January 17, 2020

Recalling Curt Lowens, ‘A Figure of Wonder’

At the Saban Theatre, after a Temple of the Arts Shabbat service on Jan. 19, journalist Dean Piper recalled Curt Lowens, his uncle, as a “figure of wonder” midway through a tribute concert to honor the late actor, who died last May 8.

As a child growing up in the United Kingdom during the 1980s, Piper had bragging rights. His uncle had visible roles in “Babylon 5” and “MacGyver,” as well as the movie “A Midnight Clear” with Ethan Hawke. He also recalled Lowens telling him years later that “descriptive words like ‘extraordinary’ and ‘amazing’ should be used only in the right situations and never in a daily phrasebook.”

There was no argument among tribute participants that superlatives barely scratched the surface in describing Lowens’ real-life roles, from Holocaust survivor to Dutch resistance fighter (as “Ben Joosten”), British Eighth Corps interpreter, author of wartime biography “Destination: Questionmark” and mentor to young filmmakers.

Rabbi David Baron, Temple of the Arts President Jim Blatt, journalist and founder of The Man/Kind Project Richard Stellar and others marveled about Lowens’ humility when recalling his rescue of 150 Jewish children and two American airmen during World War II while still in his teens. There also was an unspoken mutual agreement (including from Lowens himself, via the Museum of the Holocaust/Harvard-Westlake School documentary “Curt Lowens: A Life of Changes”) that his greatest role was as an educator determined to keep the memory of the Holocaust relevant among current and future generations of children.

“We are defined by how far we reach out to those in need.” — Richard Stellar

“Curt was that unique young man who only had himself to be accountable for and willing to put his life on the line to save others,” said Samara Hutman, Remember Us director and event chair. “When his family immigrated to America, he was expected to go to business school. He wanted to be an actor, and when he told his father, it was a bit of a scandal as actors in that era were regarded in a similar way to circus performers.”

Hutman said Lowens’ experiences ultimately fed the creative life he chose for himself. One of the students in a workshop he led asked him if he thought his taking on false identities during World War II fed an interest in acting. He said, “I never thought of it that way until you mentioned it, but of course.”

“There’s an old expression that it’s hard to be a Jew because of the laws and statutes required to be a good Jew,” Baron said. “In Hollywood, there’s a saying that it’s hard to be an actor making a living. One of the great ironies is that most of his early roles in Hollywood were as German officers [and other villains] because of his tall, blond bearing and good looks.”

The concert, in cinematic fashion, built up to an emotional climax with a performance of “Bestemming,” a concerto for cello based on Lowens’ experiences composed by Sharon Farber, Temple of the Arts music director and a film and television music composer. Lowens himself narrated the spoken-word portions of composition for the second performance in 2014 at the Saban Theatre.

“After the rabbi told Curt’s story, he invited the children and grandchildren of one of the rescued pilots to introduce themselves,” recalled Farber of the Yom Kippur gathering in 2013 where she first met Lowens. “Everybody was moved, but this moment changed my entire life. At the time, I was working on a commission from the Glendale Philharmonic to compose a cello concerto. I caught up with Curt and asked if I could compose a piece based on his story. He gave me a copy of ‘Destination: Questionmark’ and his blessing.”

“Curt loved young people, and he taught me was that a relationship formed between an inner-city child and a survivor of the Holocaust is one of the greatest weapons in our arsenal in the fight against anti-Semitism,” said Stellar, also a co-founder of the Bestemming Project with Farber. “He also showed that we are defined by how far we reach out to those in need, regardless of who they are or who we worship.”