GREENVILLE — The most chilling thing was Martin Lowenberg’s matter of fact tone as he recounted his personal history, a tale of unspeakable hardship, degradation and loss
Yes, it has been over 75 years since Lowenberg — then a child of 8 — was pulled from his home, along with his parents, sister and twin brothers and taken by German soldiers to a Jewish ghetto, then later to a series of concentration camps. When he was finally liberated nine years later, he was 17 years old and weighed 76 pounds.
What happened in between is an atrocity so monstrous that it defies even the most tortured imagination and has left generations wondering at the capacity for human cruelty.
Lowenberg’s story — which he related to a standing room only audience Thursday evening at the Flat River Community Library in Greenville — begins earlier, in the mid-1930s when Adolf Hitler was rising to power in Germany. On Hitler’s birthday, Lowenberg’s teacher came to school dressed in his Nazi uniform. To celebrate the Führer’s birthday, the teacher threw a party for his students. Lowenberg, a Jew, was “guest of honor.”
“I was 8 years old,” Lowenberg told the library audience. “The teacher singled me out and accused me of sticking my tongue out at a picture of Hitler that hung in the classroom. He called me to the front of the class, then he called four older boys up and told them to beat me up. They did quite a job. But that wasn’t quite good enough. (The teacher) had a board with tacks and nails in it and he pushed me onto it.”
After that, Lowenberg’s parents sent him to a boarding school nearly a day’s drive away, farther by train. With the restrictions placed on Jews at that time with regard to travel, he saw his parents only once or twice a year for the next two years.
The school provided no safety from the rabid anti-Semitism sweeping Germany. In November 1938 he was shipped with his parents, sister and younger twin brothers to a Jewish ghetto.
“We were slaves in the ghetto,” Lowenberg said. “We had to work very hard. There was no saying anything like I can’t, or it’s too heavy, or I’m sick. Not if you wanted to live.”
As bad as the ghetto was, far worse lay ahead. Eventually, Lowenberg was separated from his family and taken to Kaiserwald, a concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. From there, he was transported by ship to a concentration camp in Hamburg. From there, a four day walk in sub-zero temperatures to yet another concentration camp, this one in Kiel.
“We went on the death march for four days and nights,” Lowenberg recalled. “We were already so weak. Many died along the way.”
By this time, Lowenberg had long been separated from his family. His parents and younger brothers, “the twins,” had been taken to Auschwitz, historically the most notorious of all concentrations camps; about one in six Jews killed during the war perished in the “showers” of Auschwitz.
Lowenberg will never know for sure what happened to his younger brothers, the twins, but said he hopes they were gassed and their bodies incinerated along with those of his parents. Horrible as that may seem, the alternative was the experiments carried out on twins in Auschwitz by Dr. Josef Mengele.
When twins were found, Lowenberg recalled, they were taken from their parents by SS guards and placed in Mengele’s care. The experiments Mengele subjected these children to cannot be related in a family newspaper and indeed, Lowenberg withheld this information during his appearance at the library, owing in part to the fact that many high school students were in attendance.
“There were one and a half million children that were killed,” Lowenberg said. “What kind of life did they ever have? But what kind of life could they have had, if they’d been given a chance to grow up and to perform like any normal human being? Can you imagine? One and a half million little children; to just kill them for absolutely no reason.
“We love our children. Can you imagine those parents? They never had a chance to really love theirs. Instead they were killed.”
But eventually, as all wars must, World War II drew to a close. Hitler put a gun to his head in a Berlin bunker; his remains were eventually cremated and scattered to the winds, according to Soviet records; his promised 1,000-year Reich lasted less than a decade.
Lowenberg was liberated to Sweden, where miraculously, he was reunited with his sister, Eva, all that remained of his immediate family. In time, he made his way to the United States, which he referred to repeatedly in his presentation at the library as “the greatest country on Earth.”
In time, Lowenberg married an American woman he describes as “a survivor of Cincinnati, Ohio.” Like so many survivors — so many refugees — before him, Lowenberg made a life for himself here. He has never looked back.
And yet, the past is part and parcel of who he is; as a Holocaust survivor, as an American citizen, as a man who has seen horrors no one should ever have to witness, Lowenberg feels duty bound to tell his story.
Following his presentation, Lowenberg fielded questions from the audience: Did his faith help him through his days in the concentration camps? How does he feel about modern-day Nazis? Was it hard to adjust to post-World War II life in America?
And, most telling: Does he forgive his tormentors for the things that happened all those long years ago?
“That,” he said, “God has taken care of for me.”