An air of restrained awe washed over the crowd as Holocaust survivor Curt Lowens took the stage in the Wallace All Faiths Chapel Friday.
The Kristallnacht remembrance service transported attendees back to Germany in 1938 through speakers, poems, readings, and a personal account by Lowens.
“I love the atmosphere of this chapel. It is overwhelming,” Lowens said as he first introduced himself to the crowd.
On Nov. 9, 1938, the Nazis led a series of organized attacks against Jews in Germany, destroying Jewish-owned shops, plundering schools, and burning down synagogues. On Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) more than 100 people were killed and another 30,000 were deported to death camps.
The service started with a harp performance and welcome from Cisa Payuyo, associate director of church relations, and Daniel Harris, executive director of Hillel for Orange County.
After a candle lighting ceremony, Marilyn Harran, the stern chair in Holocaust Education, lead an informatory session about Kristallnacht.
Speakers read passages, letters and poems including Martin Niemoller’s “First They Came.”
But everyone was waiting for Lowens to speak about his experiences during the Holocaust.
Growing up in Olstyn, Poland, Lowens and his family were deported to Auschwitz in 1943. He joined the resistance, assumed a false identity as a schoolteacher, and hid 150 children and two American pilots, all while he was 18 years old. “Chaos, destruction, vandals, looters, killers, mobs, encouraged and supported by their own government. Kristallnacht started the mass killing of German citizens who happened to be Jewish,” Lowens said.
Lowens had been at school when Kristallnacht started and was instructed to return home by his teacher after Hitler youth surrounded the campus. Reflecting on his experience, Lowens said he learned a valuable lesson that day. “Your life can change from one way to the other,” Lowens said. “You have to be prepared.”
Sophmore graphic design major Stephen Levin said the event allowed him the rare opportunity to hear the experiences of a Holocaust survivor.
“As someone who has learned so much about World War II and is grateful for what life is, I found it an honorable obligation to pay my respects for everything the Jewish community has given me,” Levin said.
Freshman television and broadcast journalism major Mallory Leonard was also excited for the event and was moved by the collectiveness she felt in the chapel. “When I heard there was going to be a Holocaust survivor I was really interested to listen because of its terrible impact on our world history,” Leonard said. “The service was inspiring because it brought all different people together for remembrance.”