A Holocaust Survivor’s Pledge to Rebuild the Jewish World
SAN FRANCISCO - April 4, 2011. From the ashes of Auschwitz to a suite high above San Francisco, William (Bill) J. Lowenberg, made his impact locally, internationally and in Israel as a San Francisco philanthropist whose love of family and community were demonstrated through his hard work, philanthropy and devotion.
Born on August 14, 1926, in Ochtrup, Germany, Bill fled Nazi Germany to Holland. He was an observant Jew who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Surviving seven concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Bill was liberated from Dachau by the American Army in April 1945. After his release, he spent some years in Europe before deciding he could better himself in the United States. He often recalled that he was able to cope with the experience as an adult because of his vivid memories of the vibrant Jewish community that existed before the Holocaust.
He settled with his aunt and uncle in San Francisco in 1950 and began to build a life in America. His successes in business were a testament to his intelligence, ambition and tenacity. Bill learned English by listening to the radio and riding buses to attend night classes. He exhibited his pride and patriotism for his new country by serving in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Soon after he met his future wife Fern, they married in 1957 and had two children, David and Susan.
While learning the real estate business from the ground up, Bill also involved himself in the Jewish community. His legacy was documented in the Oral History Project at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library where Bill said, “I am proud that I came here and that this community gave me a chance to be part of it.”
Bill was a leader in the Jewish community internationally, locally, and in Israel. Roselyne C. Swig, a friend and colleague, remarked that Bill was “passionate, devoted and driven; he was independent in his thinking and collaborative in his commitment to just causes both in the Jewish community and the world community. He’s one of the most sensitive and caring individuals I have had the privilege of knowing.”
Internationally, Bill played a quiet but integral role in raising significant funds to support the legal defense of Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who was sued for libel by British Holocaust denier David Irving. Thanks to the legal effort which he helped make possible, Prof. Lipstadt prevailed in three trials before United Kingdom courts. Transcripts of those trials helped to discredit Irving and others who have sought to manipulate the truth about the Holocaust. Prof. Lipstadt fondly recalled ‘Bill was my friend and I loved him very much. When I was first threatened with the lawsuit, Bill comforted me by saying Deborah, you are not alone, we will stand with you.'
Bill raised a significant amount for the defense fund in San Francisco. “…on the day I won, Bill came to the phone and wept, saying thank you in the name of my parents. He’s a very special man to me.”
Firm in his beliefs and without hesitation to state them outright, Bill felt very strongly about building the Jewish community. “I had this dream after the camps,” he said, “that the only thing I could contribute to my people would be to rebuild a Jewish world. Now I had the chance to do it in my own community.”
His early activities led to his becoming president of the Jewish Home, and of the Bureau of Jewish Education. He also served as President of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin & Sonoma Counties, where he was a committed and enthusiastic Board member for many years.
Bill was the first Holocaust survivor to serve as president of a major Federation. During that time, the organization had one of its largest fundraising campaigns. Jennifer Gorovitz, Federation CEO stated, “The community has lost one of the most passionate, committed leaders it has ever had. While it is hard to imagine a leadership table without Bill, his legacy throughout the community will be felt for generations.”
Bill was also very proud of his San Francisco community and gave back by diligently serving on the Board of the San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Commission on Aging and on the Board of Overseers of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.
A successful realtor, active in the Republican Party, he had a reputation for being an outstanding fundraiser. That skill benefited both the San Francisco-based Federation and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. He was appointed by President Ronald Reagan to serve as Vice Chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and helped oversee the building of the Holocaust Museum on the National Mall. Sara Bloomfield, Director of US Holocaust Museum recalled Bill’s fervent dedication to the creation of the museum, “With strong conviction and personal integrity, Bill played a pivotal role for our institution at a pivotal moment.”
In 2009, President George W. Bush invited Bill to represent the United States government at the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It was Bill’s first return to Poland since being forced to help clean up the ghetto.
According to Rabbi Doug Kahn, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council who worked closely with Bill for nearly three decades, “Bill had a huge heart, never saying no to a request to support a worthy cause or to an opportunity to educate the young about the lessons of the Holocaust. His path from the Nazi death camps to the American army to a successful businessman to an esteemed Jewish community leader was truly unique and inspiring for us all.”
Bill was a leader in Holocaust education in San Francisco, working to establish a permanent Holocaust memorial, speaking in schools to students about his experiences, and establishing a scholarship fund. Bill, who believed that a secure Israel was critical for Jewish survival, supported numerous institutions in Israel and actively served on the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Despite the hardships that he faced early in life, Bill never lost his humor, faith or optimism. The Book of Life, where personal inscriptions are documented for future generations from members of the Federation’s Endowment Fund, Bill and Fern wrote “It is our duty to ensure that future generations will understand the obligation they have for the continuity and survival of the Jewish people.”
William J. Lowenberg, adored father, grandfather and husband died peacefully at his San Francisco home on April 2, 2011 at age 84.
Bill is survived by his beloved wife, Fern, his children, David (Jacqueline), Susan (Joyce), grandchildren, Gary, Stacie (Aaron), Alison, Daniella, Ruthie and great-grandsons, Devon and Ryan. He considered his children, David and Susan, his greatest accomplishments and he deeply cherished all of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Bill will be deeply missed by his family, friends and colleagues within the Jewish community. A memorial service is being held Tuesday, April 5, 2011 at Congregation Emanu-El, San Francisco. The family requests that in lieu of flowers, please send contributions to the Holocaust Center at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco or to the Jewish Home of San Francisco.
The Jewish Community Federation and its Endowment Fund (www.Jewishfed.org) works to protect and enhance Jewish life in our community through fundraising, strategic planning and providing funding for programs that care for those in need; that strengthen and secure the safety of the Jewish people; and that foster Jewish renaissance at home, in Israel and in other Jewish communities.
For more information please contact:
Jim Offel, Chief Operating Officer, JimO@sfjcf.org
Angela Ingel, Director of Marketing & Communications, AngelaI@sfjcf.org