Louis Lowy

Bridge-Builder across the Atlantic and important Teacher of German Social Workers

by Heinz Kersting (September 2002)

"Do not work for the client, but with his resources"

(Louis Lowy)

Louis Lowy had been striving intensively for a knowledge transfer and a mutual exchange between the USA and the German-speaking countries in Europe.

Dr. Teresa Bock, one of most the important figures of German social work, she was a professor for social work in Aachen, Cologne and Berlin and president of the German Association for Public and Private Welfare Service and vice-president of the German Caritas Association, succeeded in 1964 through negotiation of Cora Baltussen from Nijmegen to enlist Louis Lowy for a group work course at the Academy for Youth Problems in Münster. The Dutch social worker Cora Baltussen who fought in the resistance against Nazi-Germany in her homeland convinced Lowy of the importance of this task and encouraged him to work with German social workers.

It actually needed this courage, because Louis Lowy and his wife Ditta Lowy, nee Jedlinski, are Jews. Louis originated from Munich, Ditta from Vienna. Both were survivors of the concentration camps of Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. Most of their relatives had been murdered by the Germans. He and his wife, who accompanied Louis Lowy frequently on his teaching journeys to Germany, were often caught up by the past: when, for example, a taxi-driver retold on the whole long journey from Bochum to Bottrop his heroic deeds as a concentration camp warden. Nevertheless he and his wife came to Germany year by year until shortly before Lowy’s death - into the country of their tantalisers and murderers of many friends and relatives.

The "excellent" Teacher of Social Work

I met Louis Lowy in 1967 as a participant of the second group work training, which he carried out at the Academy for Youth Problems. For me he was one of the most important and most significant teachers I have ever met in my life. First of all, he was a group worker, and like a group worker he taught social work.

Who was permitted to experience Louis Lowy as a teacher will remember that he was able to hit the spot of the most complicated matters concisely and plausibly. And those were difficult, unusual matters based on even more unusual attitudes which Louis Lowy in always new courses since the middle of the 60's taught us German social workers and teachers of social workers who, I say it frankly, were lagging far behind the international standard of knowledge of social work.

I talked to many former course participants, and we all remember, above all, how Louis Lowy didactically prepared his material, on the basis of the knowledge and the experience of his students, how he encouraged us to work in sub-groups and thus to think on our own and to work out our results together. And, last but not least, we remember how later, with the whole group, he took up our results and related them to the subjects which were new for us. He linked new subjects to our existing knowledge and life experience, and we had the freedom to re-define ourselves by learning. Many things were new to us, of course, some of them were even shocking – a "normative shock"- Lowy called it. But confrontation was softened by his warm-heartedness, his being both interested in his students and their lives. It was not our deficits what he was interested in, but he worked with our resources. Learning from him and with him, we always had the feeling that the results of our learning were also a result of our own efforts – which had an extremely encouraging effect.

Hardly ever I have experienced a scientist whose message was that identical with the way he sent this message like it was with Louis Lowy. In the way he taught, Louis Lowy lived his ideas: the clients' "right of self-determination", orientation at the clients' resources instead of their deficits, as well as the believe in the clients' competences to handle their problems themselves respectively to learn with help of the social worker to tackle their problems themselves.

Meanwhile, this form of teaching is quite common in Germany, but for us, who belonged to an authoritarian period in time, it had been totally unusual. We had been still used to teachers lecturing from behind a lecturer's desk, and priests talking from pulpits. Older colleagues still had the unmistakable commanding tone in their ears, which they knew from Labour Service and barrack squares. Self-determined thinking of learners had not been discovered yet; the Second Vatican Council had just been proclaimed in Rome, and self-determined adult education had not yet come into being.

I exactly remember my most important learning experience with Louis Lowy, which was a key experience to me. I still have the feeling to smell the trees outside, and have a clear view of the classroom in the Münster Academy where our seminar took place. I could still say which seat every participant had, when Louis Lowy explained to us in a social group work training course the relativity of norms and, related to that, Parson's Functionalistic System Theory (see Lowy 1973). I felt as if all of my world broke down. I still was a priest at that time. I knew, of course, that Lowy was not a Christian, much less a Catholic, for of course I had, being a philosophically trained theologian, recognised him as being agnostic, but, despite all good will, I was unable at that time to grapple with his way of thinking, which was so much different from my firmly established and dogmatic conception of life. It was his high degree of humanity, however, which made it impossible for me to simply dissociate from his opinion. Today I knew the real shock had not been the shocking scientific theory, but the fact that such a wise man – as such I have experienced Louis Lowy right from the beginning – was an "unbeliever", an agnostic.

Teaching was Louis Lowy's life. He started teaching very early after his 'Abitur' in Prague, and continued in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz.

A document from the concentration camp which I hung up as a photocopy in my house together with a piece of a burnt parchment of a Torah which my father picked up as a German soldier in front of a synagogue burnt down by German armed forces during the Russia campaign bears witness thereof. It is the photocopy of an event calendar from evenly this concentration camp, announcing a lecture of Louis Lowy: "Educational Questions in Theresienstadt" for July 1943. The inmates of this concentration camp, which the Nazis had set up as a perfect example of concentration camp for visits of the International Red Cross, could maintain an intellectual life only under most difficult circumstances. Louis Lowy got hold of this rare document when he visited an exhibition "Judaism in Czechoslovakia" in Washington with his daughter and coincidentally found his own name under the exhibits from the Theresienstadt concentration camp thus meeting his teaching activity in the concentration camp again. Apart from adult education Louis Lowy also worked as a social worker for children and young people in Theresienstadt. The latter was done secretly because it was strictly forbidden by the Nazis.

On his 70th birthday I had the honour to be allowed to appreciate his merits for German Social Work in a speech at Boston University. On this occasion I became acquainted with some of his students from the Auschwitz concentration camp who told me how Louis Lowy rallied them round him and thus became their teacher. They assigned the fact that they have survived to a fundamental part to Louis Lowy's concentration camp school which gave their useless slaves' lives a deeper meaning and moral stability.

Louis Lowy has got a lot of high scientific honours during his life including the "Lorenz-Werthmann-medal" of the German Caritas Association. Especially proud he told us that Boston University honoured him as an excellent teacher in 1979 and that Wheelock College in Boston on the occasion of their 100th anniversary awarded the honour degree of Doctor of Pedagogics to him.

One of his last lectures he held for students of my School of Social Work, a department of the Niederrhein University of Applied Sciences in Mönchengladbach during the second US-German seminar which took place in Boston in 1989. The Department of Social Work and Management of the Niederrhein University is a partner of the School of Social Work in Boston. Through his visits to Mönchengladbach and his taking care of lecturers of the department during their time as visiting professors Louis Lowy had made a great part to this partnership.

During my academic career I have seldom met a teacher who himself was so open-minded, eager to learn, generous, encouraging and advancing my way of thinking than Louis Lowy.

An example: When I began to take my doctor's degree with him and professor Sitta, who was on good terms with Lowy, in Aachen in 1973 it was unthinkable at that time to write a thesis on communication science without referring to the Frankfurt School and Jürgen Habermas. Lowy referred me to Niklas Luhmann then.

One can't say that he had not appreciated the socio-critical commitment of the Frankfurt School. He was not afraid to interfere in the daily politics of the USA himself. Social Policy was his subject and he often gave expert advice to the government of Massachusetts on gerontological questions.

His criticism as to the Critical Theory referred to its historical philosophy inspired by Hegel and Marx, the salvational, eschatological character of this theory, which for the former theologian that I was had some fascinating aspects. In his own scientific works, however, Lowy preferred the systemic model by Luhmann to describe the development of helping activities in the course of the different society epochs (see Luhmann 1973).

I made my decision for Jürgen Habermas and against Niklas Luhmann. But Lowy, nevertheless, let me make my own way, under his critical supervision, but without derogating my work. I'm sure I would have long forgotten this episode if Lowy had not, during one of my last visits to him in Boston, reminded me of it, a little amused, when we discussed my recent, meanwhile systemic works.

Louis Lowy was not only a great teacher, but also a productive scientific author. He wrote many books, articles and monographs in which he discussed his scientific findings and research results. Some of books he had written in German, others have been translated from American English into German. All his books have been reprinted several times.

The themes of his books are widely spread. If we tie them up into bundles, there are: In the beginning, social group work is his central topic. Lowy worked with young people, therefore examples are taken from this life period.

When he had become professor at the School of Social Work, publications followed on what is called 'didactics for Higher Education' or curriculum research and -implementation in Germany. He led a team that carried out a highly noticed large-scale organisation development project in several American Universities as to the reform of the social work study course (see Lowy/Blocksberg/Walbert 1974). A similar project took place in Germany when social work became an university subject (see Bock/Lowy 1974). Publications on adult education and work with volunteers (Bock/Lowy/Pankoke) followed.

Having substantially shaped the development of the training for supervisors in Germany, he published essays and book articles on this topic on both sides of the Atlantic (see Lowy 1977). His last important subject until his death was gerontology (see Lowy 1979; 1980; 1981; 1986). It is thanks to him that today social gerontology is taught in many German schools of social work.

The Bridge-Builder across the Atlantic

I'd like to add a few remarks on the significance Louis Lowy had for social work in German-speaking countries. His first project in Germany were courses in group work for both social workers and lecturers of social work (see Kersting 1972, 1997c; Kersting/Krapohl 1994; 1995).

At the time when Louis Lowy came to Germany, social group work was quite unknown there. It had been only shortly before Lowy's arrival in Germany that the first German book on social group work had been published by Heinrich Schiller (Schiller 1963), who had studied social work with Gisela Konopka at the University of Minnesota from 1949 to 1951. It was only within the first years of Lowy's work that the books of Gisela Konopka (1968) and Robert D.Vinter (1971) had been translated into German.

Louis Lowy taught us, what of course we did not suspect yet at that time, a model of social group work which meant a turning point in the North American history of social group work, because in contrast to the more therapeutic-oriented model it had a more strongly socio-psychological - today we would say systemic - paradigm (see Krapohl 1987; 1997; Kersting 1972). This Developmental Model of social group work became the most recognised model in social work in Germany and today there is hardly any German paper on social group work which does not refer to the research results of the colleagues of the Boston School of Social Work to which Louis Lowy belonged.

In memory of Louis Lowy, the German chapter of the Association for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups (AASWG) donated a price, the "Louis Lowy Award" to honour a particularly outstanding project, an extraordinary thesis or an innovative publication in social group work (see Nebel/Woltmann-Zingsheim 1997; Kersting 1997).

Once in a talk with German social workers Louis Lowy himself dated the beginning of his activity as a social group worker back on his time in the concentration camp, where he led groups in Theresienstadt and rallied young people around him in the Auschwitz concentration camp. Maybe the terms 'group work' and 'surviving' became synonymous words for him at that time.

Louis Lowy’s influence is not to be underestimated, his visiting professorship in Bochum is still reminded by many colleagues today; his regular guest lectures in Germany in Aachen, Berlin, Essen, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Cologne, Mönchengladbach, Munich, Münster, Nuremberg, Paderborn - and I am sure I did not list up all places in Germany at which Lowy taught - always brought new impulses and launched scientific discussions. His courses at the Meinwerk-Institute, in Freiburg with the Caritas Association, the Staffelnhof seminars in Switzerland, his advanced training courses and his build-up trainings at the Academy for Youth Problems were trailblazing for the development of modern advanced training for social workers in Germany. In addition, Louis Lowy advised many institutions of social welfare in their everyday problems and carried out organisational development projects. Today, Louis Lowy still ranks among the important promoters of social work in Germany (see Kersting 1998 a).

Similar to the development in the USA, the courses in social group work were the beginning of his teaching activity in Germany, too. During the years of his activities in Germany he taught us valuable knowledge about social behaviour, methods of organisational development and psycho-social counselling. It were partially social worker’s skills of German social work which were taken by German-speaking emigrants such as Alice Salomon and Gisela Konopka into the exile with them in the 30's, which were made up by Louis Lowy and substantially increased by scientific works such as, e.g. Kurt Lewin’s research on the dynamics of groups and conflicts and the practical work of American social workers in case Work, social group work and community organisation, and then reimported to Germany.

It was Louis Lowy who familiarised a whole generation of German social workers with system-theoretical and ecological ideas at a time when the system theory had just been discovered as a useful paradigm for social work in the USA by, for example, Carel B. Germain and Alex Gitterman (1983); thus laying the first cornerstone for a scientific reflection of social work in Germany (see Lowy 1983). Louis Lowy pointed out that in most cases it is not helpful to approach isolated problems or to look at them only from the individual's perspective. He taught us the understanding for self-referring systems, in which all elements of the respective client system and supporting system, respectively the contextual systems refer to each other and are connected with each other, but at the same time, are different.

Particularly in my hometown, Aachen, the importance of Louis Lowy can't be estimated highly enough. Many people here still remember the curriculum development project which Louis Lowy led as organisation development at the Catholic University of Applied Sciences in North-Rhine-Westphalia (see Bock/Lowy 1974). It is remarkable that many of the ideas such as integration of subjects, project studies, practical work terms under the guidance of a professor of the university as well as supervision for students and graduates during their vocational practicum, which had been worked out together with Louis Lowy have been realised in model study courses (see e.g. Braun 1996), in projects (see project group 1981), recommendations for study reforms (see e.g. Deutscher Verein 1983) as well as in the development of the first social work curriculum for Hungary (see Kersting/Hernandéz Aristu/Budai 1995). This is, however, not amazing, for many participants of his training courses and projects were thrilled by his proposals and ideas.

Furthermore, Louis Lowy frequently joined the team of the Aachener Bischöfliche Akademie (Aachen Bishop's Academy), particularly in the field of old-age education. Within the German Caritas Association he participated in three important conferences. In particular the one on 'interventions in social work' was trend-setting and, regarding the professional landscape of social work fields, this is an important field which still needs cultivation.

After he was emerited, he gave expert advice to the Institute for Counselling and Supervision (IBS) in Aachen as to the set-up of the institute and in developing the first curriculum for a systemic-oriented training course for supervisors. In the first supervisor training of the Institute 1985-1988 he took part as a lecturer – it was the last time Louis Lowy participated in a long-term training course in Germany (see Kersting 2001). In remembrance of Louis Lowy, the research Institute of the IBS in Aachen was named after him.

For my own scientific area is being concerned (see Kersting 1988 b; 2000; 2002), I allow myself to add a remark on the importance of Louis Lowy for the development of a model for supervision in Germany which is without equivalent in international comparison. Louis Lowy had both outlined and carried out the first training course for supervision at the Münster Academy for youth problems (see Lowy 1977). In contrast to the North-American model of supervision and its first adaptations in Germany he developed, considering the different course of both social development and professionalisation of social work in Germany in contrast to the USA, a specific model of supervision: In Germany the supervisor is not – as it is common practice in Anglo-Saxon countries – an internal advisor who may be also in charge of management tasks within the institution, but an external expert who comes from outside the institution to advise the supervisees. Meanwhile this model has been largely adopted in Germany and in Europe (Belardi 1992: 66; see Kersting/Krapohl 1994; 1995). With Irmgard Schönhuber, who had studied social work in the USA, he also developed a model for group supervision fitting the German conditions, founded on the explorations of social group work carried out by the Boston University School of Social Work. This model has substantially shaped group supervision in Germany (see Kersting 1997 b; 1998 b).

Louis Lowy’s contributions to social gerontology which led to working with aged people was discovered as a field of social work in Germany and chairs for social gerontology had been established at the schools for social work were also remarkable (see Lowy 1979; 1980; 1981; 1986).

For me, Louis Lowy was a great bridge-builder who achieved to connect continents, countries, generations and the most different people with each other. Thus he overcame innumerable borders. He did not work only in Germany but at many places in Europe (e.g. in Lille, Gent, Athens, Vienna, Oslo, Roros in Norway, Luzern, Zürich and St.Gallen). He also understood to establish close relationships between the people in Europe and organised a number of international conferences for social workers in Europe.

Unity of life and work

The significance of the scientist professor Dr. Dr. h.c. Lowy corresponds to an extremely high degree with the personality of Louis Lowy.

First of all: Louis Lowy was not a "religious" Jew. He hardly ever called himself a Jew.

He saw himself as a citizen of the United States of America. Once in his life he delivered – on invitation - a speech in a synagogue on the Holocaust subject. It was the speech of a world citizen in the spirit of the enlightenment and the principles of the American revolution.

He stressed the importance of the existence of the state of Israel also for those Jews who do not live there. He visited Israel as a representative of American social work on the occasion of an international congress of the schools for social work.

Max Lowy, his father, was a merchant and descended from a Jewish family of the perished multicultural and multilingual Habsburg empire. His grandfather had come to Vienna as an executive director. His mother Thekla Anna, a born Bols, originated from Bavaria and with her marriage converted form the Catholic to the Jewish confession. Louis Lowy was born in Munich and spent his childhood there. He remained the only child of this couple and grew up – as characterised by himself - "in a liberal-conservative and Central European orientated family" (oral report).

It was the Germans who stigmatised him as a Jew. At the age of thirteen he was sent to relatives in England in order to prepare the resettlement of the family. But the Englishmen refused the immigration because of an asthmatic disease of the father. Thereupon the fifteen year old pursued the resettlement to Prague, because they could claim for the Czechoslovakian nationality due to the origin of the grandfather. After he had got the university matriculation certificate he studied the teaching profession, became a teacher at a grammar school and along with it studied pedagogics at Karls University where lectures were still held in German at that time.

In 1941 he was sent to the Theresienstadt concentration camp together with his father, his mother of non-Jewish descend accompanied the family. The mother died in the concentration camp in 1942 and was buried by Louis Lowy’s own hands.

In the concentration camp he met Ditta Jedlinski, a young woman from Vienna. In 1944 Louis and a little later his fiancée were transported to Auschwitz for extermination. In Auschwitz, Ditta and Louis did not meet, of course. Before the Red Army entered Auschwitz in 1945, Lowy and his students fled to the West. Via Budapest, Bratislava and Prague he returned to Theresienstadt, where he was told his father had died during the last transport to Auschwitz (see Fischer 1995; Scherzinger 1995).

His language skills enabled Louis Lowy to work as a welfare worker in a refugee camp of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) in the Bavarian town of Deggendorf. The UNRRA helped survivors of the Holocaust to integrate in Europe or to emigrate to other continents. With one of the transports the young woman who Louis Lowy had come to love in Theresienstadt arrived in Deggendorf. Ditta and Louis married right away. He visited Prague, but knew already that democratic rights would soon cease to be effective and therefore decided to leave Europe. So Louis and Ditta emigrated to Boston, where Ditta had relatives living there.

Nevertheless, Louis and his wife came to Germany year after year until shortly before his death – to the country of their tantalisers and murderers of several friends and relatives. In Germany, they never talked publicly about how much our fellow citizens, neighbours, perhaps even our parents and relatives had made suffer them, their friends and families. Louis Lowy talked about this horrible time only to very few people. Ditta and Louis Lowy have never shamed us. They had acceptance, respect and empathy for us. They regarded us as likeable persons, us who felt lost and injured after the war. They brought our resources to light and to some of us, that we could have been children of their former persecutors and the murderers of their families and friends they gave the present of their friendship. Louis Lowy talked about his experiences in the concentration camps only if he was explicitly asked. It was only in his last curriculum vitae which he wrote shortly before his death that he mentions the years in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz as a part of his biography. Significantly, he refers to these years as to a period of early professional activities.

For many of us who knew about Louis' and Ditta's fate meeting them was a symbol of forgiveness given to us. Undoubtedly, the weak physical condition of his last years was a result of this horrible concentration camp period. I don't know whether Louis Lowy had been sort of homesick for Europe. He was very well informed on what was going on in Europe. Prague had no attraction for him any longer.

In the course of the last years he once told me – more incidentally – that if he had to live in Europe again he would preferably live in Aachen. Only two weeks before he died he said on the phone that he felt so well again that he would visit us in Aachen the following year.

I'd like to end with Louis Lowy's own words. In his speech in the synagogue he told about his lecturing in Germany and that he had met there a new generation of people whose thinking, feeling and acting was so much different from that of the preceeding generation. He closed this part of his speech by saying:

"I have learned to overcome the temptation for hatred and revenge, for on hatred and revenge you can't build up a new life."


(Translation: Jutta Schiffers, Mönchengladbach)


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Vinter, Robert D. (1971): Beiträge zur Sozialen Gruppenarbeit, Freiburg im Breisgau: Lambertus.


The Author:

Dr. paed. Heinz J. Kersting

Professor emeritus at the School of Social Work
and Management of the Niederrhein University of
Applied Sciences in Mönchengladbach / Germany,

Director of the Institute for Counselling and
Supervision (IBS) and the Louis-Lowy-Research-
Institute in Aachen,

Bacc. theol.,

Dipl.-Supervisor (FH, SG, DGSV),

Social Group Worker and member of the Association
for the Advancement of Social Work with Groups (AASWG),

Honorary Member of the Spanish Association of
Supervision (ISPA)


Veröffentlichungsdatum: 22. September 2002


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