The Connection, May 2008
Grand Bay, Alabama
By Natalie Passman
I recently had the privilege to meet Agnes Tennenbaum, who is one of the most inspiring, courageous women that I have had the opportunity to interview. As I introduced myself she welcomed me into her home with a warming smile and cheerful presence. Born in 1922 in Miskolc, Hungary Agnes Lowinger was the youngest of three children. She describes the relationship with her parents, brother and sister as very close and loving. Her father, originally an American citizen from New York, owned a large department store, and her mother owned a store where she designed and sold hats. This allowed the Lowinger family to live a luxurious lifestyle. She attended prominent private schools and was able to study English. Life was wonderful, even magical, for a moment in time. In June, 1940, at the age of seventeen, she became a wife, but a few months into the marriage her husband was drafted into the service, along with her father, to dig ditches. Her father was allowed to come home but her husband developed tuberculosis and was sent to a sanitarium, where he later died. The last time she saw him was in 1943. During this time she would often hear Hitler broadcasting his speeches on the radio, full of hatred for anyone who was Jewish, black, a gypsy, or homosexual. She could never imagine that she would feel the effects of his raging words. March 19, 1944 was more than just the day the Germans started occupying Hungary; it was her sister's birthday. As a gift, her parents bought her sister tickets to the opera and ballet. The sister boarded a train to the shows, but never arrived. On her way, she was captured, interrogated, and thrown into jail for being a Jew. It wasn't long before the German and Hungarian soldiers took control of the Lowinger home as well as their bank accounts. The family was allowed one change of clothes, and was given a yellow star to be worn on their left side. The next two weeks were spent in the ghetto, in a small room with ten women. They were then shuffled to a factory building with only a roof, and no sides which was heavily guarded by German and Hungarian soldiers carrying machine guns. It was here where Agnes heard the haunting screams of a chief rabbi being beaten to death. She was thankful she still had her parents and brother with her at this time. While trying to survive in this warehouse building, Agnes met up with a family friend, a banker. He had the opportunity because of his position and money and offered to smuggle Agnes into Switzerland and to safety. But she refused because she would not leave her parents behind. Agnes, not knowing what the future would hold, did leave with her banker friend a gold bracelet that her parents had given to her on her wedding day. She asked him to keep it safe for her.
Russia started bombing the railroad stations, so her father and brother were taken away to work to clean debris. Then with only her and her mother left together they were shoved into train crates and on the move again to an unknown destination. These crates were commonly used to transport cattle. They were packed in as tight as sardines, with only one tiny window, no restroom, water, or food, the thirst and lack of oxygen were almost unbearable. Her mother’s condition began to deteriorate, so Agnes started to nudge and maneuver her way to the window to position her and her mother there to finish the train ride. Agnes heard a painful scream, and at that moment a woman actually gave birth in the crate. As she looked around, people were fainting because the heat, thirst and low oxygen levels were so intense. This excruciating train ride lasted two days and nights due to the damage caused to the railroads by the Russian bombs. When the train stopped, from the corner of the window, she caught a glance of a sign, "Auschwitz,” which was the name of the concentration camp. The camp was surrounded by an electric fence, with male and female German soldiers carrying whips and attack dogs standing guard. Agnes was stricken with fear of their unknown fate.
When the train doors opened, she remembers taking a deep breath of air and holding tightly to her mother's hand. They were dragged by male prisoners to an elite officer with SS on his uniform, which meant he had the authority to determine who lived and who died. Agnes describes him as a very handsome man singing a happy tune with his thumbs in the air, motioning right and left. Young mothers with babies and the elderly one way, and young people in good health the other. This was the last time Agnes saw her mother as they were forced to part ways. In the group she was put in, Agnes found her Aunt Anna and cousin Edith and was relieved to see familiar faces. But still frightened beyond belief Anna said, “I don't know what our future is, but let’s stay together." On the verge of being dehydrated, they were marched about a mile to a brick building where inside many soldiers were waiting for them. Then they were commanded to strip down to their shoes, the soldiers laughed and mocked them. They were made to stand in line for a Polish woman to shave their heads. Afterwards Anna, Edith and Agnes hardly recognized one another. Agnes told me she hardly even felt like a woman "because after all, a woman's hair makes her feel beautiful and feminine." Out of desperation for water, when she was able to shower, she tried to catch what she could to drink. They were given old clothes from a pile on the floor, and walked ˝ mile to the worst part called Bikenov. A Czechoslovakian woman told her in a Hungarian accent that she was about to be able to eat and drink. Then the woman pointed to another building and said to her, "See that curling black smoke, that is your family being burned." Agnes was in shock. It was too great and unimaginable a feeling. As a meal they received moldy cheese, soup with sandy vegetables, black bread that tasted like sawdust, and imitation tea, which she believed contained drugs, due to the fact every woman in the camp stopped their menstrual cycle. They were sent to barracks where there were about 1,000 other women, and slept on the floor. All gypsies were burned alive and the smell churned her stomach as it lingered in the air. Every morning they were told how all Jews must die, and threatened that today would be their last. They had daily inspections by the doctor, as Agnes walked naked on the wooden floor, she forced her mind to focus on good memories of the past. If one red spot or imperfection was found, they were to be killed.
Selection began on who could be trained to work for slave labor. Aunt Anna was selected to work in the forest, where she was later forced to dig her own grave. Agnes was selected to pack bombs, and maintain mines. Edith was able to switch places with someone so she could be with Agnes. Silently, to herself, Agnes continually cursed the German plans and Hungarian cooperation, wondering how God could allow this to occur. Located three miles into the snowy forest, the factory was heavily camouflaged and they worked long hours, drilling holes into bombs for detonators, packaged bombs for shipment, and cleaned excess fluid from the top of the mines with daily exposure to radiation and other unknown toxic chemicals. During this time her hair began to grow back, because of such a toxic environment, it went from blonde to a fiery red, and her hands became yellow.
Meanwhile, the American forces started bombing the area, the soldiers then began moving the women to another camp. After walking for about three days, Agnes and Edith, due to a bombing attack, managed to escape into a field, as they were running, planes were constantly dropping bombs overhead but they continued to run. The next morning they reached a barn, where they passed out with exhaustion. When they awoke, the first thing they saw was a man standing over them with a rifle. When Agnes began telling him who they were, he put his rifle down and said he was a French P.O.W., he gave them water and crackers, and shared a piece of chocolate with them. They discovered that they were still in Germany, in a town that had not been disturbed by Hitler's plan. They were taken into town and as they walked toward the main city street, they heard American forces marching into the town, it was March of 1945. Agnes threw her arms around the first soldier she saw and asked him to let her family in New York know that she and Edith were alive. Luckily Aunt Anna made her memorize the address. When she gave it to him, he looked at her with amazement and told her he only lived about two blocks away. He promised that he would see to it right away.
Later while still in Germany, Agnes introduced Edith to an engineer friend. They married right away and moved to the United States. Edith resides in Virginia today. Fate stepped in one evening when a friend talked Agnes into going out for New Year’s Eve and she met Bernard Schwarzberg, who she was married to for 25 years and had one son, Henry. Agnes and Bernard left Germany in 1949.
After the war, Agnes discovered her sister was still alive. She learned that she had escaped a planned execution at the Danube River by diving into the water and swimming underwater to land where she found safety in a Swedish village. They were united. Also, after the war, she received the gold Bracelet that she had put in the trust of a friend. It is her only material possession from Hungary. She willingly let me hold it, and I stared at it with amazement.
Agnes has lived in New York, California, Arizona, and now in Mobile, Alabama. She studied creative writing and English at Brooklyn College and worked in the insurance business for many years. She is currently writing a book and has had her short stories published. When I asked how this experience has affected her she said it did change her, having to witness slavery, oppression, incarceration, and the plain brutality toward other human beings, she also feels betrayed by the Hungarian soldiers that cooperated with the Nazi forces. She chooses not to allow this evil to control her happiness. She credits Edith’s encouragement to her survival. She remembers Edith would say, “Let’s try to live one more day." Agnes travels around to local high schools, universities and churches, sharing her touching story.
You are invited to meet Agnes and hear her story first hand Friday, May 9, 7:15 PM at the Dauphin Island United Methodist Church. The interview with Agnes has reaffirmed my belief that the most important things in life are not things. I will be forever changed by the words Agnes has shared with me, and for that, I will always be grateful.