Survivor William J. Lowenberg remembered for Jewish community leadership

William J. Lowenberg liked a good fight. Whether arguing his brand of conservative politics or doing right by the Bay Area Jewish community he loved, Lowenberg was always ready to stand up for what he believed in.

A towering figure in business, politics, Jewish communal activism and Holocaust remembrance, Lowenberg died in his sleep at his San Francisco home April 2. He was 84.

The tattoo on his forearm indicated his status as a Holocaust survivor. Imprisoned as a teen at seven concentration camps, including Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau, he was the sole survivor of his immediate family. Making his way to the United States, he became the ultimate American success story.

That included founding the Lowenberg Corporation, a San Francisco company that made him a major force in industrial real estate. It also included decades of involvement with major Jewish organizations, serving as a board member or officer with local agencies such as the Jewish Home and the Bureau of Jewish Education, and international organizations such as the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

“Bill, in the most graphic way, represented our Jewish history, both the horror and the tenacity,” said Rabbi Brian Lurie, whose tenure as executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation coincided with Lowenberg’s federation presidency in the mid-1980s. “He was a living testament: The Nazis lost and we persevered.”

The crowning achievement of that perseverance came with Lowenberg’s involvement in the early 1980s with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., for which he served as a vice president and council member. He saw the institution through its initial development, construction and triumphant inauguration.

His work on behalf of the museum, Israel and the survivor community came after decades of focus on building his business and raising a family (he had two children, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren). Once he began telling his story publicly and toiling on behalf of Holocaust remembrance, he became a leading exponent of the cause.

“Bill told me he would go to Holocaust movies like ‘Schindler’s List,'” Lurie recalled, “and people would come out and kiss him. He said he felt like a mezuzah.”

His story began Aug. 14, 1926, in the West German town of Ochtrup. He came from a deeply religious family that traced its roots in the region back to the 16th century. Then Hitler came to power, and the family fled to Holland in 1936.

It wasn’t far enough away. The German army invaded Holland in May 1940, and two years later the Lowenberg family (which included his parents and a sister) was deported to Westerbork, a Dutch concentration camp. The next year, Lowenberg was separated out and sent on a cattle car east to Poland.

From then until the end of the war, Lowenberg’s life was hell. Transported from one death camp to another, he avoided the crematorium because he was young, strong, resourceful and lucky.

After liberation, Lowenberg returned to Holland, but after a few years he made his way to the United States, under the sponsorship of uncles. He arrived in San Francisco in 1949, age 23, ambitious and eager to start a new life. That’s when he turned to the local Jewish community for help.

“He knew no one and didn’t speak English,” said daughter Susan, “and very quickly became part of the fabric of the community. He was embraced here.”

Jewish Family Service helped him get work at a real estate company owned by Albert Alberton, who sat on the agency’s employment committee. Lowenberg’s first job: hanging up “For Lease” and “For Sale” signs.

But he had an aptitude for real estate and business, and began a quick rise at the company.

That rise was interrupted when Lowenberg joined the Army to serve in the Korean War. He was never deployed overseas, but he considered his military service a chance to give back to the country that saved him. In 1954 he returned to the real estate company, shifting his career into high gear.

“It took him 12 to 15 years, and then he became an owner,” Susan Lowenberg recalled. “Then he sold the company. He saw the opportunity to buy some buildings, and he started buying industrial real estate.”

In 1957, Lowenberg met and married his wife, Fern. Together with their two children, Susan and David, the family formed the core of Lowenberg’s life.

“My parents were a team,” Susan said. “They had this incredible understanding about their roles. It was a very traditional marriage.”

The Lowenberg Realty Company, now called the Lowenberg Corporation, opened its downtown San Francisco doors in 1969. While David went on to become an orthopedic doctor, Susan became fascinated with business at an early age, and was groomed to run the company with her father. She is now the president of the Lowenberg Corporation.

“I fired him a few times,” Susan joked. “He came back the next day. He once said he wanted to change the name of the company and I said, ‘How about Lowenberg and Father?’ He could laugh at himself. He had a wonderful sense of humor.”

As successful as he was in business, so too did he rise to the top in the Jewish communal world. In his autobiography, “For My Family,” which he published privately in 1997, Lowenberg wrote, “I feel a deep satisfaction that I have been part of the rebuilding of a Jewish world … My involvement was a new way of life for me. It gave me a purpose.”

That involvement included decisive roles with many agencies on the local, national and international levels. One dear to him was the Jewish Home in San Francisco, for which he served in a variety of lay capacities going back to 1959. He oversaw and spearheaded much of the Home’s expansion over the years.

“I wondered if it was because of his parents,” Susan Lowenberg said. “What he saw in terms of taking care of those who couldn’t take care of themselves. He wasn’t able to take care of his own.”

He served on the board of governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel, as well as on the board of j. He also was deeply involved with the American Jewish Committee. That connection brought him together with Ernest Weiner, former director of the Northern California region of the American Jewish Committee, who became a close friend.

“He was a great friend of people who were fighting the battle to confront anti-Semitism, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel forces on campus,” Weiner said. “There wasn’t any clash where Jews were used as a punching bag where he did not stand up and put himself in the middle. He had taken his shots long before that.”

Lowenberg’s passion for Israel knew no bounds. He visited the country at least 70 times. His daughter remembers her father sitting in High Holy Day services at Congregation Sherith Israel in 1973, just as the Yom Kippur war broke out. “My father was tapped on the shoulder to run out and raise money [for Israel],” she said. “He closed his office and didn’t go in for a few weeks, sitting in the federation office dialing for dollars.”

Lowenberg served as president of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation for two years, starting in 1983. He was the first Holocaust survivor ever to serve in that post in a big-city federation. Lurie remembers him as a “wonderfully fun, generous guy” who also had his quirks.

“There’s no question he was highly opinionated and easily offended,” Lurie said. “For a man who faced the horrors he did, to have moments where he had anger or resentment, it was totally understandable.”

That pugnacity showed itself in his staunch Republican politics, which were not always easy to maintain in liberal San Francisco.

“My father was a lonely, lonely man,” Susan Lowenberg said with a laugh. “He used to refer to me as his biggest disappointment because I was a Democrat. We had to put down an edict that at no family event would we discuss politics.”

Lowenberg was a proud member of the Board of Overseers on the conservative Hoover Institution of Stanford University. He was a friend to several Republican presidents and powerbrokers. In 2009, President George W. Bush invited Lowenberg to represent his country at the 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It was Lowenberg’s first trip to Poland since the war years.

“He was a Republican in a Democratic stronghold,” Weiner said. “Taking that kind of position in the political world of the American Jewish community is not an invitation for applause, but it gave him standing. He never shrank from a clash.”

Yet Lowenberg had innumerable friends in the community, of all political persuasions.

“I really loved him,” said community leader Roselyne Swig. “He was thoughtful, kind and generous, so sensitive to what he could accomplish and the role he could play. It amazed me that an individual who went through so much, came back and created such a meaningful life for himself, his family and for the community.”

In 1983, President Ronald Reagan appointed Lowenberg to the United States Holocaust Council, which was then beginning work on a major museum in the nation’s capital. The project, which came to fruition more than a decade later, was “a crowning achievement,” according to his daughter.

Lowenberg continued to work into his 80s, though he had turned the reins of his company over to his daughter years ago. He also relished the company of friends and family, especially up at his Sonoma County second home, where barbecue and good conversation was never in short supply.

“People who knew him at ground level, who saw him operate when the chips were down, knew he was exceptional on every level,” Wiener remembered. “He liked to be in situations where he could size people up, and he was rarely off target.”

In his autobiography, Lowenberg addressed his remarkable survival of the worst that humanity had to offer. He wrote: “One of the reasons I survived, in addition to luck … is that I was tenacious. I never gave up.”

His daughter noted that Lowenberg often expressed a desire to live a full century. He wanted to wake up on his 100th birthday and say “screw you” to Hitler (though he put it a bit more colorfully than that, according to Susan).

Lowenberg didn’t make it to 100 to send his message. But his life was a testament to the indestructible spirit of the Jewish people.

“He was a Jew through and through,” said Lurie. “The numbers on his arm went right to his heart.”

William Lowenberg is survived by his wife, Fern Lowenberg of San Francisco; son David Lowenberg and daughter Susan Lowenberg of San Francisco; five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Contributions to the Holocaust Center at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of San Francisco or to the Jewish Home of San Francisco.