'In 1933, Hitler took power and became supreme ruler and dictator of Germany. Berlin Jewish population... around 165,000... end of World War II-1945, about 1,700 Jewish Berliners stayed alive by hiding out in the city... 3,000 more survived in the concentration camps." So writes Holocaust survivor Bert Lewyn in his memoir On the Run in Nazi Berlin.
Lewyn, a witness to Kristallnacht 71 years ago today, reminds us that "fewer than 5,000 of Berlin's Jews were left to inform the world of what they had experienced. I am one of those who survived."
Born in Berlin in 1923, the son of Johanna and Leopold Lewin, Bert was 15 when Kristallnacht occurred. On November 9, 1938, the rampage began when storm troopers and SS men attacked synagogues throughout Germany, destroying stained-glass windows and setting fire to the interiors. Other Nazis, civilians and military men, attacked Jewish shop owners, punching and clubbing them senseless. Having been sent home from the Jewish school he attended, Lewyn's innate curiosity led him to one of the centers of Berlin where he actually saw Jewish shop owners being dragged, covered in blood, to the army trucks and shoved inside. These Berlin Jews were hauled off to concentration camps, never to return.
In his expanded appendix on Kristallnacht, Lewyn recalled his feelings at the time. "Why would the German people attack Jews? Destroy their businesses? Burn their synagogues? Club old men? We were Germans." He cringed in fear as he watched "display windows being smashed... Nazi looters taking furs, jewelry, clothes, furniture, everything they could carry." Lewyn wrote that six decades later "he could still smell the smoke from the Berlin synagogues burning continually."
As a part of his personal tale of surviving in Nazi Berlin, he researched the German archives and located a key Nazi military order describing what was to happen on Kristallnacht. For his book he has reprinted the document in the original German signed by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy chief of the Gestapo, and translated it into English. Seventy-one years later, what an eye-opener; each sentence of the order spells out precisely how Kristallnacht was to occur throughout Germany - not a detail is lost.
The story of Bert Lewyn is more extensive than just this event in his teen years, as horrible as it was. What he relates poignantly in On the Run in Nazi Berlin is what he had to do daily to stay alive in the years from 1942 to 1945, when as a self-described "U-boat," 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 where the greatest "miracle" of all was convincing Russian soldiers that he was a Jew and not a Nazi in hiding.
HOW THE BOOK came into being is itself a story, since Bert was hesitant to discuss his personal history, much less put it into writing for more than 30 years, after beginning a new life in the US in 1949. As with most Holocaust survivors, he started to work soon after his arrival. Establishing his own business selling large imported woodworking machinery, he has done very well through the years.
It was his first cousin in Jerusalem, also a survivor and noted expert in oral history, Prof. Dov Levin, who began the Holocaust searching process in 1980. During a family visit to the US, Bert spoke and Dov asked the questions and taped the replies. The ultimate telling had started.
A decade later, after Bev Saltzman married Marc Lewyn, Bert's son, she, a professional CNN writer and researcher, worked tirelessly with her father-in-law prying out of his memory facts long forgotten - in particular, the tale of the woman he married in Berlin and who survived with a child of her first marriage. They were divorced when both were in DP camps after the war. Then Bev and Bert put together the first of several drafts of the book.
Not to be forgotten in this process is Bert's wife, Esther Sloan, who has worked together with him since they married in 1951. They have five children, a statement in its own right, since few of their contemporaries have more than three children. Now there are six grandchildren. Trained as a special education teacher, Esther entered the field of business with Bert and helped him succeed in many ways. She too was most anxious that his story be told.
The book by Bert and Bev first appeared in 2001. Initially, the response was quite good because Bert's family, friends and business colleagues had been waiting for years to read the actual tale. Not satisfied, Bert decided to reach wider audiences. He started speaking on college campuses. Then, he visited book fairs in the US and Europe, where his book was exhibited widely. One letter he received was from a 15-year-old girl from St. Louis, whose father brought the book home from a book fair. Her words make it clear what Bert had achieved.
"As I read the first few pages, I became glued to the book... could not put it down. Upon hearing your life story, 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. After reading your story, I felt so blessed to live in a country where I could freely worship God without fear of harm or death. I have all of my friends read your book. Bert, as each chapter would go by, I would find myself praying and hoping for your safety! I felt compelled to write this letter simply to thank you for sharing your story."
WHAT IS Bert's story? In the early part of the book, he describes how, in 1934, his uncle, his father's older brother from New York, takes time on a business trip to Europe to come to Berlin. At the Lewin home, he urged them to leave now before it was too late, since Hitler was in power. Sadly, the answer was no. Two years later, that same uncle offered assistance through a friend attending the Olympics, but again Leopold Lewin said no. Constantly, in the late 1930s Rabbi Tobias Geffen of Atlanta, Georgia corresponded with his nephew Leopold hoping at least Bert could leave Germany.
When Kristallnacht occurred, it was too late for the Lewin family - no exit visas - no possibilities to escape the Nazi regime. Bert captures the shock of his family entrapped with little or no hope. Leopold's metalworking business was taken away; each day brought new horrors for the Jews in Berlin. The Gestapo made its appearance at homes in the city, apprehending Jews. For Bert and his parents, it became a life of constant fear until 1942. Bert was in a metalworking course; his father worked. They still had their apartment.
On March 27, 1942, the inevitable knock on the door. Bert let two Gestapo agents enter with their line, "Herr Lewin, we are here to assist you." This was an "infamous" Gestapo tactic; supposedly "they wanted to help the Jews in these troubling times." His mother, Johanna, ran back and forth in frenzy when told that they had to pack two suitcases and leave. Bert has provided his impression of that visit.
"The Gestapo watched us closely, stone-faced and businesslike. For all they said, they were not there to help us. This day was a culmination of events which had been many years in the making, a day that every German Jew knew, in his heart, must come. The Gestapo knew their business and the goal of that business was the obliteration of our race."
The Lewins and their suitcases were put in a truck where other Jews were sitting. They were transported to the Levetzowstrasse synagogue in the Moabit district of Berlin. Still blackened from Kristallnacht, the synagogue had been turned into a massive collection point for hundreds of Berlin Jews. Bert realized the deportation was at hand. "I was in a panic. From somewhere deep within me, I felt the beginnings of a rage, rising and spreading through my body like an electrical current, until I thought I would explode. 'Oh my God,' I thought, 'they're going to separate me from my parents.'"
Because he was young and healthy and had studied metalworking, Bert was ordered to leave his parents and accompany a Gestapo agent. "It took a second for me to grasp what was happening. My parents were being taken away from me. This might be my only opportunity to say good-bye. My mother was just coming to understand the Gestapo agent's orders. A look of unspeakable horror came over her face. She moaned... my father's eyes were blank, his face broken. We all fell into each others' arms... gripped each other tightly hoping the Nazis would not be able to penetrate. The Gestapo reached into the huddle and forced us apart."
They were separated and Bert wrote: "It was over. Although I could not have known at the time, I would never see my parents again."
JOHANNA AND Leopold were taken away on March 28, 1942, and sent to Trawniki, Poland. Earlier this year Bert received a description of what actually happened to his parents. "From Trawniki station they had to walk as a part of their group 12 kilometers to a ghetto called Piaski. They had to live under horrible living conditions - no proper rooms - only scarce food, no sanitary facilities. In autumn 1942 the SS marched them to Sobibor where they were executed. Their bodies were stuffed into open graves."
Now Bert was on his own. From late March 1942 until May 1945, he used his mind, his stealth, his muscles and his intuition to stay alive and become one of those 1,700 Berlin Jews who survived in the city itself. That part of the book covers 250 pages and reads like the finest adventure story. Except this is an issue of life and death for Bert Lewyn, who was determined to rise out of the horrible cesspool of Nazi Berlin. He points to three miracles which saved him.
"What were the odds that I would encounter my friend Heinrich on my way to work at the gun factory? That Heinrich would risk severe punishment to tell me that all Jewish workers were being deported... Had I missed him I would have been deported along with the other Jewish workers to a concentration camp." The first miracle for Bert.
"What were the odds that, once I was finally arrested by the Gestapo, I would find myself in a prison where I could make a key to a locked gate enabling me to escape?" Miracle No. 2.
For the third miracle, the entrance of the Red Army into Berlin in May 1945 was needed. Several Russian soldiers burst into the apartment where Bert was staying with a friendly family. The soldiers were about to kill these individuals who they believed were Nazis in hiding. With amazing bravado Bert was able to prove that they were Jews because he had an uncle, Boris Levin, in Moscow who was an electrical engineer and had written textbooks in the field. One Russian soldier, a Jew and an electrician, had used Boris Levin's materials. He believed Bert and ordered his fellow soldiers not to kill them. Miracle No. 3 now opened the door to freedom as the war ended.
As fate would have it, almost four years were to pass before Bert Lewyn was able to leave Germany. During that period, his aunt, Riva Guttman, a Holocaust survivor from Lithuania who had lost her entire family, joined him in the DP camp. As a woman, she was able to make aliya in 1946. Finally, in June 1949 Bert departed a DP camp in Feldafing, Germany and traveled to the US. There he joined his great-aunt and uncle, Sara Hene and Rabbi Tobias Geffen in Atlanta. There for the last 60 years, he has built his life as a US citizen. There he has written his telling memoir.
Two interesting twists have carried Bert's story much beyond what he had expected. In 2002 the noted author of children's and teenage historical books, Dr. Susan Campbell Bartoletti, chose to include Bert's story in her book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow. The book details the development of the million member Hitler Youth movement. Moreover, Bartoletti focuses on those German youth who resisted and who were brutally beheaded by the Nazis.
The tale of a Jewish youth in Berlin, Bert Lewyn, was for Bartoletti a "gem" demonstrating the uniqueness of his existence in the horrors swirling all about him. The book has won many awards since being published in 2003 with almost 120,000 copies being sold in the US and Canada. In 2007 it was translated into German and is required reading in most German high schools.
JÃ¶rg Hensel, of Berlin, was responsible for Bert's book appearing in German. After reading the book, "for me it was most necessary to see that it was translated." He turned to several publishers before he was successful.
When Friedrich Veitl, the editor of Metropol-Verlag, a major German publisher of historical works, read the Lewyn book, he decided that it had to appear in a German version because of its most important message. Last January the book, entitled Versteckt in Nazi-Berlin, was issued with quite a fanfare in Berlin, including an actor performing public reading from parts of the text. The book has been reviewed in more than 15 publications and is listed on a number of Web sites.
A letter which Bert received in September from a Berlin resident stated: "I recently read the German version of your book Versteckt in Nazi-Berlin. Your biography is very impressive and 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 and your family but also for the people in Germany and the younger generation. Thank you for all your efforts you put in this matter."
This summer, the Ministry of Education of the city of Berlin recommended that history teachers use the volume in the study of modern German history. Now it would be wonderful if a Hebrew edition would appear.