Grandfather shares story of his Holocaust escape with students

Date Published: 
January 22, 2018
Author: 
Cynthia McCormick

EAST HARWICH — A fan of soccer and toy soldiers, 9-year-old Martin Owens was impressed by the sight of Nazi troops pouring into his native Vienna during the annexation of Austria in 1938.

“I was downtown at a little plaza by the opera house” when columns of German troops arrived, Owens told seventh-graders at the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School.

“I wanted to march, too,” he said.

But his Jewish parents knew better.

“My parents decided to send me to a boarding school in England,” Owens said.

Owens was 10 — just two years younger than his grandsons Nicholas and Max Bachand of Harwich, seventh-graders at the charter school — when he arrived at the Stoatley Rough School deep in the countryside of Surrey, not leaving until the war’s end in 1945.

Being sent away was a matter of life or death for the young Jewish boy. For more than hour Thursday, Owens enthralled 80 students at the charter school with stories of prewar Vienna and what it’s like to grow up in an English boarding school.

“Leaving everything behind. That’s the piece that’s going to resonate for our students,” said social studies teacher Daniella Garran, who designed the Holocaust curriculum for the charter school.

She invited Owens to speak after his daughter Emily Bachand — the mother of twins Nicholas and Max — mentioned during a school open house that her father had escaped the Holocaust.

The social studies unit focuses on the plight of children during the Holocaust, both those who survived and the 1.5 million who were killed, Garran said.

After the Nazi advance, Austrian Jewish families lost businesses and property.

Schoolchildren in the heavily Catholic country bullied their Jewish classmates, and Jews were forced to get on their hands and knees to scrub city sidewalks.

“I actually saw this,” said Owens, 89, during a Powerpoint presentation of photos run by his wife, Barbie Owens.

“Sometimes there were old people on their knees,” said Owens, who currently lives in Stow.

Even comfortable benches in the parks where Owens played after school were off limits to Jews, Owens said.

“My nanny didn’t care, so she took me there, and I sat on the bench,” Owens said.

By the time Jewish synagogues and prayer houses were vandalized and set ablaze on Kristallnacht in November 1938, Owens was out of harm’s way.

His parents had him on a train that took him through Germany to Belgium and from there to a ship bound for England.

“My mother cried, and I cried,” Owens said. He packed family photographs and a pocketknife, but left his teddy bear behind.

At Hazelmere in Surrey, Owens was met by a school matron who took him to the Stoatley Rough School, founded by a Quaker interested in helping German refugees.

“It was in the middle of the night,” Owens said. “I did not speak English. But the matron spoke German. I was very homesick.”

“Imagine you’re growing up in a country,” Owens said. “All of a sudden you’re torn away from that environment.”

“Gradually you get used to it,” Owens said. “You make friends and you survive.”

He remembers standing on a chair with a very large spoon to stir porridge when he was young, and sliding down the drain pipes at night to meet teenage girls from the boarding school when he was older.

Later he found out that the school principal knew all about the late-night walks on the heath, but she never let on, Owens said.

The students listened to Winston Churchill every day on the radio and saw the glow of fires set by incendiary bombs dropped on London by German planes at night.

Sometimes during the day they witnessed dogfights between British and German airmen.

“It was very exciting for us, but it was serious business,” Owens said.

People who ran the school never talked about the concentration camps, Owens said.

“The children did not know where their parents were and if they were alive,” Barbie Owens said.

Owens was one of the lucky ones.

He lost a grandmother at the Theresienstadt camp, but his parents and younger sister survived the war.

“A lot of parents of children I knew did not,” Owens said.

After the armistice was signed, Owens said goodbye to his boarding school friends and took an old freighter to the U.S. to rejoin his mother, who would divorce his father and remarry.

Living among the stiff-lipped British for years, Owens said he was delighted by the good-natured razzing that took place on the ship between the American pilots who flew B-17s and B-24s.

“There was so much joking. So much humor. I literally laughed my way across the Atlantic,” Owens said. “This was so liberating. So much fun.”

Readjusting to life with his mother at age 17 was difficult after so many years without a parent figure, Owens said.

The one school matron he’d grown close to as a little boy had left for India while he was still very young, forcing him to become even more independent than before.

Owens attended college, joined the Air Force and eventually became a systems analyst at the Mitre Corp.

As his prospects grew, so did his family. Owens had five children and is now grandfather to 13 and great-grandfather to one.

Max Bachand said Thursday’s presentation was the most he had ever heard his grandfather talk about his experience escaping the Holocaust.

“Growing up, my dad didn’t talk about it at all,” Emily Bachand said.

But Owens has opened up a lot in the last few years, even taking a trip with his children to a special Holocaust memorial in Austria, Emily Bachand said.

“We learned so much all at once,” she said.

After Owens’ talk Thursday, his grandsons and other charter school students painting ceramic butterflies — each representing a child who died in the Holocaust — as part of the Zikaron V’Tikvah project of remembrance.

The goal of the international project that started in San Diego is to create 1.5 million ceramic butterflies, Garran said. She said the Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School will create a permanent display of butterflies that will be expanded annually.

Hearing about Owens’ experience as a child was “scary, really scary,” said Caralena Lindberg, 13, of Centerville. “They are saying you’re a bad person when you’re really not,” she said.