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Like most of the few Jews who survived the Second World War in Europe, Curt Lowens was very lucky. He was particularly fortunate to avoid getting caught on the night of July 31, 1944, in the small town of Venray in the south of Holland.

That same night, an eight-year-old girl named Duifje Gans was very unlucky.

Mr. Lowens, then 18, was out when the doorbell rang at the Loogman house, one of several in the area that gave him shelter. The parents were away in the north, but four of the five Loogman sisters, who were around his age, were home. They opened the door, thinking he had forgotten his key.

It turned out to be a raid, one of several by Nazis and local collaborators who had been tipped off about hiding places for Jews.

Duifje (pronounced Dowf-ya) was "arrested, identified as Jewish, and never came back," Mr. Lowens, now nearly 80, tells me in his study in Los Angeles.

That much I already know. One of the Loogman sisters was my mother, Riek (short for Hendrika), and she often told war stories to my three sisters and me. She died this past March, after struggling for years with emphysema.

A couple of years ago, one of Mum's sisters sent her a box of old photos. She got very upset the day we started going through the pictures, including a few of Duifje. She never looked at them again.

I also knew her family had hidden Mr. Lowens and, later, his father. But I didn't know how much worse that night could have been.

Mr. Lowens had left a satchel of personal belongings on a bed at the Loogman house. He had covered it with pyjamas. "Thank heavens they did not lift the pyjamas, because it would have endangered everybody," he says.

The papers in the satchel would have revealed some astonishing things.

First, at that time there was no Curt Lowens, or Lowenstein, as he was born. My mother's family and others knew him as "Ben Oudenbosch," his Gentile alias. He was tall and fair -- people have often told him, "You don't look Jewish."

"Ben" was working for the Dutch resistance, and the satchel contained lists of Jews in the area. "I feel guilty that I even left them there."

All told, his resistance group saved 122 people. Their only losses came that one night, when 11, mostly children, were taken away.

"It was a nightmare come true."

Two of my mother's sisters are still alive. The youngest, Kit, doesn't like talking about the war. "There isn't a week in the last 60 years that I haven't thought of that little girl," she says. "How anyone could take away an eight-year-old girl, knowing that it meant certain death. I just don't understand it."

Mum's oldest sister, Pia, 88, is calmer on the subject, but it doesn't make any sense to her, either. "It was toward the end of the war. I can't see why they had to send a child to a concentration camp."

Normally I wouldn't ask my aunts to dredge the matter up. The family and Mr. Lowens lost contact 60 years ago.

All we knew was that he had become an actor, though not a big star, in Hollywood. But a month after my mother died this spring, I accidentally found him on-line. And he was willing to fill in some gaps.

Still tall and fit at 79, Mr. Lowens and his wife, Kathy, have no children. But he is like a genial grandfather, with a soft, cultured accent that takes me back to my childhood. In 2002, he self-published a wartime memoir, Destination: Questionmark. In the book and in person, he tells a life story so extraordinary it would make a terrific film in his own right -- if audiences could bEllieve all the plot twists.

After all, how many Jewish boys from East Prussia flee to Berlin; survive Kristallnacht; are caught in Holland the day the Germans invade; get released (twice!) from the transit camp from which Anne Frank was later sent to Auschwitz; join the resistance; are hired by the British army after liberation; help arrest Hitler's chosen successor; and then end up playing dozens of Nazi villains on stage and screen in America, including the Angel of Death, Dr. Josef Mengele?

Curt Lowenstein was born on Nov. 17, 1925, in Allenstein (now the Polish city of Olsztyn), pop. 35,000. East Prussia had been severed from the rest of Germany after the First World War, and the town is east of what was then Danzig, now Gdansk.

His mother Ellie's parents ran a popular shoe store, and his father Alfred was a respected lawyer and avid amateur pianist. (Mr. Lowens is still passionate about music.)

But things began to turn ugly in 1933, after the beleaguered German president, Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, agreed to name Adolf Hitler as chancellor. Curt, his older brother Henry, and the three other Jewish boys at school were beaten up regularly. Alfred's practice dried up and, as Mr. Lowens puts it, "The shoe store became a Jew store." His grandparents were forced to sell it for practically nothing.

In 1937, the family moved to Berlin, where Alfred still could work and there was a much larger Jewish community. The two boys enrolled at the Goldschmidt Schule. With many Jewish families hoping to emigrate, the school emphasized English and tried to establish links to England, an enormous help to Curt and Henry later.

But Berlin soon turned hostile too. Fuer Juden Verboten (forbidden for Jews) signs started appearing in restaurants, curfews began and ID cards were marked with a J.

The Lowensteins started preparing to emigrate to America. It was costly and bureaucratic. "There had to be an affidavit from people financially secure in America," Mr. Lowens says. "Your passage had to be paid in dollars."

Then, on Nov. 9, 1938, all hell broke loose: Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. A German diplomat had been shot in Paris two days earlier, and a Jew was arrested.

The trouble started in the afternoon. "First of all, our school was surrounded," Mr. Lowens recalls. The director ran through classes and said, "Get on your bicycles and go home and ignore the people throwing stones at you." That night, mobs broke windows and burned synagogues and Jewish stores across Germany.

Alfred was taken to a camp, but Ellie secured his release three weeks later, telling authorities the family planned to emigrate. In July, 1939, Henry Lowenstein was one of 12 boys accepted to England, where he later married, raised a family and still lives at the age of 81.

Later that year, after the invasion of Poland and the beginning of the war, the Lowensteins' U.S. immigration number came up. Curt and his parents left Berlin by train for Rotterdam on May 8, 1940, with passage booked for America on the SS Veendam for May 11.

The trouble was, Germany invaded Holland on May 10.

The Lowensteins were among roughly 700 people rounded up that day by Dutch police. Male detainees were taken to the Doelen, a local concert hall; Curt was one of just five children. Women were taken to the local police headquarters, though the men didn't know it.

After five days of waiting, sleeping on straw and playing chess and cards, they were told that the Jewish internees would be released. But on May 14 at 1:18 p.m. -- easy to remember because Rotterdam's electric street clocks stopped for months -- German Stuka dive bombers attacked the city.

"People were dead, and there were flames and fire everywhere," Mr. Lowens says. Of the 700 detainees, 400 were killed. Others, including Curt and his father, made it to the streets. It took hours to find the women, who had escaped when the front wall of the police station collapsed during the bombardment.

That summer, the family was relocated to the small town of Venlo, by the river Maas near the German border. But they were split up, with his parents in a house with two elderly ladies and Curt with another family.

After a few months, Alfred got a clerical job with the Jewish Council in Amsterdam, where the family moved into a small apartment. The council later was criticized for being too co-operative, supposedly providing the Germans with lists. But Mr. Lowens says he has to defend the council -- everyone in Europe was registered with local authorities, he says, and that's where any lists came from.

"[The council]also gave us a stamp in our ID card, which was very important, because it said, 'Postpone from deportation until further notice.' "

In the short term, the stamp meant they would not be arrested in their apartment. And it would soon prove invaluable, as the Germans stepped up the random pickups of Jews for deportation.

Wearing a yellow Star of David became mandatory for Dutch Jews in September, 1941. Mr. Lowens simply says now that it felt "strange."

As a young man trying to show how mature he was, he carried an unlit pipe everywhere. "With my arm when I walked in the street, holding the pipe, I could practically cover the star and avoid being immediately marked."

Even the simplest errands were an ordeal. Jews were allowed to shop for fresh produce only at the end of the day, when there was sure to be little left. Non-Jewish friends often shopped for the family.

One day in June, 1943, Ellie and Curt were in the wrong place at the wrong time -- a city square that was quickly sealed off. They were taken by truck and train to Camp Westerbork in eastern Holland, the only internment camp in the country. Westerbork held Jews for deportation to Germany and beyond -- Anne Frank and her family would be loaded on the last train.

After 12 days, the camp commandant decided to return detainees with temporary postponements on their IDs, and released them. But a few weeks later, all three family members were arrested.

This trip to the camp was much worse. They had to ride in cattle cars, locked from the outside. Whenever the train slowed at junctions or stations, people pushed notes through the cracks. The camp barracks had three levels of wooden bunks, and the smell was revolting. "The one toilet was always flooded," Mr. Lowens says, although, in the morning, inmates could go to the latrines outside.

The camp was run by only about a half-dozen or so SS troops. Below them were collaborationist Dutch police, and below them the Orde Dienst, Jewish internees chosen by the camp authorities. Mr. Lowens says he can't blame them: "They had to not only follow command, but protect themselves."

He can only imagine the horrors in the annihilation camps. Every Monday night came the roll call for detainees who would be shipped out early the next morning in cattle cars to Germany and beyond. "To survive in Westerbork was purely the luck of not being on the list."

In his book, he cites data from May, 1943: 11,470 people were brought to Westerbork, and 8,500 sent on to camps in Germany or Poland. Only 146 were returned to Dutch cities. In September, after six weeks in the camp, the Lowensteins joined that fortunate few.

But when they got to their Amsterdam apartment, it was stripped bare: "Gifts from the Dutch people to the bombed-out cities of Germany," as the propaganda called property stolen from Jews. Yet on the windowsill, someone had left two Hebrew prayer books, one an 1849 edition owned by Mr. Lowens's great-grandparents. He still has them, and still doesn't know why they were left behind.

But the family's situation soon got more desperate. Ellie fell seriously ill, and had to be taken to the still-functioning Jewish hospital. Father and son agreed that they needed to go into hiding and assume new identities.

In the beginning, it was kind of fun. Mr. Lowens was met at the train by Mieke Mies, a beautiful blond student in the resistance who was to accompany him on the trip to the southeast. She gave him a photo ID card, without a J, with a false name. But he was still at risk: His age group was being rounded up to work in German factories. So whenever security came past their train compartment, he and Mieki locked into an embrace. But she left at the end of the trip, near Venlo.

Mr. Lowens was introduced to a local blacksmith, Antoon Peters. After a few weeks, Toontje, as he was called, told him to go to a house in the village of Tienray. There, he met his two closest allies in the resistance -- Hanna van der Voort, a local nurse and midwife, and Nico Dohmen, who had started as a university student in hiding, and became a lifelong friend.

Friends had started the group in 1942, asking Ms. van der Voort if she could find places to shelter Jewish children. Her work meant she knew many people. By the time Mr. Lowens arrived, they had a network spread over a dozen towns. He started helping, visiting houses and farms by bicycle, checking on hidden Jews and delivering food.

The area was predominantly Catholic. Whatever the ongoing controversy over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII, Mr. Lowens says local priests and nuns provided invaluable help. "When they said yes, it opened doors," he says. "It was like an endorsement that says, 'You're not doing anything wrong. You're saving a human being.' "

In December, 1943, Mr. Dohmen passed on a message that Mr. Lowens's father was safely hiding in a house in Venlo. Alfred Lowenstein's new false name was Mr. Urban.

Ellie was nearby as well, at a Tegelen hospital, being cared for by nuns. But her condition had deteriorated badly since he had seen her, 10 weeks earlier, in the hospital in Amsterdam. Three weeks later, Mr. Lowens visited his father and found out that his mother had died of kidney failure at the age of 45 on Jan. 3, 1944.

"Ben Oudenbosch" went on with his resistance work. My mother's family was a regular stop. Neither he nor my aunts can remember how he was introduced to them, but my Aunt Pia remembers riding her mother's bicycle to help him deliver food.

"Your aunts and your mother were very lovely ladies that a teenager could very easily fall in love with," Mr. Lowens says now, with a wry smile. But he adds that it was "a time of total innocence."

Duifje Gans had arrived at the house in 1942. My grandfather and grandmother had talked about the risk of hiding her, but he had said, "We must do our duty."

The girl had two brothers and two sisters staying in other towns nearby. Her father was a labourer in Amsterdam who had remarried a non-Jew after the kids were born, which, under the twisted Nazi racial laws, saved him from deportation. My Aunt Pia visited them after the war, and they told her the four other kids all survived.

My aunts say Duifje was like a younger sister. Because there was no heavy German presence from day to day, she enrolled in the local convent school and was treated like any other kid. She even used to sit in the front window. Pia asked her why one day, and Duifje said, "Then God can see me better."

Until that awful night, German patrols had been rare in the mainly rural area. But as Mr. Lowens was bicycling back from nearby Deurne, people coming from Venray had told him that the Germans had set up a checkpoint. He took a side road and hid at his main base, a farmhouse in Meerlen owned by the Moorens, close friends of Ms. van der Voort and Mr. Dohmen.

That is where his friends found him the morning of Aug. 1, 1944, after the raids. They said that at my family's house, three men had searched from room to room with flashlights. Duifje was caught in one of the beams. She had been told, at any sign of danger, to slip out an attic window or hide under the floorboards. But she came out to see what was happening.

In addition to Duifje and other kids, Hanna van der Voort and Toontje Peters had been captured. Mr. Lowens heard that Toontje was taken to a camp, and died after the liberation. Ms. van der Voort was being held at a German command post in Eindhoven.

Mieke Mees came down from Amsterdam and went in. "I don't know what she did," Mr. Lowens says, "talk or charm the German officer at the headquarters, but she brought Hanna back."

That night created big problems for my mother's family as well. My grandfather was a math teacher and an outspoken anti-Nazi. He had been imprisoned the previous year, one of thousands of Dutch men the Germans basically held as hostages. He was let out at Christmas -- a "gift" from the Fuhrer for fathers of large families -- but the camp commandant warned that he would be recaptured or killed if he stepped out of line.

The family had already suffered a terrible blow. My Uncle Jan, the only son and a third-year medical student, had been sent to work in a hospital in Germany. They heard he was put in a concentration camp and died of typhoid.

The day after Duifje was taken away, my Aunt Pia took the train to see her parents at her father's sister's place in Amsterdam. She warned them to go into hiding.

After several weeks, Mr. Lowens and the resistance resumed their activities. They even rescued a pair of American pilots. Their mood was buoyed by the approaching Allied advance.

Meanwhile, "Mr. Urban" had moved into the Loogman house. The girls soon suspected that he was "Ben's" father -- the resemblance was just too close.

By then, the windows were broken and there were gaping holes in the walls from shells and bombs. The sisters had put mattresses on the basement floor. The Lowensteins were among about a dozen people sheltering there as the British got closer to Venray.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 1944, a priest from a nearby church yelled downstairs: "Ben, come up quickly! Someone wants to talk English!"

The British liberated the south of Holland and moved quickly into northern Germany. The north of Holland wasn't liberated until the next year, mainly by Canadians.

But there was little time for the Loogmans to get to know Curt rather than "Ben." He was hired on as a translator with the British Eighth Army, for a "spearhead" detachment that would be the first to deal with refugees and provide them with initial food and shelter.

Before he left, my mother gave him a small silver religious medal of Mary. He and his wife still keep it hanging in their bedroom.

He wonders if he might have sunk into a depression if the British had not taken him along. "You've been a youth growing up under oppression, in isolation as a Jew. Beaten up. Synagogues burning. Schools closing," he says. "And then being asked, 'Would you like to put on a British uniform and go back into Germany?' "

It allowed him to gain almost the ultimate personal revenge. On May 4, 1945, members of his unit were standing around smoking and listening to a radio announcement of the surrender of northwest Germany. But then orders came to drive north to the city of Flensburg, near the border with Denmark.

There were just four of them -- two officers, a driver and Mr. Lowens. In the jeep, Captain Wilfred Fox, his commanding officer, told him, "This one is special, Benny! Current headquarters of the German government."

Just before Hitler had committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin, he had appointed as president and military commander of Germany the former head of the navy and creator of the U-boat fleet, Admiral Karl Doenitz. He was holed up in Gluecksburg Castle along with Hitler's chief architect and minister of war production, Albert Speer.

Capt. Fox and Mr. Lowens crossed the drawbridge over the moat, and were met by armed guards in black uniforms, who jumped to attention and gave the Hitler salute.

Capt. Fox, who had been a police sergeant in Coventry, responded with a torrent of four-letter words. He then turned to Mr. Lowens: "Alright, Benny. Tell them what I said." But Mr. Lowens's German vocabulary wasn't quite that colourful.

They proceeded through a labyrinth. When they found Doenitz, "he was absolutely respectful, and accepting of what he was being told." Many Allied commanders considered Doenitz an honourable soldier; he was sentenced to only 10 years at the Nuremberg trials.

Speer was different. Mr. Lowens still spits out his name: "Mr. Reichminister Dr. Speer." They found him seated in a leather armchair, and Mr. Lowens remembers his arrogance precisely.

"Now, gentlemen," Speer said. "If you wish to be making your headquarters in this castle, we will have to move. After all, we can't be under one roof together, you know."

Mr. Lowens had a pistol. "Later on, I questioned myself, why I faced Speer and did not pull my gun out of the holster and finish him off."

It would have been suicidal, with the armed German guards nearby. But Mr. Lowens is still bitter about it. Speer served 20 years in Berlin's Spandau prison, then wrote his memoirs, published as Inside The Third Reich in 1970. "We made him -- the good old USA -- we made him a best-selling author."

Among other things, Speer designed concentration camps. "He considered himself an artist, which is beautiful, isn't it?" Mr. Lowens says in a mocking tone. "How artistic can you get when you create concentration camps that eliminate millions of people?"

In 1946, Mr. Lowens left the British army, after trying unsuccessfully to get assigned to London. He finally visited England later that year, the first of many reunions with his brother Henry. Back in Holland, he and his father moved into a small Amsterdam apartment.

In October, his father married Gertrude Levy, known as Tutty. She lost her husband before Alfred lost Ellie, and the two couples had known each other. Tutty had survived Bergen-Belsen, only to be raped by invading Russian soldiers.

Despite all the help many Dutch people gave to Jews, there were only somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 remaining from a prewar community of 125,000 to 140,000. The Lowensteins' U.S. immigration applications were still on file, and Curt, Alfred and Tutty sailed to New York in March, 1947, where they anglicized the family name to the version Mr. Lowens uses now.

Meanwhile, my mother's sister Dolly had married a Canadian after the war, and the Loogman family immigrated in stages. Mr. Lowens says they heard our family was in Canada, and at one point his father sent a letter to an address in Winnipeg, but it was returned unopened.

I thought of trying to reach him a couple of years ago, when my mother's condition was getting worse. But there were so many Lowens and Lowensteins listed in California that I didn't pursue it.

Finding him was a fluke. I occasionally do Internet searches for references to my mother's presumed-dead brother, Jan. In April, all sorts of details popped up about Mr. Lowens and a Loogman family in Venray. It was the transcript of an interview he had given to a Montreal radio station, which put me in touch with his agent.

Mr. Lowens says he was a little paranoid when he first got to America. "There were people sitting on the subway reading the Jewish Daily Forward. Openly! Freely! Not under a hat," he says. "What a wonderful experience."

He and his father both took office jobs, but Curt wanted to be an actor. His ability with languages helped again, and he became a German-language announcer for the Voice of America. One day his director-general, Werner Klemperer, urged him to audition for a new play called Stalag 17.

In 1951, he made his Broadway debut -- as a prison-camp guard in a German uniform. The role lasted three years, and it set the pattern for much of his career in more than 100 movies, plays and TV appearances, including on the sitcom Hogan's Heroes, on which Mr. Klemperer (also a German Jew) played Col. Klink. Nazi villains became Mr. Lowens's specialty.

And other villains too. Mr. Lowens has been in many horror movies -- he proudly gives me a DVD of Werewolf in a Girls' Dormitory, a cult classic he made on a three-year stint in Italy in the early 1960s.

His looks and German accent have been a big asset. Also in Italy, he played a German soldier in director Vittorio De Sica's classic Two Women, with Sophia Loren. After Mr. Lowens's first scene, Mr. De Sica was delighted: "How come you can deliver the Italian dialogue with a German accent?"

Mr. Lowens says he was never very troubled by the Nazi roles. Villains are juicy parts for actors, and wearing their uniforms only reminds him how he triumphed over them in real life -- even when delivering the worst lines, as in a 1985 TV movie about the heroic Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.

Mr. Lowens played one of Adolf Eichmann's assistants, who at one point gets into a limousine and says, "Why are we stuck with all the garbage of Europe?"

Playing victims, as he has done in two stage versions of The Diary of Anne Frank, can be much harder, making him think of his relatives and other people who died.

My Aunt Kit might not agree, but he says many Holocaust victims feel it is important to portray the horror. In the 1960s, Mr. Lowens played Dr. Josef Mengele, who conducted horrific medical experiments on concentration-camp inmates, in a play in Los Angeles.

One night, two people came back to his dressing room and congratulated him. "And then he showed me his Auschwitz tattoo number.

"I said, 'How could you sit through this play?' And he said, "We needed to. We wanted to see. We wanted to be sure the reality comes out.' "

Mr. Lowens plays another Nazi in the new Chuck Norris movie, The Cutter, due out later this year, this one a diamond cutter, an ex-German colonel who pretends to be a Holocaust survivor.

But he's more fond of the next picture he has in development, in which he plays a rare "nice-old-codger grandfather." It's called The Ray of Sunshine.

John Daly is a senior editor at The Globe and Mail's Report on Business Magazine.


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