Dad noticed them before I did.
The three square and rectangular plaques on the ground outside of the Nicolas Avellaneda school in Buenos Aires’ Hollywood Palermo neighborhood.
Lacquered red, blue, green, orange and yellow tiles surrounded the bronze-colored capital letters.
Aqui estudiaron, they said.
Then came the names of the students who had attended there followed by a date.
Mauricio Borghi, September 26, 1974.
Jorge Daniel Argente, July 17, 1976.
Horacio Elbert, December 8, 1977. (Dirt covered the bottom part of the “R”in his last name.)
The third plaque explained row-by-row who they were and what had happened to them.
Disappeared and Detained
By the Terrorism
Of the State
Dad, his partner Lee, Dunreith and I had just come from consuming a parillada, heaping plate full of beef, sausage, chicken, and sausage that was so large one of my friends from high school declared on Facebook that she had gained five pounds just looking at it. (To be fair, Dunreith had very little, if any, of the meat.)
Jenny Manrique, an accomplished Colombian journalist and a friend from the Dart/Ochberg community, was our guide.
Although our bellies were more than full, we were strolling down the street in search of ice cream when we discovered the plaques.
Stumble Stones in Essen-Steele
Their placement in the street reminded us of the five square, bronze-colored Stolpersteine, or stumble stones, we had seen last year outside of my great-grandfather’s and namesake Joseph Lowenstein’s house in the Essen-Steele community in Germany.
In simple letters they spelled out the names, year of birth, place of deportation and death location for five of our relatives who had lived at the house before being killed during the Holocaust.
Papa Joseph, as my great-grandfather was called, had his medical training acknowledged before his name on his stone.
So did his son, Dr. Rudolf Lowenstein
Rudolf’s wife Margarethe Lowenstein, born Katzenstein, and their children Clara and Klaus Martin.
Two simple words were engraved above each name.
Along with my brother Jon and our son Aidan, the four of us had gone to the home with Gabriele Thimm, a Germany teacher who is unflaggingly committed to her students’ knowing the truth about their country’s genocidal history.
It was the first time Dad had been there in 73 years.
The last time he had been there was as a four-year-old child in desperate need of having his appendix removed.
His father Max, a disabled World War I veteran who had lost the full use of his right arm, and, later his hearing, had taken his younger boy from doctor to doctor in the town where his family had lived for nearly a century and a half.
None would operate on a Jewish child.
Papa Joseph, Max’s father, apparently prevailed upon a non-Jewish colleague to perform the operation on the kitchen table in his home.
Just weeks later, Dad was sent on a train called a Kindertransport, or child transport, to England, where he joined his older brother Ralph.
They lived there for more than a year before rejoining their parents, who had very fortunately escaped after the war began, in the United States.
Dad’s silence about his childhood when I was growing up had left me hungry to know him and that time.
In 2004 I had visited the stately, banana yellow, three-story building that Papa Joseph had owned as part of that quest.
The stones had not been placed there yet.
That happened in 2006, when Gabriele and her students participated in the laying of the stones for Joseph, Rudi, Margarethe and Clara, who among them represented three generations of Lowenstein family members. (The students’ parents sponsored Klaus Martin’s stone.)
In the colors and words and names of Buenos Aires I saw the reflection of our German relatives.
Words and images on the wall
The marking of those who had been killed by the state was the first, but not the only, similarity between the two places.
Images of 10 pencils, arrayed like hour signs in a clock, were painted in the same colors bordering the plaque around a multi-colored equal sign.
Cursive letters framed the pencils with the words:
In the Public Schools
are equal for everyone
Painted onto a dirty white wall, the words are a creed, a call to go beyond the act of remembering who had been there during the dictatorship to endorsing and transmitting values to young people now in the same school so that such abuse of the citizens by its leaders not happen again.
A mural in Germany
Dad’s return trip to Germany had many memorable moments.
We visited both of his former apartments.
We met a non-Jewish family with whom our family had maintained a friendship and correspondence for more than 80 years.
We went to the Jewish cemetery, where generation after generation of Lowensteins had been buried. The graves and the burial ground were intact, even though half of the Jewish community had been murdered during the Hitler years.
We were welcomed into Papa Joseph’s home by the Fuchs family who showered Dad with gifts and kindness.
We attended a surprise birthday party for Dad, an event during which we learned that our family had owned property at a nearby farm called Hemmerhof.
But perhaps one of the most memorable experiences was attending the two “Ceremonies of Life” that Gabriele had spent months organizing with some of her students.
The young people read, sang, and showed documents as they took the audiences through the history of the Jewish people, the Jewish community in Essen and our family before explaining how all of them were impacted by the Nazi regime.
At the end of the presentation, Dad rose and spoke.
He had agreed to answer questions, and he did.
But before that, he read from a statement in which he announced that he was not accepting the honorarium he had been offered by the community.
Instead, we had spoken as a family and had decided to create the Lowenstein Family Award for Tolerance and Justice.
This June, Dad, Lee and I returned to Essen for the first presentation of the award.
The event took place during the school’s tenth birthday celebration.
Principal Elvira Bluemel greeted us and showed us around the building on the way to the ceremony.
She also showed us a mural the school’s art teacher had worked on with his students.
Painted against a mustard-yellow background, individual puzzle pieces, which were in many of the same bright colors as on the Argentine school, spelled out the words “Tolerance”and “Justice.”
The interlocked puzzle pieces had been placed there by a group of stick-like figures who were underneath the words, suggesting that each person had a role to play in creating and maintaining the values espoused in the award and identified on the wall.
Just having the words was not enough, Frau Bluemel told me. We have to act in accordance with the ideals.
Thus, thousands of miles away, separated by time and culture and language, citizens and educators in both lands had made the decision to create memorials for those among them who had been killed during a dark time as well as to articulate the beliefs to which we all need to aspire to act and to instill in our young people.
Returning to Dad’s hometown with him was one of my life’s most powerful experiences.
It furthered my faith that we can structure our lives around our deepest dreams and most basic values and that it is possible to connect across all kinds of divides.
Perhaps even richer, realizing the dream in the context of Gabriele Thimm’s tireless work with her students and the Essen community played a critical role in converting a personal journey of family return into a forum of public healing for both sides.
In so doing, it created the opportunity for us together to write a new chapter to the old story.
A chapter based on an open acknowledgment of the past and the commitment that it not be repeated.
A chapter that lets the youth know we are there for them and that they can choose a different way by acting in accordance with the values painted on the school in Argentina and on the wall in Germany.
I don’t yet know the people from the Nicolas Avellaneda school in Buenos Aires.
But I will.