In memoriam: Mark “Leo” Horovitz, a Holocaust survivor involved in Jewish-German reconciliation work

Markus Willy “Leo” Horovitz, a Berkeley resident of nearly six decades who is one of the only known people to repatriate to Germany as a senior citizen after fleeing from there as a child during the Holocaust, died in Frankfurt on January 13. He was 90 years old.

Horovitz, known as Mark to some, Leo to others (a name he later took that was also his father’s name), was deeply involved in Jewish-German reconciliation work for decades. He also had a serious rebellious streak – he had a characteristic “impish grin,” and clearly got joy out of pushing people beyond their comfort zones. As a senior citizen, he always sought out the company of those much younger than himself; he found the company of those his own age “boring.”

Horovitz was well-known in the clowning community; one of his clown alter egos was named Tatiana, Trailer Trash. He had served as court jester for several summers for a friend who was a baron and owned a castle in Scotland; no one knows much about this except that a lot of debauchery and merriment went on.

Markus Willy Horovitz was born in Frankfurt on Nov. 8, 1928. His grandfather, Markus Horovitz, was a rabbi who was recruited to serve at the Frankfurt Am Main synagogue. His father was a silversmith, whose Judaica items can be seen in Jewish museums throughout the world.

Horovitz remembered witnessing Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – which took place the day after his tenth birthday. His father was arrested in a roundup of German men very early on, but his friendship with a police officer helped him avoid being deported to a concentration camp.

Leo Horovitz’s Kindertransport document. Photo courtesy of Alex Horovitz.

That event scared his parents enough that they sent Horovitz and his older sister Hanna to Great Britain on the Kindertransport, which helped an estimated 10,000 German Jewish children escape. Eventually, Horovitz’s parents were also able to flee, though it was some time before the family was reunited. Horovitz and his sister were sent to live in the countryside when the Germans bombed London.

After the war was over, Horovitz thought about emigrating to Palestine with a young woman he was in love with named Esther. Esther went first and died in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence. He later visited Israel with his son a few years before he died, to visit her grave for the first and only time.

After taking a motorcycle tour throughout Europe, Horovitz attended the University of Toronto. Then he decided to pursue a degree in biophysics at Cal, which brought him to Berkeley in 1958, but he never finished his Ph.D.

While a student, he met Janet Rosenblum at a picnic for Jewish singles in Tilden Park, and they married soon after they met.

For much of his career, Horovitz worked at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and then later in technology. He and Rosenblum had two children, Alex Horovitz, born in 1968, now of San Carlos, and Suzy McMeans, born in 1970, now of San Leandro. They later divorced.

Those who knew him best knew that Horovitz never lost a certain childlike quality; he, too, admitted that the combination of having overly strict parents, an older sister who was responsible for him as they left Germany, and being forced to flee his home at age 10 robbed him of a normal childhood, and he spent his life trying to make up for it.

In addition, Horovitz was deeply introspective and curious, frequently exploring alternate states of consciousness with the help of psychedelic drugs and getting involved in a number of self-actualization movements, like EST and its later incarnation, the Landmark Forum.

He was also – as a senior citizen – a regular attendee of Burning Man, and spent time in the Peruvian Amazon studying with the shamans who administer Ayahuasca; some believe he trained with the shamans for over a year.

His son estimates he attended Burning Man as a senior more than ten times, starting in his seventies.

Horovitz’s background and relationship to Germany was a never-ending source of fascination for him; he first went back to visit in 1954, and later, found a job that had him commuting back and forth between Silicon Valley and Germany. He felt compelled to make peace both with Germany the country, and Germans themselves.

This propelled him to seek out Berkeley-based drama therapist, Armand Volkas, who spent decades leading workshops for Jews and Germans to work through their darkest feelings about “the other.”

It was through that work that Hans Kolbe, now of San Francisco, first met Horovitz. Eventually, they found themselves in a workshop led by Volkas in Berlin, where Kolbe had managed to convince his father to attend; he had been a German soldier during World War II. By being in group situations with Horovitz before, Kolbe had witnessed how in some of the scenarios they acted out, Horovitz was often the one to volunteer to voice the German side. Kolbe was struck by the fact that Horovitz was able to stand beside his father and even befriend him, without any judgment.

“Both Leo and Armand taught me that any of us could have been any of the parties involved, and Leo, more than anyone else, could really sympathize with the German side,” said Kolbe.

While working through this trauma in dialogue and drama therapy was one outlet for him, clowning was another major one. He was a participant at the Clown School of San Francisco for over a decade.

Christina Lewis, its director and founder, said that Horovitz was always the oldest person in the room, as he started clowning in his seventies. He also persuaded some of his young colleagues from his technology jobs to learn clowning.

“He was really ageless,” said Lewis. “I was always impressed with his creativity and how his ideas were really a reflection of his life in some interesting way. He was an eccentric to be sure, even at clown school, but there, the more eccentric the better, but he fit right in. His stuff was really out there, and sometimes was really dark, but it was understandable. Really bad, evil stuff affected his life deeply, so the fact that he’d be channeling that artistically, was so fascinating. He did it so unpretentiously, he wasn’t fully aware, he just did it. It was a good medium for him.”

The characters he created and the material he did were often quite risqué, as with Tatiana Trailer Trash, Lewis said.

“She was a wild gal with big balloon boobs and ripped nylons,” said Lewis. “He just really went for it.”

Leo Horovitz brings his clowning skills to a Wilderness Torah leadership retreat in 2012. He is in the wig on the far right. Shuly Goldman, who became a clown because of Horovitz, is in the shorts and clown nose. Photo: Wilderness Torah.

When Horovitz was well into his eighties, he made an indelible mark on a Bay Area Jewish group called Wilderness Torah, which puts on earth-based festivals timed to the Jewish holidays. Even though Wilderness Torah cultivates a multi-generational community, at Passover in the Desert, which has participants camping out for nearly a week in harsh conditions in the Mojave Desert’s Panamint Valley, Horovitz was the oldest person by far, making friends with the mostly twenty and thirtysomethings while he was in his eighties. He would show up to its festivals with a box full of costumes and red clown noses.

“Leo brought the brightest spirit, biggest smile, and biggest care-free attitude I’ve ever seen,” said Rabbi Zelig Golden, co-founder of Wilderness Torah. “He was deeply wise and loving. He met us younger folk in our yearning for depth, seriousness and healing, and he also encouraged us to play and be free.”

Shuly Goldman, who now lives in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, said her life wouldn’t be the same had she not met Horovitz at a Wilderness Torah festival. They were camping at a farm for the Jewish festival of Sukkot, and it started pouring down rain.

Taking a cue from Horovitz, Goldman encouraged a friend to don a costume with her and they led people to dance and play in the rain.

“At the end of the festival, people thanked me for finding ways to have fun in the situation, for creating a different energy,” Goldman said. “And that is when it became crystal clear to me that this is my path: Bringing light into dark places. I was meant to be a clown. Ever since that moment, my life changed.”

Goldman went on to attend clown school in Spain, where she met her now-husband, also a clown and a native of Belgium, and has worked in hospitals, bringing comfort to sick children. She attributes it all to Horovitz.

In 2014, Horovitz applied for and received German citizenship, under Article 116 (2) of the German Basic Law, the country’s postwar constitution.

“My relationship with Germany has always been a big topic for me, but citizenship was a non-issue until recently,” Horovitz, who was 85 at the time, told J., the Jewish News of Northern California.“I never thought about citizenship before because the question always was  ‘Would I use it or get something out of it?’” he said.

The vast majority of Jews who reclaim German citizenship are the children or grandchildren of Holocaust survivors or refugees from Nazi Germany. Horovitz was the rare example of a German-born Jew who lived through the Nazi era and reclaimed his citizenship.

Horovitz gets his German citizenship from Peter Rothen, then the Consul General of Germany in 2014. Photo courtesy of J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

While citizenship documents usually are sent through the mail, then German Consul General Peter Rothen handled Horovitz’s reinstatement in person because his case was such a rarity.

Not long after, Horovitz repatriated.

He began having health problems not long after he arrived, and ended up in a residence for the Jewish elderly in Frankfurt.

Goldman visited him in Frankfurt a few years ago.

“I arrived in full clown attire, of course,” said Goldman. “Leo laughed at all the old people around him. He told me that a few weeks before there was a game night that he hosted. He, of course, went in a character. He told me they would never ask him back to host again. There was a definite smirk on his face and look of satisfaction in his eyes.”

While some, like his sister, couldn’t understand why Horovitz would repatriate, his son said he found healing and acceptance there.

“My father had been a 10-year old boy who didn’t grasp the gravity of why they were being kicked out. I wasn’t surprised when he went back,” he said.

Alex Horovitz said within his first year of being there, he was guest of honor at a Holocaust commemoration ceremony.

His son continued, “The place where he was living was a quarter mile from his aunt’s summer home where he had stayed at as a kid, where the Horovitzes were a large part of the community there. In his last years, he got the acceptance there that he didn’t get as a child.”

In addition to his son Alex, Horovitz is survived by his daughter, Suzy McMeans of San Leandro, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Donations in Horovitz’s memory can be made to either The UN Refugee Agency or the ACLU. A memorial service is pending in Berkeley. To receive details about the date, email alex@alexhorovitz.com.