Wounds of War For Robert Kotlowitz, the act of opening to the world his recollections of a day in World War II when those around him were dying young, allowed him to close the book on that era of his life.

March 27, 1997|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

For Robert Kotlowitz, memories of World War Two begin on a sabbath morning in the summer of 1943. His family gathers on the porch of its Forest Park home to say goodbye as he goes off to the Army.

Unable to look at his son, Cantor Max Kotlowitz shields his eyes with his hands like a man suddenly thrust into a piercing light, a father hiding his tears at his son's departure for war.

"A strange and powerful gesture that stays with me until this day," writes Robert Kotlowitz, the cantor's son, in "Before Their Time," his new and widely praised memoir of his time as a soldier in World War II.

"I heard later that he broke down on the pulpit that morning," Kotlowitz says. "He reacted on the surface far more powerfully than my mother."

"My mother stood rigidly still," he writes in his memoir, recalling the morning he left for the Army. "Lips thin, suffering in silence. Poor beleaguered parents, ever stoic."

His mother, Debra Kotlowitz, died just last week at the age of 92. She was buried in Beth Tfiloh Congregation Cemetery on Windsor Mill Road, not so far from where the family lived when he went off to war. His father, who had been the cantor at Beth Tfiloh from 1932 to 1961, died in 1973.

Back on that morning in 1943, Kotlowitz was 18, just drafted out of the classroom at Johns Hopkins University. He was almost relieved. He was a pre-med student doing badly. Getting drafted probably saved him from flunking out.

He's 72 now, "a number that has a real heft to it," as he said in a recent exchange of letters with his writer son Alex published in the New York Times Magazine. Alex Kotlowitz gave "Before Their Time" as good as a review as a father could ask for.

"Here you are at 72 publishing a memoir that kept me so rapt that I finished it in two sittings," the son marveled. "It left me in tears."

But his son also had questions: Why now? Why were you able to finally let go and write what happened? Does it get easier with age?

Maybe, the father replied. Maybe some things do.

"Memories can mean renewal," he told his son. "Sometimes they offer a second chance at life."

From its Baltimore beginnings, Kotlowitz's book recounts his time as an untested young World War II infantryman, climaxing in a single fearful day of combat in France.

He emerged the only man unwounded when his platoon of about 40 was wiped out in a senseless frontal assault on Germans dug in on a hillside near the tiny village of Bezange-la-petit in Alsace-Lorraine. He feigned death in rigid silence while the Germans sniped at the wounded moaning around him. Only two other men survived. He was just 19.

'I'm glad I did it'

"People say, 'Was the book a catharsis?' Kotlowitz says. "I have to say that I don't know if I would recognize a catharsis if I fell into one. I did the book and I feel better and I'm glad I did it and I'm probably healthier for it."

Talking about his book in Washington 53 years later, Kotlowitz is the picture of health. His hair is white and fairly close-cropped, his face broad and open, his manner patient, his conversation easy and direct. He sits in a spacious sun parlor where a single paperwhite narcissus nods in the soft light of late afternoon.

A New Yorker now, during his Washington visit he's staying at broadcaster Jim Lehrer's comfortable old house in Cleveland Park. He knows Lehrer from New York public television station WNET, where he helped start the "McNeil-Lehrer Report" as vice president for programming. He's still a programming consultant there. But writing has always been his passion. After the war he'd returned to Hopkins, where he majored in the history of ideas and was in poet Elliot Coleman's first writing seminars, along with Russell Baker, another fine memoirist. He finally was able to reject medical school, which had always been his father's goal, not his own.

"I think he was scared that I would be exactly what I became," he says. "But that I wouldn't be successful."

With "Before Their Time," Kotlowitz has joined once again with the soldiers of his generation as they tell their last war stories. Plain, durable, capable people most of them, they weathered the TTC Great Depression and went on to win their "good war." They remember their youth and mourn their dead and wonder if the memory of what they did will fade away when they're gone. A World War II memorial is finally being built in Washington. These modest men and women once thought their victory monument enough.

"It's getting late," Kotlowitz says. "And I want everything down that I can get down, everything that means something to me."

He was moved to write about his war experience after the death of his wife from cancer three years ago. They had been married 42 years. She was from Baltimore, Bettie Leibowitz, who went to Park School "when they graduated classes of 17." He wrote a poignant and compelling chronicle of her illness and death that he published in the New York Times Magazine.

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