remembers people throwing rocks through his school’s windows, injuring classmates with flying debris. He saw Jewish people accosted in the middle of the street. With a synagogue burning near the centralized Jewish housing, Lowenberg was afraid that flames would spread to the apartments.
In December 1941, Lowenberg, 18-year-old sister Eva, their 7-year-old twin brothers and their parents were shipped in railroad boxcars with about 1,000 other Jews to Latvia, a four-day trip. The train was so crowded the 13-year-old Lowenberg had to stand the whole time. “Older people and women with children were scattered all over the floor,” he said. “People were nervous and afraid of what would happen to us.” When they arrived, they were marched 5 miles to a camp for Jews in Riga known as the “Ghetto.” The Latvian Jews who lived there before them were slaughtered to make room for the newcomers; their blood and personal belongings were frozen to the snow and ice. Lowenberg’s family of six shared a room with a couple. He said they washed and fed themselves with snow for two weeks before they received any rations. He also stole food, mostly spoiled and frozen, from empty houses to feed his family.
In 1943, male and female Jews between the ages of 15 and 50, including Eva and Lowenberg, were sent to separate slave labor camps – Jungfernhof and Kaiserwald, respectively. Their heads were shaved and their hair was used for bedding. Children younger than 15 and adults over 50, including the Lowenberg parents, father Sally and mother Klara, were shipped to Auschwitz, where they were immediately sent to the gas chambers. The twins also went to Auschwitz, where they were killed along with 1.5 million other Jewish children under the age of 14, including 300 twins. The 9-year-old Lowenberg twins never met their three oldest siblings who were able to escape Germany before the atrocities started.
“Where did the youth go?” Lowenberg asked. “What happened to them? Imagine what would have happened later if they had been given the chance to live. But unfortunately, they didn’t have that chance.
“It’s very difficult to understand the reason why,” Lowenberg continued. “What had they done? The reason was because they didn’t want them to have an education, they didn’t want them to enjoy life, they didn’t want them to produce more children. So they took them to Auschwitz where they gassed and burned them.”
Eva and Lowenberg were held separately at another Latvian camp in September 1944 but were reunited in the Fuhlsbuettel prison and concentration camp in Hamburg, Germany, a few weeks later. They survived a four-day death march in April 1945 to Kiel, Germany, where they were forced to use their fingers to clean off bricks from bombed-out rubble so they could be used again.
After three weeks in Kiel, on May 5, 1945, the siblings were told to stand by the entrance of the camp, by the trucks. The covered trucks had hoses running from the tail pipe to the passenger compartment. “As soon as they went a few miles the people inside were gassed and killed. Then they came back for more,” Lowenberg said. “Fortunately, I was taken (on an open truck), and they took us into Sweden where we were quarantined for five weeks and then to rehabilitation centers for nine months.” He was free. He soon reunited with Eva and came to the United States in 1946 to reunite with Margot in New York. All the surviving Lowenberg children were together again when Berta and Hans came to the United States in 1951 from Palestine. Berta and Hans, have since passed away. Margot is 97, Eva is 95.
By the end of the war, 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews had been killed in the Holocaust. “People think there were just a few camps, but there were hundreds of camps and millions of people perished, were killed, or starved and nobody could do anything about it,” Lowenberg said. “Nobody could lift a hand. Most people didn’t even know what was happening.”
Lowenberg has been back to his hometown village but he finds that people who live there now have a hard time understanding what happened in their village so many years ago.
He and his wife, Carol, live in Southfield, Michigan. They have three daughters, 14 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
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