Ava Goodson, age 10, was born with Cerebral Palsy and uses a wheelchair or a walker. With limited fine motor skills, Ava became an avid reader and used a laptop at a very young age. Since she can’t run and play, she does more reading and researching than most kids.
For two years Ava was hoping to meet a Holocaust survivor whose story she could write. Finally, it happened in Los Angeles where she met Curt Lowens, 89. Curt is a Hollywood actor whose had roles in movies such as Torn Curtain, Angels & Demons and a recurring part on General Hospital.
When their meeting ended, Curt picked up Ava’s hand and kissed it like in the movies. Ava said she wanted to grow up and marry a perfect gentleman like Curt. Her book titled Broadway Ben was illustrated by the talented Katy Leigh Babcock who was 10 years old as well.
Deb Bowen Creator A BOOK by ME
“While I listened to Curt, I was impressed he risked his life to visit his mother on her deathbed. It was a very dangerous trip, and he must have been scared about the possibility of being caught. I’m sure he wanted to spend more time with her. It hurt my heart to hear about it.” — Author Ava Goodson
Curt Loewenstein – Jewish Holocaust Survivor
Curt Loewenstein was born November 17, 1925 in Allenstein, East Prussia (now Olsztyn, Poland). His parents were Alfred and Ellie Loewenstein, and his brother, Henry, was two years older. Alfred was a well-established lawyer, and the family lived comfortably.
But, Germany was changing, and in 1935, the ruling Nazi party passed the so-called “Nuremberg Laws,” which imposed severe restrictions on Jewish people. The laws also sent a strong message to non-Jews: discrimination and abuse against Jews would be tolerated and even encouraged. Alfred, as a Jew, was prohibited from practicing law. Curt, one of five Jewish boys in his public school, was beaten up by other students. The Loewensteins and other Jewish families were becoming afraid.
The following year, the family moved to Berlin. On November 9, 1938, the director of Curt’s school, Dr. Goldschmidt, told the students that they were surrounded by members of the Hitler Youth, who were hurling stones at them. She told her students to “get home as fast as you can.” Curt ran to his bicycle and pedaled home, dodging the rocks that were thrown at him. He saw Hitler Youth smashing the windows of many Jewish-owned stores and restaurants. That day, November 9-10, became known as Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass.
When Curt reached his family’s apartment, his mother took him to the window and pointed to the smoke pouring from their synagogue. It was burning to the ground. Curt’s thirteenth birthday was only eight days away. The thirteenth birthday is very important for Jewish children, because this is when they are welcomed into adulthood in a bar mitzvah (for boys) or bat mitzvah (for girls). Curt’s bar mitzvah was scheduled to take place soon in the synagogue, but now it could not happen. By the end of Kristallnacht, over 1,000 Jewish synagogues had been destroyed, as well as over 7,500 Jewish businesses. Approximately 30,000 Jewish men had been arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Curt and Henry’s father, Alfred, was one of those. He was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Ellie did not know if her husband would come home; but, thankfully, he was released three weeks later. Their rabbi, Manfred Swarsensky, was also imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and later released. After his return, he gathered together the 35 boys who had been preparing for their bar mitzvahs. On January 14, 1939, there was a flood of tears on what should have been a day of joy when the rabbi performed a group ceremony for the boys.The Jewish community was becoming very frightened. In August of that year, Curt’s brother Henry left for England on a Kindertransport. Kindertransport was a program that relocated Jewish children to England to protect them from the Nazis. Thousands of lives were saved by the Kindertransport organization.
Alfred had applied to the American Consulate for visas for himself, Curt and Ellie, in hopes of moving to America. The visas arrived the following spring. With these precious documents in hand, Curt and his parents boarded a train for the Netherlands on May 8, 1940. Two days later, on May 10, Germany attacked, and 700 people, including the Loewensteins, were picked up by the Dutch police and imprisoned in a concert hall in the city of Rotterdam. Four days later, on May 14, the Germans began bombing Rotterdam. The concert hall was hit. Curt’s family and the other prisoners scattered amid fire and debris.
The Loewensteins eventually moved to Amsterdam. But, in June of 1943, Curt and his mother were seized and taken to Westerbork, a transit camp that was used to hold Jews until they could be deported to extermination camps in German-occupied Poland. They were released two weeks later, with their identification papers reading, “Postponed from deportation until further notice,” and they were returned to Amsterdam.
Again, two months later, all three family members were picked up and sent to Westerbork. After six weeks, they were released, but the hardships had taken their toll, and Curt’s mother had become very ill. She was taken to a Jewish hospital. By now Curt was almost eighteen. He contacted a resistance group and bade farewell to his parents. The Jewish man Curt Loewenstein disappeared, and the gentile Ben Joosten took his place. “Ben” pretended to be a small-town teacher. He stayed with various families, worked on farms and secretly became a member in the resistance against the Nazis. If he ever sensed that people were becoming suspicious of him, he moved away to start anew. In December of 1943, Curt learned that his father was hiding Curt’s mother, Ellie, in a Catholic hospital. She was very sick. He bicycled to see them. His mother died not long after his visit, on January 3, 1944.
Meanwhile, “Ben” and his fellow resistance workers, Hanna and Nico, defied the Nazis by fighting to save Jewish lives. They delivered Jewish children (and a few adults) to families willing to face the terrible risks of hiding them. Ben and the others regularly checked on the children, brought them food and clothing and moved them when necessary. These brave resistance workers saved the lives of 123 Jewish children. It was very dangerous work. One horrible night, July 31, 1944, the Gestapo raided homes where they had hidden Jews and arrested eleven people.
The following month, Curt heard the sputtering of an airplane engine overhead. He saw an American plane in trouble and two parachutes falling from the sky. He ran to the site, where he found farmers folding up the parachutes and pointing to a haystack, trying to quickly get the soldiers out of sight. Curt told the Americans, “Gentlemen, I am with the resistance. The Germans saw you coming down. Please trust me and crawl away with me.” He took them safely into a nearby forest.
The soldiers, Tom Wilcox from Akron, Ohio, and Reg McNeil from Rochester, New York, updated Curt on the war. Later, they taught him a song that was popular in the U.S., “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” which had been recorded by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. This remained a strong memory for Curt, a light moment in the course of danger and struggle.
The two Americans were hidden until the Netherlands were liberated. Early in the morning of October 17, 1944, Curt and many others, including his father, were hiding in a cellar when they heard footsteps outside. “Is Ben down there?” the local priest asked. Three British soldiers needed an interpreter, and Curt spoke English, Dutch and German. Headquarters offered him a job as an interpreter, so he donned a British uniform and crossed into German territory with the British Eighth Army. By November of 1944, the war was winding down, but fighting was still going on.
Curt served as liaison between the British military detachment and the local people, as the unit forged deeper into Germany. One day Curt rode in a jeep with two British officers and their driver. They came to Glücksburg Castle, which was the seat of the High Command of the German armed forces. Curt translated as the British officers questioned Grand Admiral Karl Dönitz and others. Dönitz was a German U-boat commander and had taken over as the head of the government after Hitler’s suicide. Curt related that, after years of listening for marching boots and unexpected knocks on the door, this experience “was a total psychological turnaround and restoration of sanity.” Soon, the armistice was declared between the Allied forces and Germany. Germany had surrendered unconditionally. Curt remained with the British Army until the fall of 1946, when he returned to the Netherlands.
In 1947, Curt, his father Alfred and Alfred’s new wife immigrated to the United States. Curt started another new life. He studied acting at New York’s Berghof Studio, where, in the late 1950s, he met Katherine Guilford. They married in 1968. Ironically, Curt’s first Broadway acting role, in 1951, was as a Nazi guard in a play called Stalag 17. A long career in theater, film and television followed. Curt’s memoir, Destination: Questionmark, was published in 2002. Composer Sharon Farber honored Curt with a concerto, “Bestemming (Destination), Cello Concerto No. 1,” which premiered on January 5, 2014.
Curt resisted the title 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. Nevertheless, Curt’s life is an inspiring story of living by one’s wits, and doing what is right and necessary even at great risk. The dozens of Jewish people who survived the war because of Curt would certainly call him a hero, even though he refused to apply the title himself. Prior to his death in May of 2017, Curt was a frequent speaker at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH).
A BOOK by ME, a book series developed by Deb Bowen, empowers students to preserve history by telling the story of unsung heroes in our communities. For the young participants, it’s a guided cross-curricular project that gathers stories of people who do amazing things but have received little or no recognition. Students learn how to publish a picture book that is a primary source document with photographs and a biography.
Since 2003, Deb Bowen has been arranging meetings between students and individuals from the WWII generation. This intergenerational storytelling results in unique storybooks written and illustrated by kids for kids in the A BOOK by ME series.