Survivor: Peter Daniels

From the time he was 4, Peter Daniels — then Peter Berlowitz — spent his days mostly staring out the window of a two-room flat in Berlin. It was 1940, and Jews were forbidden from hiring domestic help under the Nuremberg Laws. Peter’s mother, Hilde Berlowitz, was forced to leave him alone with some homework and his toys while she worked at a job sewing uniforms for German soldiers. “I was very lonely,” he remembered; he had no friends and could not go outdoors. Then one day, in May 1943, Peter answered a knock on the door and saw two Gestapo officers standing there. “Is your mother home?” one officer asked. Peter told them she was at work. “We’ll wait,” the officer answered. 

Peter was born on July 8, 1936, to Hilde Berlowitz and Erich Daniels. Hilde’s mother, who was born Christian but converted to Judaism before marriage, had died in childbirth with Hilde in 1912. Her father remarried when she was 10, and she was badly mistreated by her stepmother and stepsisters. 

Erich Daniels, the son of a Jewish lawyer, never married Peter’s mother and may not have even known of Peter’s birth. In 1938, Erich fled to Shanghai with his own parents and siblings. Peter has never had any contact with any relatives on his father’s side.

Peter and his mother were exempt from deportation for many years as Hilde was a mischling, a person of mixed Jewish ancestry, who carried her mother’s original Christian birth certificate as proof. But by 1943, mischling status no longer offered protection. And as Peter waited in the flat on that day in May 1943, he was more afraid of his mother’s reaction than of the two Gestapo officers. Hilde had warned him to never open the door for anyone, and she frequently showed her displeasure by beating him.

Peter and his mother were arrested and taken to a detention center. After several weeks, they and the other Jews there were loaded into cattle cars. 

After two days and almost two nights, the train stopped. The exhausted prisoners were forced to drag themselves two miles to Theresienstadt, which was both a holding camp for prisoners, who would be transferred to Auschwitz and other extermination camps, and a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. They spent their first night in the attic of two-story military barracks.

The next morning, Peter was sent to the boys’ barracks, a crowded room with triple bunk beds, where he spent most of his days. He made friends with some of the German-speaking boys, but, he said, “The friendships didn’t last long because the kids didn’t last long.”

Occasionally, Peter was given light work, such as pulling weeds from fallow vegetable fields or hauling slabs of mica to be shipped out. For Peter, work was an opportunity to receive extra food. 

Peter’s mother worked repairing uniforms of German soldiers. About once a month Peter was able to visit with her. “It was nothing emotional. I was not that interested in seeing her,” he said. 

In early May 1945, the International Red Cross took control of Theresienstadt, with the Germans departing several days later. Peter received new clothes to replace the rags he had worn for two years and new shoes to replace his old ones, whose front sections he had sliced off to accommodate his growing feet. “I put them on and did not take them off for three days,” he recalled. 

A week later, Peter stood with hundreds of newly liberated prisoners inside the barbed-wire fence waving and hugging each other as the Soviet army, with its tanks and troop carriers, drove past. It was May 8, 1945 — Peter was almost 9.

The camp was immediately put under quarantine to contain a large typhus outbreak. A month later, Peter and his mother traveled to Berlin, where they rented a flat. A few weeks later, Peter’s mother left to find Max Kurlander, a man she had met in Theresienstadt, and who was now, she had heard, in Deggendorf, a displaced persons camp in southern Germany. 

As Peter wandered around Berlin looking for food, he met several German boys. They spent their days following American soldiers, picking up their discarded cigarette butts and dividing the tobacco, which functioned as currency. 

Hilde married Max Kurlander in Deggendorf. She returned to Berlin, and she and Peter moved to Deggendorf in August 1945. Max, whom Peter described as “a truly bitter man,” worked as a translator for the U.S. Army.

In Deggendorf, Peter attended a public school where anti-Semitic German boys “beat him to a pulp” every day after class. His mother pulled him out after a few weeks. Peter’s sister, Evelyn, was born in September 1946. 

On Aug. 3, 1947, Peter and his family arrived in New York, where Peter attended school. But by the time he was 13, the beatings from his mother became so bad — she used a wooden clothes hanger, or whatever was handy, and hit him until he was black and blue — that Peter started running away from home, staying all night at the Greyhound Bus station or at friends’ houses. 

At 14, Peter escaped to upstate New York, working on a farm in exchange for room and board. A year later, he took a train to Texas and worked for a rancher in Brownsville. He continued moving around the United States, traveling in boxcars or hitchhiking, working as a farm hand, a dishwasher, a truck driver or doing other odd jobs. 

In 1958, at 22, Peter enlisted in the Navy. He was discharged in May 1962. 

Peter then began a new life, earning his GED, attending San Diego City College and graduating from San Diego State University. He then earned an MBA from Thunderbird School of Global Management in Glendale, Ariz.

After graduating, Peter worked for American Can Co. in New York City. He had married, and his son Erik was born in 1970. A few months later, he was transferred to Hamburg, Germany, returning to the United States in 1973 and settling in California, where he and his wife divorced.

Peter later worked for Security Pacific Bank (which became Bank of America). He retired in 2000. 

During this time, Peter met Joan Tamir, and they married on Nov. 30, 1981. She has three children: Ilana, born 1964; Dahn, born 1966; and Rahm, born 1971. Peter and Joan now have seven grandchildren.

After retiring, Peter began volunteering at the Museum of Tolerance as a docent. He did that until in 2007, when he was hired as a consultant for Northern Trust Bank but returned to the museum two years later as a speaker. “I was feeling better about myself and wanted to do something meaningful,” he said. He now also gives talks at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, as well as at schools and synagogues.

Peter’s mother died in 2007. As an adult, Peter re-established contact with her, but their relationship was strained.

Peter believes that his mother inadvertently prepared him for the Holocaust. “I didn’t miss the emotional support that a lot of kids had, because I never had that.”