After Auschwitz: Survivors jarring return to Warsaw

Bill Lowenberg never knew their names.

Whenever the Polish underground managed to kill a Nazi soldier, the Germans’ revenge was as swift as it was blunt. With tanks, they blocked off four or five city blocks. Every man unfortunate enough to be discovered was fair game. The Nazis marched them into the ghetto, lined them up against the wall and shot them dead. Lowenberg saw it all.

It was his job to pry whatever gold he could find from their teeth, frisk the bodies for valuables and, finally, burn them.

And he never knew their names. Until now.

Sixty-five years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Lowenberg sat not far from where he worked as a slave in a death factory. Yet now he was an honored guest at Poland’s official commemoration of the uprising. And, midway through the solemn ceremony April 15, the names of 25 or 30 fallen Polish underground fighters were slowly called out. Lowenberg has no doubt he saw these men die. He has no doubt he incinerated their bodies. He remembers it all.

“Oh, guaranteed. This was almost daily,” recalls Lowenberg, a Dutch-raised San Francisco survivor.

“They brought in, every day, dozens and dozens of Polish Christians, and they killed them in the camp. And we had to burn them. We burned hundreds and hundreds of bodies.”

Lowenberg, 81, at first spurned a White House invitation to represent the United States at the Polish ceremony. He reconsidered at the behest of his children. Now back in the city, he praised the Poles for their “dignified” handling of the event and marveled at the wondrous buildings dotting Warsaw.

This was Lowenberg’s first trip to Poland since he was liberated from Auschwitz — and he swears it will be his last.

When Lowenberg returned to the site of the Warsaw ghetto, he found nothing — literally nothing. But for the large memorial to those who perished here, all traces of his former Hell on earth have been razed. The gate is gone. The train tracks: gone. The crumbling buildings and bloody, cobblestone roads only exist in his memories. They’ve even changed the names of the streets. It left him with an oddly detached feeling.

Lowenberg arrived in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943, one of about 80 or 100 Birkenau prisoners forced to burn bodies and forage for war materials. The Nazis didn’t even bother to provide them with food or barracks, so the prisoners scavenged for food and slept on the streets.

Eventually prefabricated barracks arrived, as did about 12,000 Jews, many of them from Hungary. Within a year, that number had been winnowed down to 3,600.

When the Russians breached the city’s defenses, the 600 Jews who couldn’t manage to heed the Nazis’ command to rise from their beds were shot dead on the spot. About 600 remained to destroy all evidence the Warsaw ghetto camp had existed and perhaps 2,000 were marched out of town. Lowenberg was one of those.

They were loaded into boxcars headed to Dachau. Within three weeks, only about 240 were left. Again, Lowenberg was one of those.

The years were as arduous and seemingly endless as his return to Poland was luxurious and brisk. While Lowenberg had only nice things to say about the U.S. State Department and Polish government, he was glad his trip was so brief.

“Let me put it this way. I couldn’t have made what I did with myself today if I had suffered [from] the war — I had to forget. I didn’t talk to my children about it until they were 15 years old,” he says.

“After the war, a few of my friends, survivors, they became so upset with their children that they messed them up: ‘Finish your plate! Do you know we didn’t have that kind of food!’ I made up my mind I’m not going to live that way.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.