Holocaust Survivor Shares His Story With Global Students

Upon meeting William J. Lowenberg, it might be easy to see him as a successful real estate agent in his cleanly pressed suit, or the father of two children and grandfather to grandchildren in the way that he talks and smiles. You would probably never guess that he was a survivor of the Holocaust.

On January 18, Lowenberg came to speak to the second period Global Connections class. As former vice chair of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum for eight years, he has been able to affect change and speak out about genocides in the modern world.

Born in 1926, Lowenberg was raised in Germany and lived with his sister and parents. His father ran a successful textile business that allowed Lowenberg and his sister to attend excellent Catholic elementary schools where they were the only Jews.

“I had never thought we were any different,” Lowenberg said. “We were all citizens of Germany.”

But in 1933, one year after Lowenberg had entered elementary school, Hitler and the Nazi regime came to power. He was told to sit in the back of the class and separate himself from his friends just because of his religion. Although it hurt to be ostracized by his loved ones, Lowenberg learned to accept the circumstances.

“Our friends didn’t talk to us anymore or let us visit them in their homes,” Lowenberg said. “If they had, the Nazis would have punished them too. We were all just trying to stay alive.”

In 1934, his family was essentially kicked out of town and fled to Holland, where the Nazis had not yet infiltrated. But in 1941, the Nazi regime expanded to Holland and the entire Jewish population was arrested and taken to camps across the country.

“In these camps we were made to wait,” Lowenberg said. “We all knew the Nazis couldn’t stand us, but we didn’t know to what extent they were willing to go to.”

After a few months of waiting, Lowenberg was put on a train to another camp — but this time without his family. He didn’t know it yet, but the train he was riding on would soon bring him and the other “non-believers” to an infamous concentration camp: Auschwitz.

Upon arriving, Lowenberg and his fellow prisoners were inspected and sorted into groups. The strong and healthy were sent to work and those who were young or fragile were killed immediately. Those who survived the “selection room,” were then tattooed for identification, “so the Nazis could keep track of them, like property.”

That night, Lowenberg was taken to the barracks. Out of the 3,000 people who had been on his train, there were a little more than 100 still alive. He worked with a road gang at Auschwitz, waking up at four in the morning to a breakfast of hot water and stale bread. Lowenberg worked from sun up to sun down and every day he watched hundreds of people enter the gas chambers to meet their fates. One of those days, he saw his family.

“I was working near the gas chambers that day, and as I glanced up at the people in lines, I saw my family walk straight in to their deaths,” Lowenberg said. “Even after I saw this horrible thing, I [didn’t] think they were still alive and [thought] my eyes had just been deceiving me.”

Because he had paused to watch his family walk by, Lowenberg was brutally beaten by a German soldier. The injuries he sustained caused Lowenberg permanent injury to his back, which still affects his ability to walk and run. Now weaker and unable to work, he believed he was destined for the gas chambers. But a friend and fellow detainee took him out of his barracks one night and hid him in the rafters of a building, promising to get him out alive. Weeks later, the pair escaped and got on a train headed for Warsaw, Poland.

In Warsaw, Lowenberg became a prisoner once again and was forced to clean up the charred remains of a burnt-down ghetto. He and his fellow prisoners were forced to “burn bodies, demolish the ghetto and to salvage any materials for the German war industry.” Once the Germans were satisfied with their cleaning job, Lowenberg and the rest of the Jews in Warsaw were forced to march west for almost three weeks to a train that would take them to Dachau, another concentration camp in Germany.
About four months into his time at Dachau, an important day came Lowenberg would never forget.

“It was April 30, 1945. We saw huge machines come over the hill across from the camp,” Lowenberg said. “They came up to the fence and now we could see they were American soldiers in what we found out were tanks.”

The Americans gave them food and rest, and after three weeks they drove them to places where  they could all get transportation back to their homes.

Lowenberg returned to his hometown to discover that he was the only survivor left out of 145 people. He took many different jobs between 1945 and 1949, moving from Holland to Amsterdam and then to Switzerland, trying to make a life for himself after all he had been through. Before long, through a friend, Lowenberg discovered he had an uncle living in America. Both of them were so excited to know that the other was alive that three months later, Lowenberg was in the Bay Area with his relatives. After arriving in the United States, Lowenberg served in the U.S. Army until he met his wife of 50 years in 1957.

Lowenberg now travels around the Peninsula speaking out against genocide and using his unique experience as an example.

“Darfur, Sudan and the Balkans should not be happening,” Lowenberg said. “We said ‘never again’ but look at what we are allowing to take place.”

People throughout the area, including those here at the school, have found him to be incredibly inspiring.

“He was a really interesting speaker,” senior Collin Wingate said. “He was really passionate. The class really paid attention and asked questions.”

In 1997, Mr. Lowenberg published his memoir, “For My Family.” He and his wife are residents of San Francisco.