HARWICH – “Imagine yourself...growing up in a country with a specific language. Now, you're 10 years old and all of a sudden you're torn away from that environment, torn away from your parents, and sent to school where everybody's a stranger, speaks a different language...It's kind of tough.”
For Martin Owens, leaving home at the age of 10 was tough but necessary since it likely saved his life by helping him escape the Holocaust. On Jan. 18 the Stow resident shared his experiences with seventh-grade students at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School.
During the school's ongoing Holocaust studies, students Max and Nick Bachand of Harwich revealed to teacher Daniella Garan that Owens, their grandfather, was a survivor. Owens was invited to be part of a special program honoring the child victims of the Holocaust, and offered students a glimpse into the terrifying times.
“I was witness to only part of it,” Owens said, illustrating his talk with a slideshow. “When the Nazis marched into Austria I was only 10. Seeing columns of young people with swastikas on their arms was kind of exhilarating. I wanted to march, too. But of course, that was the wrong thing to want because they were the Nazis and we were the Jews, and the Nazis didn't like the Jews.”
Life for the Jews changed dramatically. Jewish shops were labeled to discourage people from shopping there, and bullying became a problem in the schools.
“I actually saw this,” Owens said, pointing at a photograph of Jewish citizens being made to scrub the pavement on hands and knees before Nazis in uniform. “It's sad to see. Sometimes it was old people on their knees, scrubbing.”
As tensions mounted, people began disappearing and rumors swirled about concentration camps. Owens suspects his parents were aware of the camps, which motivated them to send him to England.
“From the time I was born until I left Austria, I only spoke German,” Owens said. “I was a city kid. I went to school in the city. I took the tram, and my mother picked me up after school. I played in the park. I had fun growing up. I played soccer, had tin soldiers, and every summer we'd go on vacation to a really nice place in the country.”
But at age 10, after only a few English lessons, Owens boarded a train bound for a new land. His possessions were few: cherished photographs, a fountain pen, cologne from his mother, and a pocketknife. Each piece of his clothing was labeled with his name so it wouldn't get lost.
“I don't think I fully understood what I was in for,” he said. “And I don't think my parents understood. It was kind of a wrenching experience.”
Owens was met in London by a surgeon his family knew and sent to the Stoatley Rough School where his first job was stirring the porridge from a stool that allowed him to reach the top of the tall pot. Owens also served as an air raid messenger. When the air raid sirens went off, he rode his bicycle to a neighbor's home.
“He was an air raid warden. My job was to run messages for him if the telephone lines went down,” Owens said. “Going over there I had to go through bushes and trees and through the woods. I was scared like the dickens. I thought there would be German parachutists coming down to get me.”
Owens admitted feeling terribly homesick.
“You're a 10-year-old child, sent away with no relatives; just other children and teachers,” he said. “But the teachers didn't try to be sympathetic. They were so hands off. Even the matrons. So after a while you toughened up.”
Though he became close to one of the school matrons, she ultimately took a job in India. Fortunately, Owens did form bonds with classmates, also refugees, some from Vienna, and others from Germany and Czechoslovakia.
For about a year after Owens went to England, children were able to correspond with their families. But when World War II started, correspondence stopped, with many children not knowing whether their parents were safe, or even alive.
“[The school] never talked about the concentration camps,” he said. “What happened or could have happened to our parents.”
Owens' parents had mercifully fled to the United States.
“But a lot of parents of the children that I knew did not [survive],” he said.
When the war in Europe ended in 1945, Owens, now 17, headed to the United States to be reunited with his family. Though a happy occasion, it also meant saying goodbye to his closest friends, with whom he's kept in touch through the years since.
“There are probably about 10 of us living in the states of the same age,” Owens said. “We're so close to each other. It was tough to be away from the people you love. But gradually you got used to it. You made friends and you were OK.”
Grandsons Max and Nick said that before Garan's teachings on the Holocaust, their knowledge was limited. Now they've gained perspective on that era and their grandfather's experiences.
“At first when I learned [about my grandfather], it didn't really mean much to me since I didn't really know anything about [the Holocaust],” said Max. “Now that I'm starting to learn about it, I can understand the importance of it, and of learning about it.”
“I think it's sad, but it's something everyone needs to learn,” said Nick. “It's an important part of history and by learning about it you can remember the people who were lost.”
To honor the children killed in the Holocaust, students also participated in The Butterfly Project, painting ceramic butterflies that will become the first Butterfly Project installment in Massachusetts (www.thebutterflyprojectnow.org).
Garan said that having Owens visit her students and paint a butterfly for the display was powerful.
“Teaching the Holocaust to seventh graders is risky but so very important,” she said. “This year's program – the first of its kind here at CCLCS – emphasized for me the importance of exposing students to this subject matter early on so that they have the knowledge and the desire to take action in the future. Martin's talk reaffirmed for me the importance of teaching this dark time in human history, particularly while we still have survivors in our midst. We must make every effort to hear their stories and heed their warnings so that such an event never happens again. The world is a scary place right now and it's important for us to look to the future. I want to send my students on knowing that I did everything I could to help them understand their capacity for good and for helping others.”
Student Ben Caldwell appreciated Owens' visit.
“Before we started I didn't know that much about [the Holocaust]. I didn't know about the death camps,” he said. “My mom would talk about how she could hardly comprehend it and that it made her sick. Now I understand it.”
He said he's shocked that people still discriminate.
“I thought after that there wouldn't be any more problems with anti-semitism because people understand how terrible these things are,” he said. “But lately anti-semitism has been popping up and it really amazes me how ignorant some people can be.”
Having a Butterfly Project installment her school makes student Ella Savini proud.
“I think it's amazing how we're honoring the children,” she said. “You don't want them to be forgotten. You don't want the Holocaust to be forgotten. It's a really important time in our history.”