HARRIS - Students at Bark River-Harris School learned about a dark chapter in history Wednesday when concentration camp survivor Martin Lowenberg shared his experiences as a Jewish boy in Hitler's Germany.
Lowenberg, now 86, was born in the German village of Schenklengsfeld, where his Orthodox Jewish family had lived for generations.
"My parents were born there, but unfortunately they're not buried there. Their ashes are scattered around Auschwitz," he said.
Ilsa Matthes | Daily Press
Holocaust survivor Martin Lowenberg was at Bark River-Harris School Wednesday telling his story of growing up Jewish in Nazi Germany and surviving life in a concentration camp. The students, who had been studying the Holocaust in their classes, were given time to ask questions after the presentation.
When Hitler rose to power in 1933, the village became a more difficult place to live for Lowenberg's family. Villagers even stopped playing sports with the family.
"When Hitler came to power there was no more sports club because nobody wanted to compete with us anymore," explained Lowenberg. "They said, 'We don't want to compete with those Jews.' ... Before that they were good, they were OK, but then after that? No more."
The harassment escalated, and when Lowenberg was still very young his home was burnt to the ground by arsonists.
"There were these young boys that were sitting there, having a good time, drinking, drinking beer, and somebody says, 'I'll buy you all beer, but burn down that Jew's house,'" said Lowenberg.
In school Lowenberg saw abuse from both his peers and his teachers. When he was eight years old Lowenberg's class threw a party honoring Hitler's birthday, and his teacher accused him of sticking out his tongue at the ruler's picture. As punishment, the teacher directed older boys to beat Lowenberg and put him on top of a board covered with nails and tacks.
"My parents had to send me to a boarding school far from home, and I couldn't come home," said Lowenberg, adding that in two years he was only able to see his family once.
While some of Lowenberg's siblings had fled the country - either coming to the United States or fleeing to parts of Palestine that would later become Israel - the rest of his family relocated in 1938 to a more urban area with a synagogue and a Jewish school, where Lowenberg and his sister Eva enrolled to rejoin their family.
Lowenberg was at school during Kristallnacht, also known as the "Night of Broken Glass," when a series of attacks were made against Jews and Jewish buildings across the country. The name comes from the sound of window glass breaking in synagogues, Jewish owned storefronts, and other Jewish buildings like Lowenberg's school.
"On November the 9, suddenly stones and rocks came flying through the windows and some of my fellow classmates were hurt very badly from the glass and the from the stones. The teacher dismissed class right away and he sent us home, and he said, 'be sure and run home,' and we did."
The following day Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were arrested all over Germany and Austria. Lowenberg's father was arrested and sent to Buchenwald, where he stayed for a month.
"He was gone," said Lowenberg. "He was gone for a month, and some of these people were gone longer than that - as long as a year - and some never came back home again."
A few years later, in December of 1941 when Lowenberg was 13, his family and the others in the Jewish community were ordered to move. They were directed to pack up all their things into boxes, and pack a small suitcase for their train ride.
"We did that because we always followed orders, because that was the German way," said Lowenberg.
The Lowenbergs and the other Jewish families who were being relocated arrived at the train station expecting to be put in passenger cars. Instead, they were packed into cattle cars. Between 80 and 100 people spent four days and nights in the cars unable to lie down.
When the train finally stopped, the passengers were unloaded and then forced to walk another five miles to the ghetto where they would be living. Those passengers who were too sick to walk the distance were directed to board trucks.
"They said, 'you'll see your families later,' but what they meant by 'seeing your families later' was 'when you're dead,'" said Lowenberg.
The Lowenberg family that had remained in Germany - Lowenberg, his sister Eva, their twin younger brothers, and their parents - lived in the ghetto and left only to go to the jobs they were required to do outside the ghetto.
The family remaining together was short-lived. Eva was taken to a labor camp, and later Lowenberg was taken to the concentration camp Kaiserwald in Riga. Lowenberg's brothers and parents were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland in 1943, where they were killed.
Upon entering Kaiserwald, Lowenberg's head was shaved to mark him as a prisoner. He was given a uniform that was marked with the number KL 3698 to identify him from other prisoners.
While in the camp prisoners were fed small portions of watery soup - which could be made from the skins of the potatoes that were fed to guards or from grass - and thin slices of dark bread. In the barracks that slept hundreds, prisoners used their bowls as pillows so they would make sure never to lose them.
"If you lost them then you wouldn't have anything to eat," said Lowenberg.
Near the end of the war Lowenberg was liberated from the concentration camp and sent to Sweden where he was reunited with his sister Eva. After recovering from their time in the camps the siblings came to America.
"When I was liberated I was 17 years old and I weighed 76 pounds," said Lowenberg.
When asked how being in the camp felt, Lowenberg had to pause.
"Truthfully, we had no feelings," he said.