Holocaust Survivor Hanns Loewenbach Feels He Must Speak 'For Those Who Cannot Speak for Themselves.'
By Reba Karp
Holocaust survivor Hanns Loewenbach begins the story of his wartime experiences by explaining that his travails began with "the bad luck of being born in Germany 76 years ago, in 1915." His survival route took him from his home in Berlin to a rather shaky safe port in Shanghai.
He remembers that his father was "one of the first Jews taken forcibly out of their homes." This was in 1934 and as a German businessman in partnership with two others, one a Protestant and the other, Catholic, in a thriving business, he was asked to sign away all his rights to his partners. Since he refused he was transported to Buchenwald and later to Dachau.
Loewenbach explains that in 1934, the Third Reich began its first boycott against Jewish-owned stores. To solve this particular problem, they arrested his father, Louis.
The only information that the family heard concerning his whereabouts came months later when a radio news commentator reported that his father, Louis Loewenbach, had been caught trying to leave Germany and "get money out of the country into Holland."
Since the Loewenbach family knew Louis was being held in a concentration camp, they realized that the report was not possible, that it was only propaganda released by the Third Reich to further their systematic destruction of the German Jewish citizens. However, it was not always possible to convince other Jews that what they were hearing was not so, for as Loewenbach explains: "They had to first experience the injustice for themselves."
But these were the days of paradoxes and in 1935, despite his Jewish background and arrest of his father, Loewenbach was called to serve in the German military. One of the questions that they asked him was if he wanted to be a soldier.
"I told them, 'no,'" and explained this rejection of the German military was due to a particular vicious news report in which Goebbels referred to Jews as "lice."
"At 20 you are very brave," he adds. The recruiting officer shrugged his shoulders at the offense, for it was too early for even the Germans to take Hitler seriously. So having refused military service, Loewenbach, without the support of his family business, worked as salesman for another Jewish merchant; his mother. Meta, also without funds from her husband's business, was forced to rent rooms in the family's former 10-room home.
Although times were erratic, all went reasonably well until 1936 when he was picked up with other young Jewish men and put in the back of a truck: destination SS Headquarters and a concentration camp. Remembering how his father had been taken forcefully from his home never to return, Loewenbach jumped from the truck, "and from that moment on I was living illegally - every day in another place," he recalls. Fortunately for him, he had joined a Zionist Movement in Germany in 1925, and through his association with the organization, became acquainted with a Jewish woman who helped feed him and keep him alive.
"I felt the safest on a train or street car," he adds, "for everyone was going somewhere." The fear he experienced at this time was so instilled in him that it followed him even into freedom and shaped his responses to normal situations. In 1977 when he was told he needed open heart surgery, he was gripped by fear and "ran out of the hospital."
Understand, he continued, in Germany, "I was not living under normal conditions. I felt like a deer and it was open season." He began sleeping in places with two exits, if the Germans entered one, he would have an escape exit through the other.
"Actually I slept with one eye open; I still sleep the same way."
Eventually he tried to escape. "I swam two miles to Denmark and was turned back by the Danes. I had to swim two miles back. I was given the choice of being taken to the border and turned in and delivered to the Gestapo or to swim back." It was only after the Germans marched into Denmark that they openly sought to help their Jews, he adds.
"We were all alone. We are still alone. We should never forget that," he adds emphatically. Once back on German soil, he was on the brink of giving up, for "how long can you run?" he questions. "But it is unbelievable how life can work," he adds, explaining that he was sitting on a park bench in Berlin, pondering his next move when he was approached by a tall Gestapo agent, who called him by name. When he looked up it was into the eyes of a former schoolmate from Luebeck. But instead of the cold calculating eyes of a Jew-hating German, he could clearly see that his former friend was happy to see him. "He asked me, 'what are you doing here, Hanns? Don't you know what we have planned for the Jews?' For that moment, I ceased being a Jew. I was part of home."
And so I answered him, "I would leave if I could."
His former schoolmate was in a position to help and offered to do so, providing Hanns could get a photograph for a passport. But although it was clearly a miracle, he felt so helpless, where was he to obtain a photograph for a passport? and where could he go? What would happen to his mother if he did manage to escape? These were his immediate questions. The date was Nov. 7, 1938. Two nights later, Nov. 9, 1938, Kristallnacht, he found himself on the streets of Nazi Germany where he witnessed the destruction of synagogues and Jewish businesses. "That evening I had made arrangements on where to sleep and I was on the streets when the trucks with the SS came and threw fire bombs into synagogues. A few minutes later came the brigands, not to put the fires out, but to make sure it would not spread to to the houses.
"They threw stones in Jewish shops and tossed the merchandise out on the streets, pulled the Jewish men out and marched them to police headquarters. Later they were taken to concentration camps...that night all over Germany the same thing was happening."
The agony of the moment was further intensified the next day when the Jewish residents, those who survived and were not deported to camps, were charged one billion marks to clean up after the destruction.
He felt helpless, angry and frightened. "I knew at any moment I would be discovered. Now I needed to go somewhere." With the passport he ultimately obtained with his friend's help and financial help from the Zionist Organization of his youth, he bought a train ticket for Italy. "Brave or not, I had to do something," he explains. Once in Rome, he sought the assistance of the Jewish community and learned that the only place open for him was Shanghai. With their financial assistance, he also managed to get both his mother and father out of Germany. Those were the days, he explained, when money could get Jews even out of concentration camps. "Hitler," he adds, "kept saying, 'take the Jews, what are you complaining about? Take them!"
Although life in Shanghai was hard and full of privations, it was still life. "At first the refugees were fed by contributions of already-established Jews living in Shanghai. These were Sephardic Jews, originally from India, who were fairly well established in the country.
Later, outside funds, which were sent for the refugees to two yeshivot in Shanghai, were their only source of financial assistance. These funds, from the Joint Distribution Committee, were divided equally among the refugees. Since funds were limited, immigration was also limited. There were many who sought to enter, but who were turned back. Those who adapted quickly to their new environment learned how to supplement money from the yeshivas. Loewenbach was one of them. "I learned to speak Chinese very quickly. I was 23 or 24 years old at the time. I went into the county in a rickshaw and bought chicken eggs. My mother sold them to restaurants, etc."
Since he had learned to design and make hats while in Germany, with $20 he opened a hat shop. When all their resources were pooled, "we could just eat and drink", he explains. Those who made it to Shanghai were in far better shape than those who were unable to escape, and they were grateful. But despite the fact that they were granted asylum in Shanghai, they lived constantly under a threat of death. The Germans and Japanese were allies, he explains, and the Japanese were ordered by the Germans to eliminate the Jews. Gas chambers were built. But no Jews were gassed. "The emperor left it up to the army; the army to the navy and the navy turned it back to the emperor."
In 1948, after the war ended, his mother died in Shanghai; his father, three months later, went to visit his sister, Alice, in Sweden, who had managed to escape there during the war. He stayed with her until 1950. His father then moved to Germany to work on his restitution and died there in 1954. In 1947, Loewenbach moved to America with his first wife, Ruth, whom he married in Shanghai. He lived and worked in New York until Ruth died. Loewenbach married his second wife, Jutta, in 1960, in Berlin, during one of his trips back to Germany.
Until he heard Elie Wiesel speak at a Holocaust Gathering, he did not talk about his experience during the war, nor did he want to talk about them. He did not even want to share the agony of those years with his children. Loewenbach has three children, a daughter by his first wife, Ruth Miriam Becker of Virginia Beach; and two with his second wife, a son Ben Loewenbach, a biomedical engineer, living in Erie, Pa. and a daughter Dr. Gail Loewenbach became the bride of Richard Sobel on May 9 in Summit, N.J.
Today, Hanns feels it is imperative for those who witnessed the Holocaust to speak up and tell their story. This is especially important in the light that there are those who deny the Holocaust ever happened, that six million Jews perished.
"The six million should not be forgotten...I feel I must speak for those who cannot speak for themselves."
Hanns Loewenbach passed away at age 96 in January, 2012. The world is a better place for the life he so courageously lived, and a those who knew and loved him feel his loss.