In 1945, Sydney Lesser a young lieutenant with one of the American units that liberated Buchenwald befriended a 16-year-old boy who had survived three years in that notorious camp. Last month, the now 89-year-old Lesser reunited with the "young" survivor, 77-year-old Hackensack resident Leopold Lowy. Lowy visited the offices of The Jewish Standard last week, bearing a letter sent to Drew University by Lesser’s daughter, Shelly Siegel of Livingston. "She saw that I would be speaking there and contacted the college to find out if I was the same Lowy," he said. He was and an exchange of letters led to a reunion of the two men within a week of the first contact. Lowy had met Lesser’s family after the war, even attending his son’s bar mitzvah, but the two men had lost touch more than 50 years ago. The soft-spoken, bright-eyed Lowy described the circumstances that brought him and Lesser together. He said he had spent several years in a Jewish orphanage in Prague, followed by stints at several concentration camps, including Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. He
arrived at Buchenwald at the age of 13 and was 16 at the time of liberation. Lowy recalls that the second day after liberation, he wandered around looking for food, stopping at various homes near the camp. "The Germans threw stones at us," he said, recounting his efforts to find food in nearby homes. Finally, he found a house filled with American soldiers, who fed him and took him back to the camp at night. He came back to that house three times, he said, and was able to communicate with one of the soldiers through a mixture of Czech and Polish."I told them I wanted to go wherever they went," he said. "They let me become their ‘mascot,’ shining shoes, cleaning, doing whatever needed to be done." During his six months with the unit, he also learned English. Lowy says the head of the unit instructed the supply sergeant to outfit the young boy with new clothes, since all he had was his uniform from the camp. "Sergeant Bush who I still correspond with today," said Lowy, "had trouble ordering the clothes because of my size. He finally told [the supply department] that the unit had gotten replacements and they were all midgets. I got a duffle bag full of clothes."
Lowy, left, and Lesser recently came together-in Livingston.
When the unit was shipped out, "I went with them to France," he says. "I met some other soldiers there and I told one that I had an uncle, Dr. Irving Wasserman, who lived at ’31 E and was a dentist. That’s all I knew. [The soldier] told that to his parents in Monmouth, N.J., and they located my aunt and uncle in New York." Lowy made contact with his relatives, who invited him to come to the United States. With a Czech passport and a recommendation from the U.S. Army, he got authorization to leave in a record two weeks. Once in the United States, Lowy lived for a short time with his aunt and uncle and then struck out on his own, spending three years living at the 9’nd Street Y, which at that time had living quarters for young men and women. He attended night school and learned furniture-making and carpentry, which would become his career. Now, he and his wife Evelyn have two sons and two grandchildren. They have lived in Hackensack for 16 years. Lowy, who has begun to speak at schools and synagogues about life during the war, says he was motivated to do so by the increased boldness of Holocaust deniers. But he never speaks solely about his own experiences, even to his own children."I gave my children books to read," he says. "I don’t talk to them about my own experiences because I don’t want to burden them."
Lowy told the Standard that he appeared in the first performance of "Brundibar" at the Jewish orphanage in Prague, which took place Nov. ‘7, 1941. Written by Hans Krasa in 1938, the children’s opera came to be closely associated with the Holocaust. Because Theresienstadt had no gas chambers or crematoria, and because music and other artistic activities were allowed there, the Nazis showed it off as a "model camp," even bringing in Red Cross representatives to attend one performance of the opera.
Lowy recently took issue with the interpretation of "Brundibar" by Maurice Sendak, saying that to revise the story but keep its name is highly objectionable. "It is not a memorial to the children who perished," Lowy wrote in an e-mail to the Boston Globe, noting that it was performed in Theresienstadt 55 times by children imprisoned there most of whom died in Auschwitz.
Sendak’s version, says Lowy, is performed by adults and has been retranslated. "Let him call it ‘Variation on a theme by Sendak,’" says Lowy, bristling at what he calls the "inaccuracy" of the new work.