Shirley Kowitz, 86, Holocaust survivor, grocery chain owner

May 05, 2006|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,SUN REPORTER

Shirley Kowitz, a Holocaust survivor who moved to Baltimore with her husband after World War II and established a chain of local grocery stores, died of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease Tuesday at the Jewish Convalescent and Nursing Home. The former Stevenson resident was 86.

Born and raised Shirley Sznyderman in Belzec, Poland, she was 19 when she was taken by the Nazis to the Plasow concentration camp in Krakow, Poland.

She was transferred to Auschwitz, where she witnessed lines of men, women and children who were to be used by Dr. Josef Mengele - the so-called "Angel of Death" - in medical experiments.

She was sent from Auschwitz to Budzyn, a forced labor concentration camp near Lublin, Poland, where she met her future husband, Ben Kowitz, an upholsterer.

Mr. Kowitz was moved to the Theresienstadt concentration camp, but after the war ended and he was liberated, he located her and the couple married on Aug. 30, 1945.

"My father spoke very little, if at all, of his experiences in the death camps, and while she wasn't happy talking about those years, she wanted us to know what happened," said a son, attorney Ronald S. Kowitz of Reisterstown.

"It was a horror story, and your mouth would be agape when she described what happened. She had vivid memories of Mengele's death line and was forced to do heavy labor," Mr. Kowitz said yesterday.

Mrs. Kowitz was the only member of her family not to perish in Hitler's death camps.

"Where they were killed, no one knows for sure, but what is known is that they were placed in concentration camps and exterminated," he said.

"She said she managed to survive on the small amount of bread and water she was given because she was young and strong. It's amazing, considering what she had been through and the fate that she had suffered as a young woman, that she was ever able to live a normal life. It's just extraordinary," he said.

David M. Kowitz, a grandson, had interviewed his grandmother in 1992 for a school oral history project.

"She talked about sleeping on wooden benches in barracks that were filled with rats that crawled over inmates as they slept. She recalled being given a watery soup to eat that was sometimes accompanied by a piece of bread and how inmates had to protect their food," he said. "But she would stop talking when it came to the really gruesome details that I had prepared myself to hear.

"She came in contact with Dr. Mengele, who lined up the inmates each day. She said people who went one way died, while those who remained went another way and to work," the grandson said. "She said every day everyone lost friends, but there was nothing they could do to stop it."

Mrs. Kowitz, who became a U.S. citizen in 1955, recorded her memories for the Shoah Project that was established by film director Steven Spielberg to preserve the memories of Holocaust survivors.

The couple arrived by steamship at Ellis Island in New York Harbor in 1949 and made their way to Baltimore, where Mr. Kowitz worked 16-hour days as an upholsterer to earn the money so they could purchase their first grocery store at Mulberry and Monroe streets.

"We lived upstairs above the store, and they worked side by side seven days a week and 14-hour days to expand the business during the 1950s and 1960s," the son said.

The store in West Baltimore grew into the Big Value Supermarket chain with 13 locations and more than 100 employees.

They sold the business in 1986, and Mr. Kowitz died in 2002.

"She only had one hobby, and that was her family," Ronald Kowitz said.

Mrs. Kowitz had lived for the past year at Atrium Village, an Owings Mills assisted-living facility, and had been an active member of Beth Tfiloh Congregation.

Services were yesterday.

Also surviving are three other sons, Jack Kowitz of Pikesville and Joseph M. Kowitz and Ervin J. Kowitz, both of Reisterstown; eight other grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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