Standing in front of the Bielefeld, Germany, railroad station in June 2018, Harry Lowenstein traced his fingers onto the all-too-familiar names etched into the Holocaust memorial. David, his father, Bernhardine, his mother, and his sister Klaere. Aunts and uncles and cousins. Friends and neighbors. During the Nazis’ terror, his family and hundreds of Jews from surrounding areas had stood on the station’s platform before being herded onto railroad cars for the journey to ghettos, concentration camps, forced labor camps, and for most, gas chambers and death.
The then 87-year- old Floridian— the last living Jew from an entire area who had survived the Nazis and WWII— had returned home to honor those whom he had lost, to thank those who risked their lives to help in his survival, and to present his message of tolerance and equality.
Surviving The Holocaust
Harry (nee Helmut) Lowenstein was born in 1931 in Fürstenau/Hoexter Germany, the second child of a cattle/horse trader and his wife. After years of mounting anti-Semitism, Kristallnacht, the “night of the breaking glass,” unleashed the Holocaust in November 1938. It demonstrated to Jews and others across Germany the brutality and determination of Hitler’s war agains the Jews. In their small rural village, the Lowensteins watched their synagogue burn and then experienced increasingly harsher restrictions. While most Christians in the town slammed the doors of their homes and businesses in the faces of their Jewish neighbors, the owners of one small bakery risked their lives by slipping Harry lifesaving loaves of bread. It was a kindness that Harry would never forget.
On Dec. 12, 1941, hundreds of Jews, including the 21 members of the Lowenstein’s extended family, were rounded up and brought to the Bielefeld train station. Hollering SS guards brandishing rifles herded the Jews into crowded rail cars, where they began the almost 1,000 mile journey to the Riga ghetto in Latvia. As it was the first night of Chanukah someone lit the traditional candles, said the traditional prayers and sang Ma’oz Tzur, Rock of Ages. The entire train soon joined in. That last sweet memory would help sustain Harry for the next six years. To this day, Harry tears up every time he hears the song.
The Next Day Comes
After several months in the crowded ghetto, groups of Jews were moved into the Riga-Kaiserwald concentration camp. Harry managed to escape the gas chambers by working in an auto repair shop housed in the complex. He still remembers the unrelenting, intentionally cruel actions by Nazi guards and the fear of beatings, punishment, and execution. “I thought to myself, I will somehow survive,” said Harry. “You learned to live minute to minute—not even hour by hour—to make sure the next day comes.”
In the fall of 1944, as the Russian army drew closer, the Nazis began to evacuate Riga-Kaiserwald. Thousands of Jewish prisoners, including Harry’s remaining family (his father had been murdered earlier) were shipped by boat to Danzig and then by barge to the Stutthof concentration camp in Poland. He lost touch with his family. On March 9,1945, as Harry remembers it, the camp was liberated by the Red Army. Harry’s “next day”—and freedom—had finally come.
The 14-year-old returned to Fürstenau in hopes of reuniting with family. The hopes were in vain. He was the lone survivor. First finding shelter for a short time with kind neighbors, Harry lived for a year with the family who had acquired the house of his family. In 1946, he was placed in a Jewish children’s home in Hamburg. In 1952, after arriving in the United States via Paris, the 21-year -old found his way to Kissimmee, Florida, where he joined his uncle’s apparel store. In 1956, he married Carol Sainker, had three children, and eventually operated his own apparel store. With fellow Jews, including many Holocaust survivors, the Lowensteins helped to found Congregation Shalom Aleichem and then build a synagogue in Kissimmee. “I saw one synagogue burn,” he said. “I wanted to build another.”
His wife Carol died in February 2017, just before their 60th anniversary. During Carol’s long illness and his year of mourning, Harry had begun to reappraise his past.
Fritz Ostkaemper, who had been a chairman of a Holocaust museum in Höxter, came across Lowenstein’s name as part of a research project tracking the Jewish families from the Westfalia area. Ostkaemper encouraged Harry to return to his childhood home. A previously planned trip to say Kaddish at his grandparents’ gravesite in Fürstenau evolved into a family trip through Europe with his daughters Karen Pridemore and Berna Lowenstein and her husband Greg Fitzgibbons.
After tours in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Harry and his family arrived in Germany and traveled to the Bielefeld railroad station. They stood silently in front of the “Each Person Has a Name” memorial. Dedicated in 1998, the monument displayed the names of the 1840 Jewish victims from Westfalia who had been murdered by the Nazis. A further inscription contains Psalm 78.6 in Hebrew and in German: So the next generation would know them, even the children yet to be born, and they in turn would tell their children.
Ostkaemper drove the visitors to Höxter in a limousine provided by the town’s mayor, Alexander Fischer. Harry, with the help of a translator, gave a 15-minute address. The evening ended with a dinner in a beer garden hosted by the community. “Most of the survivors never returned,” Fischer stated in follow-up article in a Westfalia newspaper. “Therefore it [is an] even greater honor to be able to welcome Harry Lowenstein in his former home. This way we set an example against intolerance and racism.”
The following morning, the group traveled to Fuerstenau, where Harry was born. The burned out synagogue had been repurposed into a garage/warehouse. Harry gave a tour pointing out where the bima had been and where the family pews had been located. Harry then sought out the bakery owners that had saved him from starvation. As a large crowd watched, media cameras flashed, and videotape whirled, Harry and the elderly couple hugged each other. Harry was finally able to thank them for their long-ago kindness. “Danke Schoen” he said repeatedly. “Thank you.”
Despite its modernity, the citizens of Fuerstenau had not forgotten its past. In front of each home or area previously inhabited by Jews, was a Stolperstein, a 3.9 inch cube bearing a brass plate inscribed with the name and life dates of victims of Nazi extermination or persecution. Harry found his plate:
Here lived Helmut Lowenstein. Born 1931. Deported 1941 to Riga. [Deported] 1944 to Stutthof. Rieben. February 1945: Death March. Freed. For all the rest of his family, in place of BEFREIT- freed– was the word ERMORDET– murdered.
The Jewish cemetery was surprising well kept, according to Harry, and he recited the Kaddish at his grandparents’ graves. His final stop was in nearby Bredenborn to visit with the family with whom he had found shelter for the first year after his liberation. In speaking with local residents of Fuerstenau, Harry was told that a permanent memorial planned for a prominent spot in Fuerstenau had been stymied by uncertainty where it should be placed and by a lack of funds. Harry railed against their excuses. “After 70 years, you should have made a permanent memorial!”
Harry pledged 50% of the funds needed. The permanent bronze plaque was erected in 2021 near the foot of the church and in the middle of the town at a crossroads that everyone must use. He missed the unveiling of the memorial due to the pandemic.
What advice does Harry Lowenstein give as a Holocaust survivor? His message on parting: “Treat each human being equally, no matter who they are.That’s all.“
Thank you to Wolfgang Mueller for translating the articles in the Westfalen-Blatt newspapers from German to English.
https://www.westfalen-blatt.de/owl/kreis- Höxter/ Höxter/es-war-eine-lange-reise-1275455?&npg
First published (Capital Region, New York) The Jewish World in its April 27, 2023, issue.