“From Kosice to Auschwitz to Houston”– excerpts from the memoir “The Story of Aranka Ickovic Lowy,” introduced by S.L. Wisenberg

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Aranka (Aurelie) Ickovic Lowy was born into a poor Jewish family in 1921 in Kosice, Czechoslovakia, a city she remembered as filled with pretty streets, trolley cars, and large parks, with mountains in the distance. Lowy was the second oldest of seven. “My parents didn’t need that many children, but as they say that’s the only enjoyment a poor couple has,” she writes. Lowy left school at fourteen to go to work to help her family. In 1938 Kosice became part of Hungary, and in 1944 the Nazis invaded. Lowy and her family were among the some 12,000 Jews deported from the Kosice area. She survived Auschwitz and returned home to find that most of her immediate family had been murdered in the Holocaust. Two brothers survived.

In 1947 Lowy immigrated to Houston, where she learned English, her fifth language. Her son David edited and published her memoir in 1988 and gave me a copy of it when I was in Houston in November for a Bellaire High School reunion. I know David from his fine and convincing portrayal of Arvide Abernathy in our high school’s long-ago production of Guys and Dolls. I read his late mother’s book on the plane back to Chicago and was struck by its vividness and the clear-eyed way she viewed her life, her self, and the world. The memoir begins in childhood and continues through decades in Texas.

The complete title of Aranka Lowy’s book is The Story of Aranka Ickovic Lowy (The Ugly Duckling) and The Story of Aranka Ickovic Lowy Book Two (Dream Come True). Lowy was a self-taught artist, and I’ve chosen to include some of her drawings here–even though they contrast with the sometimes grim subject matter. She always drew houses.

Aranka Lowy died in Houston in 1993.

ACM is publishing excerpts from her book, slightly edited, to commemorate the                  75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz this week. —S.L. Wisenberg, ACM editor

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Every fall my parents would buy 200 head of cabbage to make sauerkraut. When all the cabbage was cut, my mother prepared a huge barrel by washing it with boiling water, and while she was doing that my father was soaking his feet in salt-water, and scraping and brushing his feet, and trimming his toenails. The water was changed about three times, to make sure that my father’s feet were clean. When my mother was through cleaning the barrel, and my father, cleaning his feet, he stepped in the barrel. He had only under-shorts on and a shirt. Now my mother started putting the cut cabbage in the barrel and my father started stomping on it. Salt was added to the cabbage. When all the cabbage was used up, my father came out, and the last step was to put a few apples in the cabbage and some more salt. Then they covered it up and put it in the woodshed with the help of one of the neighbors, and it stayed there till it matured to be sour.

When I went to bring in some sauerkraut for my mother to cook, those apples didn’t have a chance to stay in the kraut too long, because I liked them so much that every chance I could get I would eat those apples. Sometimes my mother wondered what happened to the apples. But of course I kept quiet.

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My brother Eugene was the black sheep in the family and gave my parents lots of trouble by being a juvenile delinquent. One day when he was walking aimlessly on the street, he saw one of his friends who was working as a shoemaker’s helper, and he was delivering a pair of shoes to a lawyer’s house. My brother asked him if he could come along and the answer was yes. So they both went to the lawyer’s house to give him the shoes. So the shoemaker’s helper went back to work, but my brother still just was walking doing  nothing, till he came up with the idea that he will go back to the lawyer’s house and ask for the shoes back with the excuse that something was forgotten to be done on the shoe, and the lawyer believed him.

After three days the lawyer calls the shoe shop to find out when his shoes are going to be ready, and they told him that they were delivered three days ago. That’s when the lawyer found out that he had been had. After a few days he found my brother and filed charges against him. But when the trial came up, the lawyer had a change of heart. He said if my brother was so smart to outsmart a lawyer, instead of prosecuting him he will defend him, and he did. Eugene was taken to a labor camp when the Nazis were in power and he perished there.

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Sometime my parents couldn’t afford to buy wood for cooking or heating, so we went to the City Hall of Kosice where they gave us a permit that we could go to the woods and pick the fallen branches off the ground and take it home.

My father fixed up a two-wheeled wagon and sent two of my brothers and me to gather the wood. We piled the wood on the wagon and started back. I didn’t realize how close I was to the wheel till we got stuck in a pothole. As I was helping to push the wagon on the side to ease it out of the hole, suddenly the wheel turned and the big nail what was holding the wheel to the axle moved and tore a piece of flesh from my leg.

When we got home with the load of wood, and my leg bleeding, my mother got upset. She started crying and wishing that we could afford to buy the wood.

I didn’t go to the doctor right away and it got pretty badly infected. By the time I did go, the doctor couldn’t sew it up because I waited too long. So he cleaned the infection out and gave me medicine to put on it and finally it healed, but it left a scar. I still have that mark on my leg; I call it the poor mark.
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(After liberation, Lowy returned to Kosice and was reunited with her two surviving brothers. She and her brother Icchak and his fiancee left temporarily to get clothes and food; Lowy made cookies and coffee cake for the trip back to Kosice. The three took a train but had to disembark because the retreating S.S. had torn up the tracks. Lowy and her brother and fiancee located a farmer’s wagon that already had one passenger in it, a soldier. The farmer agreed to drive them back home.) So my brother and his fiancee got on the wagon before me because I had a big backpack on my back, with clothes and cakes, to unfasten. Finally, when I got it loose, I threw my pack on the wagon and accidentally hit the soldier on his foot. The soldier really got angry and asked if I couldn’t watch where I put my pack. That startled me and I told my brother that I didn’t want to ride on that wagon, but my brother wouldn’t hear of it because we didn’t know when the next train was going to be there. So I climbed on the  wagon and I whispered to my brother that I think the soldier must be a Nazi. So he said, We don’t have to talk to him.

My brother is a friendly person and it didn’t take him long when he started a conversation with the soldier. In about ten minutes my brother turns to me and says that the soldier isn’t a Nazi, he is a Jewish soldier just coming home from the war. He was in the Czech army before it was disbanded and then a forced laborer in a work camp. When the Czech army remobilized he volunteered and was shot through both heels.

In that case, I said, give him some cookies–and he is eating my cookies ever since. He became my husband.

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While I was in Ravensbrück some of us were made to work in a bullet factory. One day when I was filling the bullets with powder, I was going to sabotage them, and I put things in the pressure machine backwards, hoping that I could blow up that building and end our life, but it didn’t work.

So here I am writing about it in America.

You can find a couple of copies of the memoir online or order a copy from David Lowy, appleloft2 (at) gmail (dot) com.