By Zach Itzkovitz
Penina Bowman sat with her son Allen in front of an audience at the Breman Museum on Sunday, May 3, and chatted about her past as casually as if she were sharing family history with one of her two great-grandchildren.
Instead, the 88-year-old was in front of a standing-room crowd for the latest installment of the Breman’s Bearing Witness series of Holocaust survivors telling their stories.
A lighthearted polyglot, Bowman discussed her impressive acquisition of several languages during World War II.
“First I had to learn German because I had to mingle with them a lot,” Bowman said. “And then, because we worked with Frenchmen, I had to learn French.”
The Nazis tore Bowman and her family from their native Romania and from one another days after her 17th birthday. She arrived at Auschwitz with her mother and two sisters in April 1944, while her father and brother were sent to Dachau.
“In Auschwitz I was in both camps,” Bowman said. “When we arrived, we were in one, and then we had the selections. We went through the routine of having our hair cut and having a dressing, all that. And then we were moved to the next camp, which was a camp with about 20,000 people there.”
After six months of nearly daily selections, Bowman was sent to an electronics factory to labor for the German war machine. She and her sisters worked in appalling conditions until they were liberated in April 1945.
They reconnected with her brother, but their parents never left the camps.
In Salzburg, Austria, Bowman lived with a group of survivors hoping to get to Palestine.
A man from Chicago, Harold Bowman, arrived in Salzburg, eager to hone his Hebrew. He was taken aback by Penina, then 18, even though she knew little Hebrew. It didn’t matter to Harold, who taught her the basics.
“I met Harold because he wanted to practice his Hebrew,” Bowman said. “And I learned Hebrew very fast because I already knew the songs.”
Harold returned to Chicago after being discharged from the Army, but not before he presented Penina with packaged gift: a portion of his military-issued parachute, which she later used as part of her wedding dress. That dress is part of the Breman’s collection.
She set sail from the Mediterranean’s northern coast and eventually arrived at a British refugee camp in Palestine. Harold arrived shortly thereafter and used his military perks to remain.
The couple eventually married, moved to Chicago and had three children. She lives in Sandy Springs now.
Bowman’s taste for lyrics helped her find the love of her life. But it also helped in more abstract ways that some may struggle to describe. Bowman survived the Holocaust with a passion that continues to be heard.
“I think prayer helped me a lot,” Bowman said. “Prayer, to this day, helps me. I love to go to services. I love to go on Friday night and hear the songs.”