Von Haugwitz proved it's never too late to change

Staff WriterAugust 6, 2007 

— Dietrich von Haugwitz loved animals, and he loved sausage.

For most of his 79 years, von Haugwitz didn't see a conflict. But in his 50s, von Haugwitz decided that he had been wrong. And at a time of life when most people's world views are firmly entrenched, von Haugwitz's changed dramatically.

He gave up sausage. He also became a staunch advocate for animal rights who led protests and lobbied politicians. It was another transformation in a life that had seen many acts. His travels took von Haugwitz from Nazi Germany to Hollywood to rural Orange County.

"His life stands before all of us as the example of someone who didn't stop growing, who through a combination of his head and his heart, his reason and his passion, he became a different person," said Tom Regan, 68, a professor emeritus at N.C. State University and the author of "The Case for Animal Rights," which persuaded von Haugwitz to give up meat and all other animal products.

"What he represents is this inspirational figure who says to people of all ages, but especially people a little more seasoned, that a better life is still possible, change is still possible, growth is still possible," Regan said.

Von Haugwitz died last month after a brief battle with stomach cancer.

He was born into an aristocratic German family and raised on a sprawling estate in what is now Poland.

He was a teenager when World War II broke out but reached drafting age late in the war. A family friend and doctor in the Nazi army performed an unnecessary appendectomy to help him avoid the front lines as long as possible, said his daughter, Joanne Erznoznik.

"He had a very healthy appendix," she said in an interview in her late father's study.

"The doctor kind of winked an eye and said, 'He doesn't need this, it could be hazardous.' It was close to the end of the war, so, indeed, that probably saved his life."

Von Haugwitz enlisted in 1945 but didn't see much action, Erznoznik said.

When the war ended, Erznoznik said, he was able to slip back into civilian life and was never held captive.

His dream: Go to America and become a movie star.

In the 1950s, immigrants needed an organization to sponsor them if they wanted to enter the country. After years of letter-writing, a small country church in Minnesota finally agreed to take him in.

A trained classical pianist and organist, he stayed at the church for about a year, leading the choir and giving recitals.

Hollywood hopeful

In 1957, he made it to Hollywood, where he tried for several years to break into the movie business. He landed a few tiny parts in films but mostly settled for theater roles and gigs in bands to make ends meet. He met Erznoznik's mother, Eva Maria, and the couple married in 1960. Von Haugwitz adopted Erznoznik.

With a new family, von Haugwitz decided it was time to get a real job, Erznoznik said.

He got into computer programming in the early days of the technological revolution. He worked for Great Western Financial Corp. until 1971, when a massive earthquake convinced the family of the benefits of heading east to North Carolina. They moved into a house nestled in the woods of Orange County, and he took a job with Blue Cross-Blue Shield and later Duke University Medical Center.

Another decade would pass before von Haugwitz began yet another unexpected chapter in his life.

Eva Maria started volunteering at a local animal shelter in the early 1980s, and she invited her husband to come along. He did and was struck by the wretched condition of some of the animals.

He took to furiously researching the animal rights movement, Erznoznik said.

Von Haugwitz certainly didn't believe treating animals cruelly was right, his daughter said, and he began to think about how his own actions contributed to that.

No epiphany

Regan said von Haugwitz didn't have a single epiphany in deciding to forgo animal products. Rather his beliefs were forged after lots of reflection and lots of reading.

It wasn't easy, Erznoznik said, in large part because von Haugwitz hated rice and pasta.

"It took him a long time to find things that he enjoyed eating," she said.

He joined in protests against fur and the use of animals in laboratories, cutting a silver-haired figure that stood out among his younger counterparts.

Regan said one of von Haugwitz's greatest contributions was as a "wise referee" on animal rights online discussion boards.

If the conversation ever got too heated, Regan said, "Dietrich would intervene and kind of set the children down in the corner, so to speak. He would say, 'Let's remember we need to show respect for one another, too.' "

Dozens of people from across the country have posted their condolences on animal rights message boards.

One was Rob Gluck, a friend and fellow activist from Chapel Hill.

"A local hero to many; dedicated, tireless, and wise in his efforts on behalf of the 'voiceless,' " Gluck wrote. "He leaves behind a wonderful legacy."

In addition to his daughter, von Haugwitz also left behind Bessie, a dog he took in after it was removed from an abusive home.

If anyone would like to adopt Bessie, an 8-year-old mutt who is sweet and obedient, call Erznoznik at 493-1090.

Life Stories

Staff writer Matt Dees can be reached at 956-2433 or matt.dees@newsobserver.com.

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