Sunday, March 26, 2006

Werner Löwenhardt (1919-2006)

My dear old friend Werner Löwenhardt died on January 18, 2006.

The last time I saw him was in 2002. I had stepped onto the #24 tram in Amsterdam-Zuid, found a seat where I entered in the back, and recognized Werner, way in the front, by his dapper shape. Small of posture, he was always well dressed, clad in a smart overcoat with square shoulders, a nice scarf, his white manes a beacon of light amidst the crowd. Hardly surprised when I tapped him on the shoulder, then kissed him on the cheek —we hadn't seen each other for eight years— he invited me for tea at his office. He wanted to show me his latest project, a book on the Holocaust.

I've known Werner and his wife Lilo for 27 years. My friend Anita introduced me to her parents in 1979. On Sundays, the four of us would often share a meal, or meet at the theater, or an exhibition. Around that time, Werner invited me to his office at the Koningsplein, to show me, bit by bit, parts of his amazing collection of advertising posters and antique world maps. That's how our friendship started. I was a fledgling designer and interested in his art and craft, and the way that he had managed to survive as a freelancer.

There was more however. What possibly was the most intriguing, was the fact that although Werner said he had never met my father, Jaap van Praag (1898-1969) I knew that both men had been imprisoned until the end of the war, at Nazi transit camp Westerbork, in the province of Drenthe. Stranger yet, Anita and I had a friend in common, whose father as well had been at Westerbork at that same time. All three men had survived. They were not acquainted, and yet their daughters found each other more than three decades after the liberation.

I enjoyed visiting Werner at his downtown office at Koningsplein, which overlooked the hustle and bustle below. At some point he hired me to write letters and manage the office, while he was on vacation or away on business trips. He acknowledged my strong points, my talents. and strongly encouraged me to seek my future in the United States. He offered to photograph my theater designs, and helped me put together a travel port-folio. When I packed my bags, he wished me well. When I returned he welcomed me.

When I visited him in 2002, his office was situated elsewhere, he had given up the prime Koningsplein location after his retirement. I knew the place well however, it was there that we pinned my drawings on the wall, working in unison to shoot as many pictures as needed. And we managed to shoot one picture of ourselves as well. We were quite the team.

The manuscript Werner showed me was illustrated with sketches he made at camp Westerbork, and photos of the relatives he lost to the Holocaust. With tears in his eyes he related how his parents were killed after the war had already been lost by the Nazis. After having worked on the stories of other people all of his life, he finally took the time to create a personal memorial Ik houd niet van reizen in oorlogstijd in memory of his lost loved ones.

I'm sad that I won't get to see my old friend when I visit Amsterdam again, but he sure lives on in my memories.

©2006 Judith van Praag
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