Alix Kowler’s father believed allegiance to his native Austria would protect his family as anti-Semitism spread in the 1930s.
This faith was shaken in November 1938 during Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) as dozens of Jews were killed in a series of pogroms across Austria, Czechoslovakia and Germany that destroyed homes, businesses and synagogues.
Four months later, at age 14, Kowler followed the path taken by thousands of refugee Jewish children. Her family took her to the train station, where other children in tears hugged parents goodbye.
“As my father said his goodbye, he said, ‘We’ll see you soon, behave nicely!’ ” Kowler said in a memoir that was self-published about three years ago. “Simple words spoken, the last words I would ever hear from him. ... I’m sure now they knew they would not see me again.”
Kowler, 92, of St. Louis Park, died Dec. 12 of heart failure. Along with her late husband, Kowler worked during her life to share the story of the Holocaust and commemorate those who suffered, so the mass killing of Jews during World War II might not be forgotten.
“She saw beauty in a world where she was exposed to such ugly things,” said Anneke Branderhorst Louder, a friend and high school teacher who wrote Kowler’s memoir. “She showed me hope in humanity, despite seeing humanity and evil at its worst.”
Alix Kowler was born in Vienna in 1924. She grew up in a comfortable apartment near the city’s university, in a neighborhood where there weren’t many Jewish families.
Her father, Joseph Grabkowicz, was a dentist, and was unusual for owning a car during the 1930s. It was an Essex Super Six, and Kowler savored her father’s company during weekend drives and long walks home from the garage.
“They felt they were very assimilated — and were really Austrians first, and Jews second,” said Kowler’s son Peter, who lives in Minneapolis.
During Kristallnacht, Nazi sympathizers ransacked the Kowlers’ home and the tightening grip of Nazi Germany forever changed the family’s life.
After escaping Austria, Kowler was sheltered by a family in Belgium before moving to group homes that were like orphanages. As the Nazis invaded, she was evacuated with refugee children to southern France, where a group of 100 ultimately hid in a château near mountains along the Spanish border.
At one point, French police sent Kowler and older children to a camp she described as “a stopping point” before the death chambers at Auschwitz. A worker with the Swiss Red Cross arranged for the children’s release just one day before their scheduled deportation. The children were secretly dispatched in pairs to seek safety, walking toward Spain or Switzerland.
In the end, Kowler found safety in the French city of Lyon, where she met her husband Max. In 1951, the couple and their firstborn son immigrated to the United States, where their son, Peter, was born in New York. He remembers first learning about the Holocaust at age 6, when a large crate suddenly appeared in the family’s driveway. It was sent by a relative who returned to Vienna and recovered family artifacts including paintings, tea sets and a candelabra.
After moving to western Massachusetts in the 1970s, Alix and Max Kowler raised money for a Holocaust memorial monument. They shared their stories with community groups and through oral history projects. Alix Kowler continued sharing her story when she moved to Minnesota in 2010. “I think she really was thankful for her opportunity to start again and lived her life filled with gratitude,” recalled Louder.
Services have been held.