When I think about the strange twists and turns life takes, I’m reminded of the strange story of my great uncle Julius Lowenbein. Although fully true, his story could have been written by O. Henry. Listen and hear it.
Gyula (Julius) Lowenbein was born on March 11, 1869, in a small Austro-Hungarian village now located on the western end of Slovakia just across the border from the Czech Republic. At the age of 20, he went into the clothing business with partners in another town but either the business didn’t do well, the partners quarreled, or he had an itch to leave. So in 1894 they wound up the business and he immigrated to New York, with a second-class ticket bought with his share from the sale.
I have a picture of the family, about 20 people, taken at some resort just before he left. He is a young handsome man with light brown hair and a serious but slightly mischievous expression. In New York, where he would soon greet his arriving sister (my great-grandmother), Julius went right back to his trade of selling clothes. By 1900 he was a boarder at a building at 1074 Lexington Avenue. He was engaged to a woman named Sophie. His future looked bright.
Then disaster struck. He didn’t feel well and the doctor diagnosed his problem as tuberculosis, a dreaded disease in those days that one could not be expected to survive long. What could he do? There were new sanitarium opening up in the beautiful little town of Asheville, North Carolina, where the air was pure and clean. Perhaps he could be saved by going there.
Shattered, and expecting not to live very long, Julius fled New York without telling his sister or Sophie. My great-grandfather, Julius’s brother-in-law, wrote, after Julius finally sent his new address from Asheville, that the family wasn’t the least bit mad at him but that Sophie was shocked to hear the news of his departure for an unknown destination only after searching for him at the Strauss store where he’d been employed. Julius was a real gentleman in the best sense of the word and didn’t want to cause Sophie harm. But in his view that meant not giving her the choice of marrying a man who had no future, even if she’d wanted to do so. They never spoke again.
For a couple of years Julius lived in a sanitarium. He had no friends, no one visited him, and he was so very lonely. Finally, they released him but warned him to be careful. There was no cure. And so he virtually never left Asheville again. He moved into a nice little house right next door to a boarding house owned by the Wolfe family, and was almost certainly the first Jew ever met by the owner’s son, a budding novelist named Thomas Wolfe, who would head for New York — influenced by stories told him by Julius — and become famous for such books as Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again. Wolfe didn’t go home again.
Julius became an American success story on a more modest level. He worked in clothing stores, then became a partner, and then bought a four-story building for his own store, Lowenbein’s Smart Shop. He was hit hard by the Depression, which rendered the stocks he owned worthless. Julius lost his car and store, but didn’t give up and went into the manufacturing end on a small scale.
He never married, doubting his health and worried as to what fatal malady he might pass on to any children. His niece, Charlotte, came to live with him in the early 1920s after her mother, Julius’s sister, died. In 1941, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, he begged my mother and grandmother to join him in Asheville to escape what many thought to be an imminent Japanese invasion of California. They did and lived with him for several years, leading to a process that would eventually result in my existence and thus you reading these words.
Julius was active in his Reform synagogue, president of the Zionist organization (my only relative ever to have any such involvement), and a member of many local organizations. Everyone liked him; many loved him. But because no one had visited him, for the rest of his life, every Sunday Julius devoted to going to see sick people in the hospital. He became nationally famous for this practice and there were even radio programs done about his good deeds.
On August 2, 1944, at age 75, Julius died. The autopsy showed that he had never had tuberculosis. The whole thing was a misdiagnosis. His life had been based on a total mistake. Yet what a noble life it had been!
A few days after he died, a young man arrived in Asheville looking for Julius. He found my aunt who explained that he had come too late. The young man sighed and a tear wound down his cheek. He was, the man explained, Sophie’s son. She had never forgotten Julius and on her own deathbed bid him to somehow find Julius and tell him goodbye.
And now here I am trying to survive a correct diagnosis of lung cancer, living in an age far more advanced in so many material ways and regressed in some other ways. I salute you, Uncle Julius. May you be in a better place where your good deeds will be rewarded. And may we all remember how the strange roads that fate and accident send us down challenge us to be virtuous people nonetheless.
Image courtesy shutterstock / Krivosheev Vitaly
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