At 15, the late Bert Lewyn lived through Kristallnacht

A 15-year-old wrote: “Reading you, I was overwhelmed. I could vividly see God’s hand upon you throughout the book as if you were meant to live through turmoil and to eventually pass on this story."

By DAVID GEFFEN
November 7, 2019 14:25
SHATTERED: PASSING a smashed display window.

SHATTERED: PASSING a smashed display window.. (photo credit: BILDARCHIV PREUSSISCHER KULTURBESITZ)

‘Jewish Berliners, like myself, were almost all executed by the Nazis in World War II.”

This telling statement was penned by Bert Lewyn in his internationally recognized work, On the Run in Nazi Berlin, co-authored with his daughter-in-law, Bev Saltzman Lewyn, in 2001. This year, she has published a second edition of the book, which includes details about the individuals who helped Bert survive.

The first edition reached large audiences around the world and more than 12,000 copies were sold. Bev Lewyn is currently traveling around the US to book fairs to introduce the new edition and Bert’s captivating story to younger readers.

Bert was born in Berlin in 1923 and lived through Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938 as a 15-year-old.

His Jewish school had dismissed its students early that day because of the unfolding events. When he entered his home with a classmate, his mother told them to be very quiet.

“The Nazis have started to burn the synagogues in Berlin. Who knows what they will do next?” she warned.

His friend left, but Bert was curious. He disobeyed his mother’s orders, went out and climbed to the roof of a nearby building to witness the beginning of that tragedy.

He saw Jewish shop owners being “dragged, filled with blood, to the army trucks and shoved inside. These Berlin Jews were immediately transported to concentration camps never to return.”

In the book, Bert recalls trying to make sense of what he witnessed.

“Why would the German people attack Jews? Destroy their businesses? Burn their synagogues? Club old men? We were Germans.”

Cringing in fear that day, he watched “display windows being smashed... Nazi looters taking furs, jewelry, clothes, furniture, everything they could carry.”

His co-author, Bev Lewyn, a highly trained interviewer, helped him remember the day to the point that “he could still smell the smoke from the Berlin synagogues burning continually.”

How did the world react?
JTA’s headline recorded Kristallnacht as a series of “the worst pogroms in modern Jewish history.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury swiftly called for prayers for the Jews to be said in churches throughout England. A noted religious figure in modern Jewish history, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, chief rabbi of the British Isles, urged Anglo-Jewry to assemble at synagogues for “recitation of special prayers and the blowing of the shofar to protest Germany’s appalling action against Jews.”
Subsequently, Herzog became the chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel. His son, Chaim Herzog, was a president of the State of Israel. The rabbi’s grandson, Isaac Herzog, is now head of the Jewish Agency.

The New York Times ran an editorial the day after, on November 20, 1938 – five years after Hitler had risen to power.
“The first assault upon democracy in these times is the spread of irrational prejudice. It is for all of us who believe in free men and free institutions to combat such prejudice whenever and wherever it appears.”

Bert’s book also serves as a record of what happened, and is more extensive than just his teenage presence on that day.
What is related poignantly and powerfully in several hundred pages in On the Run in Nazi Berlin and in the highly praised German translation Versteck in Berlin (published in 2009) is what Bert had to do daily to stay alive from 1942-1945.

 As a “U-Boat,” the code name for Berlin Jews like him, he lived secretly in the homes of kind souls, at times in the guise of an SS man, in bombed-out skeletons of buildings, in a Gestapo prison from which he escaped, and then in the home of friends at the end of the war.

There, the greatest miracle of all was convincing Russian soldiers, who were Jews, that he was a Jew and not a Nazi in hiding. This was possible because Bert recalled that his uncle, Dr. Boris Levin of Moscow, had authored textbooks in Russian on electrical engineering.

One of the Russian soldiers, ready to kill Bert, was convinced of Bert’s Jewishness because he had used one of the Levin texts in his university studies.

Bert wrote: “About 1,700 Jewish Berliners stayed alive by hiding out in the city. 3,000 more survived in the concentration camps.
Fewer than 5000 Berlin Jews were left to inform the world of what they had experienced. I am one of those who survived.”

IN THE ensuing 11 years, Bert faced horror after horror. That came to an end at a railroad station in Atlanta, Georgia in June 1949.

He wrote, “There was only one person waiting on the platform. It was an elderly gentleman, somewhat hunched over, with a full gray beard and hat in a black caftan-coat and walking stick. I had no doubt that this was Rabbi Tobias Geffen. Somehow, he recognized me immediately.”

What Bert discovered many years later was that Rabbi Geffen, his great uncle, had exchanged more than 40 letters in the 1930s with his father, Leopold, trying desperately to get the three Lewyns – father, mother and son – out of Berlin.

“When I reached the Geffens, my years of misery ended at last. On that day, the 28th of June 1949, I finally came home once again.”

In his book, he briefly reviews his many blessings in US, including marrying Esther Sloan, their five children and six grandchildren. However, he makes it very clear: “Whatever the future holds, the nightmare of the Nazi Holocaust will remain a memory, never to be forgotten.

Inspiring the next generation
Bert received hundreds of letters regarding his book before he passed away three years ago.

A 15-year-old wrote: “Reading you, I was overwhelmed. I could vividly see God’s hand upon you throughout the book as if you were meant to live through turmoil and strife to eventually pass on this story.”

Another reader wrote: “As a German, I feel ashamed about your experiences which you had to suffer in my country. Your book is of high importance – not only for yourself, but also for the people in Germany and the younger generation.”

After On the Run in Nazi Berlin was first printed more than two decades ago, it reached Dr. Susan Campbell Bartoletti, a noted author of books for teenagers. She chose to include his moving tale of endurance and survival in her groundbreaking volume, Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow. Since Scholastic Press first published her work in 2005, 140,000 copies of the book have been sold, and the book has been incorporated into Germany’s high school curriculum by the country’s education ministry.
“We never know who will survive a tragedy, just as we don’t know who will step up and be a hero – but there is something in Bert that he drew upon to survive,” Bartoletti noted after first reading Bert’s story.

“Was it faith? Divine intervention? Miracles that were presented to him, but not others? There is no easy answer. His survival is more complex than that. I saw it as a tale that rivaled the The Pianist, the Academy Award-winning movie. It became most important for me to include his story in my book. He was the same age as the Nazi-inspired youth, whose stories I tell, but he was a Jew.”

Bartoletti also helps us understand what Bert’s book has accomplished.

“Why is Bert’s story of faith, miracles, courage so special to me? Surely, Bert was afraid. And yet, Bert moved through his fear.”
With great insight, she continued: “I have a special interest in survivors. I want to understand the qualities and habits that help human beings survive evil and thrive afterwards, as Bert did.

“I want to understand courage, resiliency, healing, the will to live, holding on to faith and how one survives being a survivor. These are the things that Bert’s story teaches me – and why it is important to pass his story on.”

Dedicated to the Lewyn family in honor of their establishing the Geffen/Lewyn Fund at Emory University for study of southern Jewish history.


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