Two who met at Theresienstadt are celebrating 50 years of love

Fifty years of marriage is a milestone in anybody's book. But the circumstances that brought Werner and Lilo Loeb together make the Walnut Creek couple's recent golden anniversary more remarkable than most.

Born in separate German cities in the years before the Holocaust, the Loebs were caught up in the insanity that swept through Europe, each losing family members along the way.

"My brother was a victim of the Nazi's policy of euthanasia of the handicapped in the early 40s," said Werner. "Lilo's father wasn't Jewish, but her mother was, and so she was considered Jewish and sent to the camps."

Lilo spent three years in Theresienstadt, in what was then Czechoslovakia. That is where she met Werner, who arrived at the camp for the second time in 1945, having been transferred out earlier to a work camp. They were both 20 years old.

"We didn't meet until close to liberation" on March 8, 1945, he said.

Obviously, theirs was not a storybook love affair.

"After three years of this mess, I'm not sure anyone was thinking of love at first sight. We were celebrating our freedom," he said.

The two young people returned to their respective home towns following the liberation — Werner headed for Steinheim and Lilo for Wiesbaden. They stayed in touch by mail.

"We had written back and forth a few times, but there was no transportation in Germany then. You couldn't get from here to there at that time if you wanted to," he said. "Lilo had the opportunity to immigrate to the United States in 1947. I was stuck in Germany until the end of 1949, when I was able to immigrate to the U.S."

Lilo had been living in Chicago, so Werner stopped in the Windy City on his way to San Francisco. "And then, I guess you could say it was love at first sight," he said.

Werner continued on to San Francisco, while Lilo remained in Chicago, where she became a dressmaker for Saks Fifth Avenue.

In San Francisco, Werner hooked up with General Electric, which put him through college. He became an engineer, staying with the company until he retired.

He and Lilo kept in touch by mail.

In February 1950, Lilo "came to San Francisco, and she stayed," her husband said. They were married on May 5 at Congregation Beth Sholom by Rabbi Sol White.

The Loebs raised two children — son Ralph C. Loeb and daughter Janet L. Williams, who is married to James A. Williams — and they have two grandchildren. They have lived in Walnut Creek for the past 10 years. Their family arranged for the 50th wedding anniversary party at the Round Hills Country Club in Alamo.

The Loebs don't spend a lot of time thinking about the past, though Werner Loeb has some definite opinions on the Holocaust and on human nature.

"I was born in Germany, but I can't say I saw it coming," he said. "My parents didn't either, and they were not alone. They didn't think anything could happen to them until it was too late. The common belief was that they fought for the fatherland and in World War I, and no one [would] touch them. Human nature hasn't changed, and when people ask me if I think such a thing is possible here, I tell them, of course. It's possible anywhere."

Though their memories of the Holocaust are fresh enough to have filled up 5-1/2 hours worth of videotape made by the Hillel Foundation for inclusion in Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project, they do not dwell on the experience. Their children have copies of the Hillel tapes, and Werner keeps a list of the names of the 24 immediate family members who perished at the hands of the Nazis. But that's about as far as it goes.

"We have tried for 50 years to live a normal life, and I think we've done a darn good job," he said.

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Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

A wife and mother of two grown sons, Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist, columnist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County."