WRIGHTSTOWN – There stands a 1,000-year old tree in the German village where Martin Lowenberg was born, a tree that generations of his family walked near, sat under and enjoyed.
Although the tree still stands, his family was forced, as Jews in Nazi Germany, to give up their citizenship, their belongings, their home and more.
Lowenberg’s grandparents were born, lived, and were buried in Schenklengsfeld, located near the center of Germany. His parents were born and raised there too.
But they were not buried there.
They were among the millions herded into concentration camps, killed and incinerated during World War II.
“Their ashes were spread in Auschwitz,” he said of the largest Nazi death camp, located in Poland. “I was an orphan at 15. That’s something I have to remember and never forget.”
Lowenberg, 88, spreads his message about his experiences to schools and other organizations throughout the Midwest. A retired salesman, he was a young teen during the war, vibrant enough to be useful to Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany. He worked in the camps and eventually landed in the United States along with two sisters. His is a story of persecution, fear, hunger, pain … as well as hope and a deep faith in God.
He shared his story with fifth- to eighth-graders Tuesday afternoon at St. Clare Catholic School in Wrightstown, after speaking at Wrightstown Middle School earlier in the day. The Michigan-resident will also visit Kimberly and Bay Port high schools this week before heading home. He said it’s important for people to understand the way the Holocaust unfolded and how Hitler seized power in order to prevent history from repeating itself.
“I try to teach the students what life is all about,” Lowenberg said. “What happened, and what can happen. I feel it’s very important to know what’s happened in the world and to people. It’s too quickly forgotten.”
Hitler came to power in 1933, Lowenberg told the children, and his power led to the eventual deaths of 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, and 1.5 million children under the age of 15. More than a million people were put to death at Auschwitz from April to August of 1943 alone, he explained.
Lowenberg’s father served in the German army during World War I and the family lived a happy life. But once Hitler rose to power, Jews were called names and harassed in the streets.
“Hitler told them it was OK to do whatever they wanted to the Jews, and so they did, they called us names, had meetings about us, called us pigs,” he told the Wrightstown students. Two men in a tavern enjoyed a number of beers, and then agreed to set the Lowenberg home on fire. What was not destroyed by the fire was looted.
With the help of friends, the Lowenbergs rebuilt. He was forced to go to a boarding school 150 miles from home because it was not safe to attend his public school after rocks and sticks were thrown through the windows, injuring students sitting nearby.
Two of his older siblings left for Palestine before war broke out. An older sister, Margaret, was a nanny for a local family, and moved with them to the United States.
His father was forced for a time by the Nazis to dig ditches. “They were getting ready for the war,” Lowenberg said.
Citizenship was revoked, Jewish people were required to sew the Star of David on their outerwear, and many people had trouble leaving the country. He showed students the last photo he has of his younger twin brothers, then 6.
“My mother was not allowed to shop in the stores, so Kurt and Fritz’s shirts were made from an old sheet, their pants from an old coat, and she knit their socks,” the old man said, looking sadly at the picture.
In December 1941, Jews in his village were told to pack and, with thousands of others, were taken to the capital of their state. He and his family traveled by train for four days to a Jewish ghetto in northern Latvia, arriving Dec. 12, five days after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
“Anyone who was too sick or tired to walk was asked to get on a truck, and told ‘You will see your family again,'” Lowenberg said. “What they meant was they were being killed, and would see their families in heaven.”
The others marched for five miles in snow before entering the ghetto, which was surrounded by barbed wire. Before they arrived, 3,000 Latvians had been killed in two days to make room, he said. They had not eaten for two weeks, and so they ate snow, he told the students.
He was 14 at this time and was put to work shoveling snow. He shoveled streets all day long, but at least could return to his family in the ghetto. This lasted for about a year and a half.
In 1943, young women up to the age of 40 were removed from the ghetto, and then everyone under the age of 15 or over the age of 50, considered too young or old to provide hard labor, were told they were leaving.
“This is the hardest thing I have ever done in my life,” Lowenberg said. “My parents and my nine-year-old brothers were left behind. I had to say goodbye to everyone.”
He was taken to a work camp in Latvia and given a number, KL3698. Among the jobs he completed was loading a warship with empty ammunition shells to be refilled.
If anyone tried to escape, that person was immediately killed, and Nazi officials would randomly choose others to punish or kill. Lowenberg was chosen one time and was forced to remain in a squatting position for 22 hours outside in cold November. He was then put back to work.
Near the end of the war, the teen was part of a 75-mile death march. It took three weeks, and many of the prisoners died, but he made it. He was taken to a rehabilitation camp in Sweden, where he eventually reunited with his sister Eva. Their sister Margaret and her husband signed papers for them to come to the U.S. The two older siblings who moved to Palestine joined them in the 1950s, Lowenberg said.
“We finally made it to the home of the brave, and land of the free,” he told the students. He became more knowledgeable about his Jewish faith, and said he never lost his belief in God or his hope he would survive.
“I went back to Germany and spoke to schools and communities,” he said. “I let them know I was a victim of the hate. I have learned, not to forgive those who did this to us, but to be a kinder person, to be accepting of everyone no matter who they are. I was one of the few lucky ones.”
Sixth-grader Cole Hinter said he appreciated Lowenberg’s honesty about his experience.
“I learned that he had a rough time during the war, and did what he needed to to survive,” Hinter said. “I was excited to learn more about the Holocaust and to hear him speak. It would be hard to go through what he did.”
The class studied World War II and the camps Lowenberg was in for several days, teachers Allyson Guzan said. “I have been to visit Auschwitz. I shared my photos and experience with the kids. They were extremely interested.”
He answered student questions with patience.When a student asked about the worst he had observed, he said it was hard to say.
“The first time I saw people hanging was bad, the first time I saw someone being shot,” he said. “But the very worst, of course, was saying good-bye to my family.”
post coutesy of the Green Bay Press Gazette