ANXIOUSLY STROKING THE RIM OF his gray trilby hat, Hellmuth Szprycer, a retired antiques dealer from Ghent, Belgium, paced the marble lobby of London’s Park Lane Hilton hotel last Feb. 3, his eyes fixed on a set of revolving doors. Then, at 8:30 p.m., Szprycer, 67, stopped in his tracks. Entering the atrium was a London engineer named Harry Lowit, the man he’d been waiting for—not just that evening but for half a century.
“This is history, my dear boy,” said Szprycer, as they tearfully wrapped their arms around one another.
“This,” answered Lowit, 66, “is the most amazing event of my life.”
No one in that lobby could have known the memories, both terrible and heroic, bound up in their embrace. No one could have guessed that in July 1944, Hellmuth, then 14, and his friend Harry, 13, had been destined to join the millions of other Jews murdered at Birkenau, the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz in Poland. They had been marked for the gas chamber by none other than Dr. Josef Mengele, Hitler’s infamous Angel of Death. But with amazing chutzpah, Szprycer persuaded Mengele to spare them both. They lost track of each other after World War II, but now, through the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation, Steven Spielberg’s archive of Holocaust survivors, the friends have been reunited at last. “This is a new beginning,” says Szprycer. “The only thing in my life I wanted to find is this boy.”
They were strangers when they arrived at Birkenau on Dec. 18, 1943. Hamburg native Szprycer never knew his father, a Pole who had separated from his mother, Rosa, before Hellmuth was born. In 1938, Rosa emigrated to England, leaving 8-year-old Hellmuth and his older sisters Lotte and Gisa to be raised by her parents in a Berlin suburb that soon fell under the Nazi spell. Kids started calling Szprycer “bloody Jew,” and his family was forced to wear the yellow Star of David.
The dreaded knock on the door came at 3 a.m., sometime in March 1943. Gisa, 17, was sent to work in one of the concentration camps (Lotte had died of tuberculosis), never to be heard from again, and Hellmuth and his grandparents were dispatched to the squalid Terezin ghetto near Prague. Showing his survival instinct, Szprycer, a virtuoso whistler, joined the Ghetto Swingers, a band that played in cafes for food, soap and blankets. In December, Szprycer and his grandparents were hauled off to Birkenau, a three-day trek in a frigid railway car. “In the first day 10 people died and by the time we arrived, another 30,” he recalls. “We sat on them—used them as chairs.”
Shortly after their arrival, Szprycer’s grandparents died. Soon he bonded with Harry Lowit of Prague, whose father, Karel, and mother, Milena, had run a waterproofing factory. “We had a beautiful villa on a large hill,” Lowit recalls. But the family’s world collapsed when Karel was sent to the camp at Terezin and died. In May 1942, Harry and his mother were ordered to the ghetto, and Milena ended up in a German concentration camp. Says Lowit: “I never saw her again.”
For Lowit, who spoke no German, Szprycer became a kind of big brother. The boys performed menial tasks, running errands and cleaning helmets as fellow Jews were being gassed daily in their midst. “They were crying and shouting—and then there was the smell,” says Szprycer. Mengele, chief doctor of Birkenau, would come to the camp in his Mercedes and decide which Jews would be killed and which would be spared. Those who survived would serve either as slave labor or as guinea pigs for Mengele’s genetic research, crude surgeries in which subjects were often maimed. “He was a good-looking fella—dark, with a baby face,” Szprycer recalls of Mengele, then 33. “You’d never have thought he was a sadist.”
One day in July 1944, Mengele ordered thousands of inmates to strip and form two lines. Those sent to the right were put to work; those to the left were bound for the gas chambers—Szprycer and Lowit among them. It was then that Szprycer brazenly approached the Angel of Death.
“I looked into his eyes,” he says. “I clicked my heels and said, ‘I want to work for you. I will do anything—clean your shoes, your motorcycle. Don’t put me in the gas chamber.’ ” Mengele asked Szprycer where he was from. “Ah, you are a Berliner!” he barked. “Okay, I am going to [have you work at] the gate of the D-Camp.”
When Szprycer returned to the other boys, Lowit begged him to plead his case too. Szprycer went back with Lowit looking on. This time, Mengele held out two matches. “The one who takes the longest match will live,” he said. “The shortest goes to the gas chamber.” Lowit came up short. “I’ll never forget Harry’s eyes,” says Szprycer. “He cried, ‘I don’t want to die.’ ”
And so the intrepid young Berliner went to Mengele a third time. “What is one more [life to spare]?” he asked. Astonishingly, Mengele relented. The boys were given smart blue uniforms and made into messengers. Later, Lowit was transferred to the main camp, where he manned the front gate, admitting prisoners. “It’s amazing what a human being can get used to,” he says.
In the winter of 1944-45, the Nazis, retreating from the Russians, forced thousands of inmates from the camps to march back to Germany. Lowit eventually landed at a camp in the mountains near Salzburg, Austria. There he and a friend were made to haul coal from town in a truck. One day in April 1945, while their guards stopped for beer, the two Jews made a daring escape, driving off into the Alps. “We hid for three weeks and waited for the Americans,” says Lowit.
Szprycer, who also survived what became known as the Death March, made his own dash to freedom. Just before the German surrender, a gentile friend smuggled him to Prague, where he planned to board a train to France. His train was intercepted by Russian troops, who kept him under guard, but he escaped that night on foot. When he encountered some U.S. troops along the road, Szprycer started whistling the hit tune “Jeepers Creepers,” which he recalled from listening to his sister’s records. The Americans took him in, and a regimental rabbi managed to contact Szprycer’s mother in London. Szprycer went to Le Havre, France, with a friendly GI, stowed away on a boat to England and lived with Rosa for five years, starting a business making eyeglass frames. Lowit sought him out in 1950, but thereafter they lost touch.
In 1951, Szprycer met his future wife, Vera, now 78, in a London antiques shop. “He trusted no one,” Vera recalls. “When we walked along the street, he would always look behind.” Moving to Ghent, her hometown, the couple started a profitable antiques business. Childless, they divide their time between an 18th-century town-house in Ghent and a fiat in Monte Carlo. Over the years, Szprycer has revisited the concentration camps and gathered records of his wartime ordeal. But he could not find Harry Lowit. “He would ask all the time,” says Vera. ” ‘Where is he, where is he?’ ”
In fact, Lowit had settled in England, where he met Zelda, his wife of 38 years. “I was sharing a flat with two other girls, and one day he brought round a dozen eggs,” Zelda, 63, recalls. “Anyone who does that can’t be bad.” The couple, who have two grown daughters and four grandchildren, ran a flooring company, sold out in 1995 and live in a six-bedroom home near London.
In contrast to Szprycer, Lowit had determined to purge the Holocaust from his memory. Still, he wanted to leave his family a record of the ordeal and consented to be interviewed for the Shoah project. A staffer who had spoken to Szprycer compared their stories and put them in touch, leading to their February meeting.
“We never stopped talking,” says Lowit, who treated his savior to a four-hour dinner that night. For Lowit, who no longer conceals the tattooed number on his arm, the reunion helped him come to terms with the past. For Szprycer, it has enriched the present, since Lowit has welcomed him into his family. “The best moment was when Harry’s grandchildren spoke to me as if I were their father,” Szprycer says.
Of course, in a sense, he is. For none of them would exist without the unimaginable courage he showed 53 years ago. “Death was on our right-hand side,” says Szprycer. “But we got away with it.”
SIMON PERRY in London