When Richard Lowy remembers his father, the first thing that comes to mind is Leo Lowy’s sense of humour, an unstoppable force of joy that radiated every day: he was always the first to crack a joke, and the life of the party.
It was that spirit, Lowy thinks, that enabled his father to go on after surviving the unimaginable. For nine months, the elder Lowy and his sister, Miriam, were prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau, among the more than 3,000 Jewish and Romani twins subjected to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s cruel human experimentations.
Now, to mark the 75th anniversary of the Nazi death camp’s liberation, Lowy is bringing his father’s story back up to light. On Sunday, the Vancouver-based filmmaker stood in front of a sold-out audience at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights and delivered his presentation, called Leo’s Journey: In My Father’s Words.
"To be here today... and to be telling my father’s story at the CMHR is just overwhelming," Lowy said, chatting for a few minutes after the event. "The emotion, the reverence of this day, and to have my father’s story be the story they decided to tell is very humbling."
Using words taken from his father’s testimony at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, set to archival photographs and a live violin accompaniment, Lowy took the audience on a first-person journey from the small Carpathian town of Berehovo, where Leo was born, through to his imprisonment and liberation.
In January 1945, with the Soviet army advancing towards Auschwitz, Leo hid in a basement while Nazi guards forced 60,000 prisoners on a westward death march. Leo and his sister survived. The rest of their family perished, including three sisters who had been forced on the death march and died days after liberation.
This is not the first time Richard Lowy has helped tell this story. In 2000, he accompanied his father back to Auschwitz, a scene he captured for a 2001 documentary called Leo’s Journey. Today, he maintains a website at LeosJourney.ca, where folks can watch that film and his new presentation.
To bring the story across Canada again now is timely, and not only because of the anniversary of the liberation. For years, Lowy has described carrying his father’s story as both a burden and a blessing; lately, as he looks around at the world, he has come to believe that it is critical to share the truth of survivors’ witness.
"It’s becoming a responsibility (to tell Leo’s story) because of everything that’s going on in the world," he said. "With the hate rising, and the anti-Semitism rising, and the racism. It’s not just to Jewish people. It’s the Islamophobia, it’s happening with LBGTQ people, it’s happening with First Nations.
"Jewish people are just the canary in the coal mine," he continued. "Once racism starts breeding, and hatred starts breeding, where do they go after the Jews? Who is ‘not good enough’ next? It just starts building, and to me, you have to nip it in the bud, and you have to say, ‘all you people should be worried about this.’"
If Sunday’s event is any indication, people are listening. Lowy’s presentation was originally slated for one of the CMHR classrooms, but ticket sales were so brisk that organizers moved it into the much larger foyer, which seats 450. Among those in the audience were other Holocaust survivors and their families.
"It shows that people are really interested in hearing perspectives of this story, and what happened," said Angeliki Bogiatji, the CMHR’s interpretive program developer. "We see also that people are looking for answers, too, and for ways of seeing hope."
For this survivor, at least, there was a life full of hope. After the war, Leo Lowy spent time at a displaced persons camp before making his way to Canada with his sister in 1948. He settled in Vancouver where he opened a men’s clothing store and met his wife, Jocy; together, the couple raised three sons.
"My husband was one of the lucky ones," Jocy said, speaking briefly to the crowd at CMHR on Sunday. "From the time he came to Canada, he had the best life anyone would wish for."
Months before Lowy’s death in 2002, that life would get one more happy chapter, after another Holocaust survivor named Kalman Bar-On saw the Leo’s Journey documentary on Israeli television. Bar-On immediately recognized Lowy as his long-lost friend and former bunkmate at Auschwitz, who he’d known as Lippa.
The two survivors met up in Vancouver, connecting for the first time since the camp was liberated; they’d been looking for each other for nearly six decades. Their emotional reunion made national headlines.