Harry Lowenstein-mensch of a man
September 22, 2017
This year, for the first time in 60 years, Harry Lowenstein will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah without his beloved wife Carol. It will be a bittersweet occasion, only a few short weeks after what would have been their sixtieth anniversary. But Harry is a survivor-as well as a mensch-a person with integrity and honor.
Harry Lowenstein was born in Fuerstrau, Germany, in 1931, the younger of two children. When he was seven years old, Harry was expelled from school for being a Jew. In 1940, he and 20 members of his family were deported to the Riga ghetto in Latvia. The train carrying approximately 1000 Jews left Bilefeld, Germany, on the first night of Chanukah. Someone had brought candles on the crowded compartment and started singing Ma'oz Tzur, Rock of Ages. Soon the entire train joined in. That last sweet memory sustained Harry for the next six years.
In the ghetto, his entire family was crowded into a two-room apartment. A year and a half later, the family was sent to the concentration camp of Riga-Kaiserwald, where the men and women were separated. "Return home after this is over to find us," his mother begged before she said goodbye.
One day, Harry found a piece of bread outside a building and brought it to his father to share. "Where did you find this?" his father asked. When Harry told him, his father said, "You just took that bread away from someone who is as hungry as you were. Give it back and apologize." When Harry returned, his father slapped him on the face. "I still can feel that slap," said Harry. "What a lesson in ethics he gave me!"
Soon after, Harry's father fell ill and was sent back to the ghetto, which was liquidated in November 1943. Harry never saw his father again. While in Riga-Kaiserwald, Harry remembers the constant fear of being chosen for the gas chamber and the ongoing, intentionally cruel actions by Nazi guards. When Harry stole a piece of bread from a kitchen, Nazi prison guards stood him outside in the freezing cold and blasted a water hose down his shirt. "I thought to myself, 'I will somehow survive," said Harry. "You learned to live minute to minute-not even hour by hour- to make sure the next day comes."
In the fall of 1944, as the Russian front drew close, the Nazis tried to avoid the Allied forces. Harry, along with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, were shipped by boat to Danzig and then by barge to the Stuthoff concentration camp in Poland. On March 9, 1945, the camp was liberated by the Red Army. He and other survivors were brought to a makeshift hospital. For six weeks, he and fellow survivors were fed a diet of oatmeal to help them regain their strength. The next day-and freedom-had come.
Remembering his mother's instructions from years earlier, the 14-year-old returned to Fuerstenau to reunite with his family. His trip was in vain. He was the sole survivor.
As the High Holy Days approached that fall, Harry visited a fellow survivor, and a group of them went to services in a makeshift shul. A Polish Jewish officer serving in the British army asked Harry if he had had his bar mitzvah. When Harry said no, the Polish officer said, "Then you will be bar mitzvah today, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the rest of your life."
After spending the next four years in children's homes in Hamburg and Paris, Lowenstein immigrated to the United States in March 1949. He stayed in the Bronx with an aunt and uncle who had immigrated to the United States in 1928. He worked in a butcher shop during the day and attended school at night, trying to build on two years of schooling he had before the war.
In 1952, after serving two years in the army, Harry moved to Florida, where he got a job working in his uncle's clothing shop. "Selling a pair of pants or some shoes was easier than hauling 60 pounds of frozen 'trief.'" said Harry. He hung up his butcher's apron for good.
On Feb. 14, 1957, Harry went on a blind date with Carol Sainker, the daughter of another butcher. After only six weeks of long distance dating (they lived four hours apart), he proposed. They were married on Aug. 18, 1957.
Harry and Carol lived in England during the 1960s, and then moved back to Florida in the 1970s with their three children, Berna, David, and Karen. In 1974, Harry and Carol took over Goolds clothing store in Kissimmee, that had previously been run by another uncle, Luther Goold. Carol and he ran the business for 30 years, expanding the building from 1600 to 6000 square feet. As the only department store in town, it sold what everyone wore in Central Florida-jeans, cowboy shirts, and boots.
The Lowenstein's attended Congregation Shalom Aleichem, which held services since its founding in 1981 at the Kissimmee Women's Club. The Lowensteins began to press for a building of their own.
"I saw a synagogue burn," said Harry, "and I was determined to build another one."
Starting with a $120,000 contribution from Sandor Salmagne, another Holocaust survivor, the Lowenstein's-through their own and others' contributions-raised another $60,000 for building expenses.
Once Congregation Shalom Aleichem opened, the Lowenstein continued to work tirelessly to obtain a Torah, the prayer books for both every day and holy days, the Torah rimonim (filials), and the Yartzheit (memorial) board, most coming from their own pockets. Carol served as treasurer for over 30 years, and Harry held "every position on the board," except president. "My language skills were not up to my standards," explained Harry.
Rabbi Karen Allen, Congregation Shalom Aleichem's spiritual leader, expressed her admiration for the extraordinary and exemplary hospitality that characterized the Lowensteins at home as well as in their role as congregation leaders.
"It was my privilege to be their guest on many Friday nights after services, and I will always be grateful for the kindness and generosity of their elegant graciousness," said Rabbi Allen. "It is easy to understand how such caring and sensitive people could have created a successful business that for so many years contributed greatly to the growth of our community."
Their daughter Karen remembered her parents as "the most loving couple" with an old school work ethic that they instilled in their children: "Be honest, put in 110 percent, be truthful, and remember that being on time was being late." Karen has especially fond memories of the High Holy Days. "My mom would spend weeks cooking. On the night of the dinner, the table was set with our best china, silverware, and crystal, with flowers gracing the center."
Unfortunately, Carol faced major health problems throughout most her life. She experienced her first heart attack at 38, and that began years of cardiac issues. "Each time she was hospitalized," recalled Karen, "we thought it was the end. We were blessed to have her for so long."
Carol died peacefully on Feb. 10, 2017, at the age of 81.
Despite his grief, Harry remains intensely committed to the Congregation Shalom Aleichem, its building and its spiritual aspects. He quietly continues his tzedakah-his charity-to many others.
As he has done for many years, he gives frequent talks about his Holocaust experiences to local synagogues, schools, and other public venues. Video accounts of his first person narrative are on file in both Orlando's Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center and Stephen Spielberg's the University of Southern California Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation.
Harry shows no bitterness about his experiences in World War II. "The Nazis couldn't take away from me who I am in my heart," said Harry. "They could not change me. I was and still am a Jew."
And most importantly, Harry is a mensch. I know many people who share this sentiment: May you live for many more High Holy days in which you make your life-and Carol's memory-a blessing.