THE LOWEY FAMILY
MIGRATION, RESCUE, & RESISTANCE
Elias was born in Zegocina (Zeg-oh-cina), Poland, at the time when it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1891. Following the end of World War I, Elias migrated to Frankfurt, Germany, to work at a metal recycling plant. That plant was managed by the father of his future wife, Berthe Jeret.
In 1919, one year after arriving in Frankfurt, Berthe and Elias married. They had three children while in Germany: Erna, Max, and Manfred (Fred). In 1926, Elias moved the family to the Alsace region in France, working at a metal recycling plant there as well. After a few years of running the business, Elias sold it and moved the family to Colmar, France, where he began his own radio business. The family lived with relative quiet and safety until Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
With a possible war looming over France, Elias chooses to join the Civil Defense unit in Colmar. There, he was put in charge of the local delousing station in the event of a possible gas attack. When Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, and France in May 1940, the family prepared. The breakthrough by the Germans on June 15th led to the Loewy’s to escaping the oncoming German Army. After several days traveling by foot, horseback and car, they reached a train station in Rouen. A nine-day train ride took them to the city of Bordeaux, on the other side of France, where they hoped to escape by boat. The Loewy’s were told to arrive the next morning, and a ship would be there to take them to the United Kingdom. Unknown to the people of Bordeaux, France had signed the Armistice with German the day before, placing the city under German occupation and shutting down transportation.
Realizing that Bordeaux was to be occupied, the family took a train to the city of Toulouse in the newly created unoccupied region of Vichy France. They were introduced to a city of refugees from Belgium, Holland, Luxembourg, German, and Czechoslovakia. Though the war had ended for France, the terror was just beginning for the Loewy’s.
From the beginning, the Vichy government began enacting anti-Semitic laws. In October 1940, Vichy enacted the first Statut des Juifs, which defined who was Jewish in the eyes of the law. October 4th began the internment of foreign Jews under the guidelines of the first Statut des Juifs. With the Loewy’s not being French citizens, they became a target of the Vichy government. One night in November, French police woke the family up, placing them under arrest for violating Vichy law. Throughout the night, more people were arrested, all being Jewish foreigners. After spending the night in a transit camp, the family was placed in a train, squeezing bodies in a space not fit for humans with only enough room to stand. Following several nights of travel, the train stopped outside the city of Agde, a small town on the southern Mediterranean coast of France. The family was placed in Camp d’Internment Agde. Originally built as a camp to house Spanish Civil War refugees, Vichy expanded it to house the newly interned foreign Jews.
Conditions at the camp were terrible. Winters on the southern coast of France are frigid, and many of the interns were arrested before they could pack or prepare for the weather. The barracks that they were placed in had very little in the way of comforts, no mattresses, few blankets, no stove or fireplace. The Vichy officers crammed the barracks as full as they could, leaving no space for privacy or comfort. One story that was shared by Fred Loewy was one freezing night; someone in his barrack decided to breakdown a wooden bench and started a fire. Camp officers caught this, dragged the man out, severely beat him and then placed him in the camp prison to never be seen again. Food rations were next to nothing, with mostly a small amount of bread and hot water with maybe a piece of meat. During the day, there was nothing to do; boredom took over for many. The experience pushed Elias to the limit; he was not about to stick around and find out what was next.
After deciding that he and his family would not stay at the camp, Elias created a plan that involved himself and his daughter Erna. Word was spreading that the camp commander was looking for a typist, someone who would write daily reports and send letters for the commander. Elias convinced Erna to take the job in hopes of building a friendship up with the commander. After a few days on the job, Elias asked Erna to request a pass to leave the camp to travel to the city of Montpellier, the capital of the prefect Agde was in. Gaining that pass, Elias and Erna arrived in Montpellier in hopes of speaking with someone that could get them out of the camp. Unbeknownst to Elias, an old friend was at the Prefect, his former business partner with the recycling business. Camille Ernst had gone into business with Elias when he moved the family to Alsace, while also being a local police officer. Camille’s position as a police officer granted him the position of secretarie-general of the prefect, placing him second in charge and head of the police. After listening to what happened to the Loewy’s, Camille granted the family their freedom. While happy, this was not enough for Elias, knowing that there were more in the camp that deserved the same privilege.
Elias, along with his family, Camille, and the Prefecture (head of the region), formulated a plan to free others from the camp. One of the loopholes of the law was that those interned had to prove that they had the means to take care of themselves without being a burden on the French system. Elias created a list of those who were more well-off as the first to be freed, not because they were wealthier, but because they would become the basis of their plan. Once a family or persons were released, they would provide the Loewy’s with a “loan” that would be used for other interns who could not prove they had the means to provide. The family was given passes by Camille that gave them entry into the camp as humanitarians, providing food, clothing, and provisions. Under that disguise, the Loewy’s would go into the camp, give the next people on the list the money to prove they had enough to take care of themselves outside the camp. Once they were freed from the camp, they were to return the money to the Loewy’s, who would go to local businesses and exchange the bills so they would not be traced. The Loewy’s were running a money-laundering scheme to free others from the camp. Camille and Elias ran the underground network of Montpellier. They provided those released with new identification cards with a false name while giving them housing, food, and other means to live within the city of Montpellier while protecting them from authorities. In all, the Loewy’s and Camille freed 1,500 people from the camp, while helping 200 escape Europe until 1943 when the camp was closed. French and German officials caught wind of what the underground network was doing and sought to end it.
By 1942, the family and those freed from the camp were living under relative safety. With Camille in charge of the police, no one was arrested or given away. By November, the Allies began their landings in North Africa during Operation Torch. Worried that Vichy would be vulnerable to future Allied landings, Germany occupied the rest of France. By this point, Camille learned that Elias was named an enemy of the state by the Gestapo. Armed with this knowledge, Camille provided the family with new identities. They now went by the last name Heiberger and told them to escape to the Lozére Mountains. Given train passes and enough money to survive, the family took off to the mountain village of Saint-Germain-de-Calberte. Under a new last name, and identity (their identification cards claimed they were Catholics), the Lowey’s attempted to bring normalcy to their lives. That would be until 1943 when the Germans arrived in their city.
In the summer of 1943, Max, Fred, and Elias worked tiring manual labor in fields, and the forest around the city as lumbers. When arriving home, the men came across a patrol of German police officers looking for members of the local resistance group. In the center of town, the patrol came under attack by French Resistance forces, leading to all being killed or captured. In the middle of the night, the Feldgendarmerie (Germany military police) knocked on the door of the Loewy’s. For nearly an hour, they questioned the family about the attack, and if any Jews were hiding in the village. Thankfully, their new identification cards, along with the new life they were living, gave them the cover they needed. Like their father before, Max and Fred were fed up with their situation and sought to change it. They sought out the members of the local resistance group, known as the Maquis, in hopes of joining them. From this point forward, Max and Fred dawned on the khaki uniforms of the Maquis de Saint Germain.
Between 1943 and 1944, the Loewy boys trained and participated with the Maquis. It was not until August 1944 where they would see their first real combat against German forces. In July 1944, members of an OSS (Office of Strategic Service, now the CIA), the French army, and the British army parachuted in the region. The leader of the three-person team was Captain Aaron Bank, the future founder of the United States Green Berets. He, along with his team, coordinated the unification of all Maquis groups in the area, creating the 32nd Company of the Corps Franc de la Libération (CFL). Bank provided weapons and training for this newly formed unit, in hopes of preparing the Resistance for future Allied engagements. On August 15th, 1944, Allied armies of France, the UK, and the United States began landing on the southern coast of France in what was known as Operation Dragoon. The training that the 32nd CFL was now to be put to use. The Loewy boys participated in several battles against German forces in the area, providing support for the oncoming Allies.
On August 27th, word reached the 32nd, who was stationed outside the small mining town of Alés, France, that a large force of Germans was heading their way. Possibly in retreat from the coast, 3,000 German’s of the 11th Panzer Division were on their way. Fred and Max’s commander ordered them and a small unit to set up outside the town to prepare for the Germans. As the Geman group came into view, one of the members of the Maquis fired their weapon prematurely, causing the Germans to set up positions and fire back. The Maquis were pinned down, but in the gunfire, Fred ran back to Alés to warn his commander that they needed reinforcements. In all, 183 Maquis faced off against 3,000 Germans in a long, several-hour battle outside the city. During the battle, the 32nd commander ran back to Alés to request assistance from Captain Bank, who radioed into an Allied aircraft carrier in the area. Two Allied Naval planes reached the battle half an hour later and began strafing the German position, causing heavy casualties. In their excitement, the under-trained Maquis stood up, yelling and cheering on the planes. This gave away their position. In their attempt to retreat, the Germans set up mortars and began firing on the exposed Maquis. The shelling lasted a while, giving the Germans enough time to retreat and leaving the Maquis confused and wounded. After the dust settled and the adrenaline depleted, Fred realized he had been injured in the leg with shrapnel and was carried back to Alés for treatment. Once in the city, he was given the worst news of his life, his brother Max had been killed by a direct hit.
Max and Fred had served with the 32nd for over a year. In their time, they were both promoted to Lieutenant, making Fred still the youngest Lieutenant in the French Army’s history. They were both awarded the Croix de Guerre for their valor in combat. While Max and Fred were in combat with the Maquis during that year, Elias was in Saint Germain, providing the same underground network he had back in Montpellier. Elias continued to help Jews stay in hiding, while also working with local Maquis units to provide information and materials.
1945 - 1946
After the Liberation of France, things did not slow down for the Loewy’s. Fred continued to serve the French Army as a cartographer. Elias became the Directeur Régional of Montpellier of the Fédération des Sociétes Juives de France who were tasked with helping displaced Jewish families regain their possessions, including homes, businesses and personal effects. Through his work, Elias notoriety gained. Ready to settle down and finally find a place to call home. Elias attempted to gain French citizenship along with his family. They would be denied by the French government, who claimed they were not “assimilated enough” despite all they had done for the country and its people. In 1946 Elias was approached by an American Army Officer who was in the care of a Jewish teenage boy who was rescued from a concentration camp. The officer asked Elias if he would take care of the boy and bring him to the United States, where the officer had hoped to adopt him. However, he was to go to the Pacific as his unit was being shipped to finish the war. Armed with papers, the Loewy’s were granted visas and tickets on the next boat the New York City.
The Loewy’s arrived in New York City in the winter of 1946, where they gained American citizenship, opened a radio business, and finally attempted to settle down. But again, they would not be able to. Elias had been experiencing heart complications due to a car accident that happened in Alsace. The cold and humid weather of the New York winters were taking their toll on him, and his doctor advised him to move to a drier climate. Elias reached out to California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona. All said they were unable to take them except for Arizona. The city of Phoenix was rapidly growing by 1948, with people moving from colder climates of the Midwest and East Coast, along with those wanting to start a new life after the war. That year the Loewy’s moved to Phoenix, Arizona, to finally enjoy a place to call home.