December 15, 2018

Survivor: Curt Lowens

“We are surrounded by Hitler Youth throwing stones. Get home as fast as you can.” Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt, director of the Goldschmidt Schule (School) in Berlin, told the students as she rushed into one of Curt Lowens’ (then Loewenstein’s) morning classes. Amid the chaos, Curt bolted for his bicycle. He hurriedly pedaled home along the Kurfürstendamm, one of the city’s most fashionable avenues, dodging rocks thrown by hoodlums and Hitler Youth as they smashed the windows of the many Jewish-owned stores and restaurants. “It was very scary,” he recalled.

Inside the family’s apartment, Curt’s mother took him to the window, pointing to the smoke pouring from the nearby Fasanenstrasse Synagogue. No bar mitzvah, she told him.

It was Nov. 9, 1938, eight days before Curt’s 13th birthday, and the day that became known as Kristallnacht. 

Curt was born on Nov. 17, 1925, in Allenstein, East Prussia (now Olsztyn, Poland), to Alfred and Ellie Loewenstein. His brother, Henry, was born in 1923. 

The Loewensteins’ comfortable life changed in 1935. Curt, one of five Jewish boys in his public school, was beaten up, and his father, a well-established lawyer, was no longer permitted in court. The following year, the family moved to Berlin, Curt and Henry enrolled in the Goldschmidt Schule, and life continued somewhat normally, despite the Nuremberg Laws.

But on Kristallnacht, Alfred was deported to Sachsenhausen. He was released three weeks later. 

The Fasanenstrasse Synagogue’s Rabbi Manfred Swarsensky was also imprisoned in Sachsenhausen. After his return, he gathered together 35 boys — including Curt — who had been preparing for their b’nai mitzvah and, on Jan. 14, 1939, conducted a group ceremony. “I remember a flood of tears,” Curt said. 

In August 1939, Henry left for England. Meanwhile Alfred had applied to the American Consulate for visas, which arrived the following spring.

Curt and his parents boarded a train for Holland on May 8, 1940, with plans to depart Rotterdam on the SS Veendam on May 11. But on May 10, Germany attacked Holland, and the Loewensteins, along with 700 people, were picked up by the Dutch police and interned in Rotterdam’s De Doelen (concert hall).

Then, on May 14, the German Luftwaffe began firebombing Rotterdam. The De Doelen was hit, and the prisoners scattered amid fire and debris.

A few months later, the Loewensteins were evacuated to Venlo, in southeastern Holland, where Curt worked as an apprentice in an electrical shop. Sometime in 1942, Alfred was offered a desk job with the Jewish Council, and the family moved to Amsterdam.

In June 1943, Curt and his mother were snared in an unexpected roundup and sent to Westerbork. After two weeks, however, when the camp commandant saw that their identification papers read “Postponed from deportation until further notice,” they were returned to Amsterdam.

Two months later, all three family members were picked up and shipped to Westerbork. Again, after six weeks, they were released. But Curt’s mother had become very ill, and their apartment had been looted. 

Alfred put Ellie into the Jewish hospital, and he and Curt lived in a friend’s attic. During this time, Curt contacted a resistance group led by Piet Meerburg and, he said, after saying farewell to his parents, “Curt Loewenstein disappeared.” 

He became Ben Joosten, a small-town teacher, and was taken by resistance members to the village of Broekhuizenvorst, where he stayed with a blacksmith. 

Three weeks later, he was directed to a house in Tienray, which served as the Meerburg group’s regional headquarters and where he met leaders Hanna van der Voort and Nico Dohmen. He lived with the Maartens family, working on their farm. But needing something more to do, he became the region’s third resistance leader.

Soon after, when someone suspicious came looking for him, Curt left the Maartens to live with another family, the Moorens — a couple and their seven children — in Meerlo.

In early December 1943, Curt discovered that his father was in hiding in Venlo and his mother was in the Catholic hospital in nearby Tegelen. He bicycled to see them. His mother was very ill and died on Jan. 3, 1944. 

As resistance leaders, Hanna, Nico and Curt (using the name Ben) worked together to deliver Jewish children — and a few adults — to families who hid them. They regularly checked on the children, bringing food and clothing, and transferring them when necessary. All told, these three are credited with saving the lives of 123 Jewish children.

On the night of July 31, 1944, however, the Gestapo raided several homes and arrested 11 hidden people — nine children and two adults. “We lost wonderful people,” Nico told Curt.

The following month, while bicycling to the Moorens, Curt heard the sound of a sputtering engine. He looked up to see a plane disappearing into the distance and two open parachutes falling from the sky. He raced to a field, where he found farmers folding up silk parachutes and pointing to a haystack. Curt crawled inside. “Gentleman,” he said to the fliers, “I am with the resistance. The Germans also saw you coming here. Please trust me and crawl away with me.” They hid in a nearby forest, where the fliers — Tom Wilcox from Akron, Ohio, and Reg McNeil from Rochester, N.Y. — updated Curt on the war and taught him the words to “Pistol Packin’ Mama.” 

At nightfall, Curt led the Americans to the Moorens’ house, and they stayed in Curt’s attic room. The men remained hidden in various locations until liberation on Oct. 17, 1944.

Early that morning, Curt and 16 other people, including his father, were hiding in a cellar in Venray when they suddenly heard footsteps on the staircase. “Is Ben down there?” the local priest yelled. Three English soldiers, part of a British government military detachment, needed an interpreter. 

A few days later, learning that Curt (still called Ben) spoke English, Dutch and German, the British soldiers offered him a job as an interpreter. Curt donned a British uniform and crossed into German territory with the British army’s Eighth Corps. It was November 1944; the war was still being waged.

Curt served as a liaison between the British government military detachment and the local populations, as the unit forged deeper into Germany and as the war was winding down. 

Then, soon after an armistice was declared between the Allied forces and Germany, Curt found himself riding in a jeep with two British officers and a driver. They pulled up to Glucksburg Castle, near Flensburg, which served as headquarters for what was then, after Hitler’s suicide, the High Command of the German armed forces. There, Curt translated as the British officers spoke with Grand Adm. Karl Donitz, Hitler’s designated deputy, and Reichsminister Albert Speer. That experience, Curt said, after years of marching boots and unexpected knocks on the door, “was a total psychological turnaround and restoration of sanity.” 

Curt remained with the British Army until fall 1946, when he returned to Holland. 

In 1947, Curt, his father and his father’s new wife immigrated to the United States. He studied acting at New York’s Berghof Studio, where, in the late 1950s, he met Katherine Guilford. They married on Nov. 23, 1968. 

Curt’s first acting role, in 1951, was in a Broadway performance of “Stalag 17,” in which he played a Nazi guard. A prolific career on stage and in films and television followed. 

In 1984, Curt traveled to Jerusalem, where Yad Vashem recognized Hanna and Nico as Righteous Among the Nations. Curt himself is included on a Yad Vashem list of Jews rescuing Jews.

Curt’s memoir, “Destination: Questionmark,” was published in 2002, leading to various speaking engagements at Chapman University, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust and other venues.

A concerto honoring Curt’s life, “Bestemming” (“Destination”) Cello Concerto No. 1, by composer Sharon Farber, premiered on Jan. 5, 2014. It will be performed again on June 13 at the Saban Theatre. 

Curt, who is a survivor, a Dutch Resistance leader and a British army veteran, resists the appellation of hero. 

 “You don’t do things to become a hero. You do things at the spur of the moment, when the situation presents itself,” he said.