By MYRON LOVE
Since the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) in 2005 designated January 27 – the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – as the date for the annual commemoration of the Holocaust, communities around the world have been planning events on or around that date to continue to raise awareness of the greatest evil of the 20th century and remember the victims.
The centerpiece of this year’s commemoration - in Winnipeg – of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz - was the story of Holocaust survivor Leo Lowy. Roughly 500 people gathered at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights on the afternoon of Sunday, January 26, to hear his story.
As with many, if not most, Holocaust survivors, Lowy’s story – as related by his son, Richard, in Leo’s own words (he passed away in Vancouver in 2002) and a documentary - “Leo’s Journey” – begins with a happy childhood surrounded by a large extended Jewish family and friends – in his case in the town of Berehova, which was then located in Carpathia and is now part of Ukraine – an idyll that was shattered by the arrival of the Nazis (although in Hungary, which captured Berehova at the beginning of the war, the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross would be almost as brutal).
Lowy and his sister, Miriam, were saved from the ovens - the fate of the rest of their family - at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944 for the reason that they were twins – a particular interest of Dr. Josef Mengele – AKA “The Angel of Death” – who determined which of the Jews and others coming out of the boxcars would live and which would be sent right to the gas chambers.
In introducing his father’s story, Richard Lowy noted that, as with many Holocaust survivors, Leo was reluctant to talk about his experiences as a subject of the notorious Mengele. It was only in the late 1990s that Leo began talking about what happened to him and his sister.
In 2000, the Vancouver businessman was persuaded by his three sons, Richard and older brothers Gary and Stephen, to return to Europe and revisit Auschwitz, as well as his hometown. Richard Lowy’s documentary, “Leo’s Journey”, intersperses scenes from the family’s travels with interviews with two other Holocaust survivors – each of whom had a twin sister – and archival historical footage. The documentary was narrated by the distinguished Canadian actor Christopher Plummer.
I was somewhat surprised to learn from the documentary that the Germans actually had a trial run in performing medical experiments on unwilling living people. Pre World War I, Germany had colonies in Africa where thousands of Africans were rounded up, interned in concentration camps and subjected to medical experiments at the behest of German pharmaceutical companies. After the first World War, the German colonies in Africa came under British rule.
Also of note in the documentary was the role that eugenics played in Nazi thinking and the Final Solution. Eugenics was a popular scientific theory which called for forced sterilization of so-called weaker individuals – those with mental or physical handicaps, addictions or criteria based on race – in order to “improve the quality of the human species”.
Prior to the showing of the documentary, Lowy narrated his father’s story based on an interview that Leo gave to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1985. In his father’s words, Richard Lowy described Leo’s early life in Berehova in a family of six children (he was the only boy). When the Hungarian cames in 1939, Leo had recalled, they were mainly interested in robbing the Jews.
He described how, in 1944, the Nazis shut up all the Jews in town in a brick factory for almost ten days, than loaded them into boxcars for the journey to Auschwitz. The then 15-year-old Lowy remembered the chaos and hollering when they arrived at Auschwitz, the presence of Mengele on the platform directing people to the left or right –to the gas chambers and death or to life, miserable as it may have been – and his and Miriam’s being separated from the rest of the family, put into a van with several other sets of Jewish twins, and driven to a hospital barracks.
“I was getting injections all over my body,” he recalled.
Some twins were operated on and, he recalls, one young male was castrated.
One time, he was taken into a room, put on a table and had his blood drained to transfuse a German soldier on the next table. “I was so weak after that I had to practically crawl back to the barracks.”
Lowy recalled teams of doctors, daily blood tests, being examined every day and being injected with various fluids. “It wasn’t painful, but it was scary,” he noted. “I had never even seen a doctor before.”
He recounted one time when he and his sister were personally examined by Mengele. “He was soft-spoken and trying to be pleasant, but I was so scared that I was shaking.”
Every morning, Lowy remembered, he would wake up in his barracks to find several others in the barracks had died overnight. ‘We would have to assemble for roll calls every morning with the corpses.”
On January 17, 1945, Lowy and all the rest of the surviving inmates of Auschwitz were assembled to be sent on a death march in the cold and the snow. “I knew I wouldn’t survive it,” he said.
He managed to hide in a basement with a few others for three days until liberated by the Americans.
He and Miriam came to Canada in 1948 as war orphans.
“My dad had been involved in Holocaust education in his later years,” noted Richard Lowy. “After he passed away, I felt that I had to continue his legacy of Holocaust education.”
The afternoon program also included: two selections from Zane Zalis’s oratorio, “I Believe”, sung by the Winnipeg Youth Chorus; remarks by Clint Curle, senior adviser to the president for stakeholder relations at the museum; and Belle Jarniewski, the executive director of the Jewish Heritage Centre of Western Canada (which partnered with the CMHR). Financial support was also provided by the Azrieli Foundation.
Jarniewski, who is the child of Holocaust survivors, spoke of the “shocking reoccurence of antisemitic hate and violence” in the last few years – especially in western countries which Jews looked to after the war as safe havens.
On the positive side, more than 50 world leaders came to Auschwitz to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation and, a few days earlier, a group of Jewish and Muslim leaders, led by Muslim World League Secretary-General Mohammed bin Abdulkarim al-Issa, also paid a visit to Auschwitz.
“With the passage of time,” Jarniewski observed, “survivor memoirs and testimony will play an increasingly central role in the safeguarding of the historical record. It is our duty to ensure that their words are implemented into education on the Holocaust, human rights, and genocide awareness. “
As to the Angel of Death himself, Jarniewski noted that regrettably, he was never brought to justice. As with many other Nazis, he escaped to South America where he died in a drowning accident in Paraguay in 1979.