By Claudia Reicherter, 2018
How does it feel after 30 years, does the trauma soften, is it getting at least a bit easier with time?
Suse Lowenstein: Well, obviously time has its effects, but the pain and the terrible sense of loss never lessens. What changes is how you deal with it. I have chosen to make the tragedy mine and hug it and live with it. And because of that I’m able to move on, really.
Did you spend time in therapy or did all this come from yourself?
I did try therapy in the beginning and it just simply didn’t help me, didn’t work out. So I dealt with the distress on my own. And thank God I’m an artist and thank God I can express myself.
It was an unprecedented attack, maybe therapists are not prepared for that?
Yes, it has no history. Well, what’s happened, the therapist cried all the time. I was the one comforting him. There was something wrong with this picture, that’s when I realized this is not working and I’m better off on my own (lacht/laughs).
What about family?
My husband Peter was still alive at the time, unfortunately he died earlier this year which is a huge loss. We were married 54 years. So that was tough. But at that time I had my husband and our younger son Lucas, just a little less than two years younger than Alexander was. Lucas took it very, very hard. Because he was an admiring younger brother, he needed a lot of support. So that was my immediate family and my parents were still alive back in Germany and they took it very hard. I’m telling you a little story that happened if that’s okay. Two weeks before Alexander was supposed to come home, I was overcome with this very strong tempt and feeling that I needed to go to London and spend time with him. And even though it was a big expense for basically nothing because he was supposed to be home in two weeks, I didn’t pay attention to that, I went. Within two days, I went to London and spent a magnificent time with Alexander and there it occurred to me that Alex had never met many of my relatives. So I took him to Hamburg to meet some of my family. And my parents had a great time with him and really within a short time learned to love him. That’s just the way Alex was, he was just a very funny, happy young man. We parted at the airport in Hamburg, he left for London and I went back to New York. And a week later, he was dead. I’m telling you this just to show you why my parents took it very hard. But I was very glad that I had done what my feelings had told me because what if I had ignored them? I would have never forgiven myself.
It is beautiful that you followed your motherly intuition. I could tell from the picture in the book „On Eagles’ Wings“ at Tundergarth Remembrance Room that Alexander was a very joyful, positive, sparkling young man.
That’s exactly what he was. In his young life he met many many people and you know what? They all loved him. Because he made no difference between who was not so popular – as a matter of fact, he made sure to take them under his wings because I think he really felt for them. And the other kids who were very popular – he was just friendly with all of them.
How did you come to know about this tragedy?
Well, it’s interesting. I was in my studio. It was at 2.03 in the afternoon our time. 7.03 in the evening your time. I was working on a figure for which Alexander had posed before he had left. And a friend of Alexander’s called to ask me if Alexander was home yet. I said no, but he was expected in the evening. Then she said, well, what time and what airline? And I said it was Pan Am. She asked sort of desperately what number. And I said, It’s Pan Am 103. And then she sort of screamed into the phone: „Haven’t you heard?! It exploded over Lockerbie, Scotland!“ And I screamed back at her to never say such a thing again. But immediately I knew, there was something to it, this young woman would not have said this if she hadn’t heard exactly what she told me. And I turned around and switched on the radio and what I remember hearing was that PA 103 was last seen in a fireball over Lockerbie, Scotland. That was the instant that I knew that Alexander was dead. I had no thought of him missing the plane or surviving. I just knew he was gone.
Had you ever heard of Lockerbie before?
How did you react? Did you decide to go over there?
First I went down on the floor. To get hold of myself. Because I felt I was going to faint. It felt as if life was just sucked out. Then I called Peter. But Peter was out of the office and his office manager told me that he went out to the bank and would be home shortly. Peter had heard the same thing on the radio that I had heard and he came straight home. I met him at the front of the house and we fell into each other’s arms. And Peter had hope: maybe he missed the flight, maybe he’s only injured. I didn’t have the heart to say I don’t think so. From then on we just listened to the television. We actually got the confirmation of Alexander having been on the flight on television.
Pan Am did not call you?
No. Those were terrible times in terms of organization. Even our own State Department didn’t have a clue how to deal with such an enormous tragedy against our citizens. So both dealt with us in a terrible manner. Absolutely terrible. Simply because they didn’t know any better. They, too, had not been in that situation before.
Überfordert, we would say in German, I don’t know the English word.
Überfordert, und, die haben’s nicht gewusst, die wussten nicht, wie man damit umgehen soll, weil das war noch nicht vorgekommen.
What about the warnings? I read that there had been threats to US embassies in Europe?
Yes. You know, the whole tragedy was such a slap in the face to us because for example the embassy people were warned. They had the opportunity to change their flight arrangements. While our kids did not. Like innocent sheep, they walked onto the plane – to be killed. And that’s so terrible for us. That some people were warned and others not. There were many empty seats which is unusual three days before Christmas.
Did you travel to Lockerbie then? Or have you been there since?
I’ve been there many times. And as a matter of fact, I built a Scottish cairn right at the spot where Alexander fell. Because everything was logged (?) very properly as you would expect from the Scots (sounds as if she’s smiling) and they would pinpoint to the relatives exactly where their loved ones had fallen. And so I built a mountain of local stone there (16.27), where people as they pass it always add a stone. It might be about five feet high and it has a little cave in the top and every time either I or my husband and I both would go we would bring something from Alexander’s favourite places in Montauk to add into this little cave and on top was a sundial that only counts the sunny hours. Of course, every time I went, I’d go up there and add something and sit there and reflect. It is one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been to (her voice shaking). Interestingly. Despite all that horror that occurred there, it is a very peaceful place.
And where is that? Up on Tundergarth?
Yes. Alexander and another student whose name is Alexia, they were both among the first to fall because the plane broke open immediately in front of them, so they were way up in the meadows on the Tundergarth farm.
How do you know all this? Was it a difficult research?
No, not at all. Because the Scots logged everything perfectly. There was a walk that could show you where every victim had fallen. Of course there were some that were basically incinerated in the crater where the fuselage exploded. But the majority of the victims had the place where they fell logged so it was easy for me to find. And also the farmer at the time, the Wilsons (Wiltons?), had brought Alexia and our Alex into their barn. Because the foxes had started to go through the cadavers. To us that was an enormous kindness on their part. We would be forever grateful to them for having done that. However, they got into trouble with the Scottish police because they basically tampered with the evidence because it had turned into a criminal investigation.
So all of that gave us an exact location of where Alexander had fallen.
Do you sometimes wonder what it was like for him, how were the last minutes and seconds of his life?
Of course, I will always wonder. I’m sure that there was a second or two when he realized that this was the end. We had his autopsy report explained to us by our local medical examiner so that we could understand the injuries. And based on that we learned how he died. Was it fast? Was it painful? Because of the enormous pressure change, the arteries had been ripped away from the heart. And that was instant, that caused instant death. But still, I think, there must have been a second or two…
What is your feeling today towards the people of Lockerbie?
For us these people are saints. What they have experienced that night, it must have been horrific. I can’t even imagine what they went through finding the cockpit on their land. I will be forever grateful to them for what they did to the victims, our loved ones. The way they washed, laundered and ironed every single item that they found, I mean, who does that? It’s amazing, absolutely amazing. And the package came with the things Alexander had with him – the way the shoes had been washed and dried, filled with tissue paper and some of his T-shirts were shredded but they were laundered and ironed and wrapped in tissue paper. It was incredible, absolutely incredible.
I saw the beautiful plaque you made for Alexander at Dryfesdale’s Garden of Remembrance… do you know who decided on where to place which plaque, which stone?
I don’t know at the time who decided which plaque goes where, I think they just mounted them as they came in. The first right next to the stone with all the names and then from then on. But this is just my guess. This was the most difficult sculpture that I ever made in my entire life. Mothers are not supposed to make the headstones for their children. Because we have the same work of art here on his headstone. But he would have wanted it, he was a great admirer of my work. I felt I had to do it and I did. He was deeply loved, that boy.
“And later you made “Dark Elegy“.“
It is now in your garden?
Yes, we have a very large piece of land and we decided years ago to make our garden public. So every day from ten until twelve in the morning it is open to the public and people come an walk through the garden and reflect when they see „Dark Elegy“ and they sit on benches and have their thoughts… I think that was a good decision. I like the fact that people have access to come and see it.
And still, according to your website, you would like to move it somewhere else?
I would love to have it in a very public place where more people could see it. Because the reaction of those who come into the garden is ‚why is this not out there?‘ I have tried many times over the years to find a place that is more public but nobody actually wants it.
It’s very big and it’s the nudity. Remember, this is puritanical America (laughs). A nude figure is something apparently you have to shield your children from. Then, there’s also the maintenance, the upkeep. I had hoped to place it in Washington DC at the memorial for the victims of terrorism, but it was rejected. And even Syracuse University rejected it. That was a blow to me. I thought they would be receptive. The town I live in had a beautiful park where it would be great and they didn’t want it either. On and on. There came a time when I thought, how many rejections can I take? Enough. So, now it is in my garden and I’m not trying to place it anywhere else at this time – which is not to say if someone came and said we would really want it, I wouldn’t be receptive to that. But I’m not trying any more. Because this is a very sensitive piece, so every rejection really hurts. And you know what? I don’t want that in my life. I’ve had enough tragedy to deal with. So I’ve given up.
It said on your website, you would even pay for the costs…
… to cast it in bronze. But I’m not doing that any more. I would donate it the way it is. It is now a synthetic stone over a welded steel armature. It is reinforced with outdoor materials, fiberglass and pigments, typically used for architectural purposes on buildings. Some pieces are out there now for 29 years and I had to redo it just once. The colour is fading of course in the sun and the salt in the air, because I live right next to the water.
What inspired you to this sculpture?
It started really with portraying myself, how it felt as a mother whose child was murdered. Because there’s not just one feeling but there are many feelings. So I portrayed myself two or three times and then I had noticed a woman who always carried her grief in such a dignified manner and it turned out this was the mother of Alexia who fell basically together with our Alex. I asked her if I might portray her in the shape her body took when she learned Alexia had died. And she was very receptive to that. While I talked to her, another woman overheard what I was asking. And she came to me and said, forgive me, I didn’t mean to pry but I overheard what you asked and I would love to participate as well. And the it occurred to me how incredible it would be to have as many people as possible participate who have lost someone on flight 103. But interestingly, only women responded – no men.
So it wasn’t part of the concept originally to have only mothers and wives?
No, not at all. People always think I’m a feminist and that this was intentional, but it was not. It was just that no man came. The women coming to my studio and posing for this, that was always a very sensitive and delicate moment. They would come one by one. We would talk and I would ask each one to undress to a point at which she felt comfortable. Because in a way, at that moment, we were all stripped, literally stripped. And in the end we were all at the same level: black or white or chinese or old or young – played absolutely no part at that moment. It was that sameness that I tried to portray symbolically. But if her nakedness got int the way, then that was not the point. A lot of them undressed completely, some would keep their underwear on. But I felt I needed to see as much of the human body as possible to do justice, because the body speaks to me. We would talk and then I would very gently guide them back to that moment. It was just incredible how the body wold never forget that moment. They would be crying or be very quiet or bang on the floor and pull their hair… and then I would very quietly go around them and photograph them. In the end I would work from the photographs.
Did you ever think about placing it in or around Lockerbie or was that out of the question with the transport and all?
I tried that in the beginning but they felt that they had enough memorials and that they wanted to move on. I had to agree with that. And in addition to that, it was an attack against America. Therefore, it needs to be in that country.
How important was it or is it still for you that the people responsible for this terrorist attack are found and brought before court? Does it still matter who exactly placed the bomb where, who built it?
Yes and no. I am satisfied and glad that Qaddafi is gone and that he went the way he did. In respect to Megrahi, I am sure that he was one of the main terrorists responsible for the Lockerbie bombing. The history of Megrahi showed me that it doesn’t matter because politics in the end does what it does. And it is not fair and not right. I mean, they let Megrahi go so that the Brits can go and drill for oil in front of Libya. There are many people in prison wo die of cancer – what made Megrahi different? It’s because he was the exchange for Tony Blair to go and drill for oil in front of Libya. So what is the point in finding the culprit if they let him go as a bargaining chip for something else? That is a very upsetting issue for me that that happened. And I am sure there are many others out there. An attack of that magnitude cannot be concocted by two men. It’s just that the evidence can’t be found. And what’s the point in catching them, finding them guilty and sending them to prison if they then let them go?
How does Lucas cope with having lost his brother?
I think he has finally come into his own. He had gone through a very very difficult time but Lucas is at peace now, 49 years old.
How about the 30th December 21st after 1988 coming up?
Christmas has not been in our household anything close to what it used to be. Because it’s so sad. I remember all the presents for Alexander remaining under the tree for a long time because we didn’t have the heart to put it away. It’s not a real Christmas any more. But it is extremely important to remember that day. Because people need to be reminded that Pan Am flight 103 was the very first state-sponsored attack against American civilians. It is very important that we remember how it started. This was the first of that magnitude. It is also important for the families to have their loved ones remembered. They were victims of someone else’s hate, they got in-between something that they had nothing to do with. Therefore it needs to be remembered. We used to go to Syracuse on the 21st, what Syracuse University has done is absolutely phenomenal, but this year we are going to Washington DC where there’s always a very big memorial service with politicians coming. Actually Robert Muller who is the lead investigator in Donald Trump, he came every year and spoke, he’s really a very good guy. Normally I can do without the politicians but as it was an attack against America this is why they come and speak. I am going with Lucas and my three grand kids. And be with all the other families. You would think as time goes by the memorials would get less and less and it’s quite the contrary, it’s more and more. Incredible. All over the campus at Syracuse they have things to remember. They created a huge archive where initially the families of the 35 students who were killed could keep items or writings that the kids did… just this year they opened it up to the families of all 270 victims. That is huge. And they created a scholarship every year for 35 kids and each of those kids has to pick one of the 35 children that died and they come to the families and introduce themselves and want to go to the places that Alexander has loved – that keeps them alive. I can’t value enough what they do at SU.