‘Night of broken glass’

On the 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, a tale of survival through German-Holocaust survivor Bert Lewyn.

‘Night of broken glass’ (photo credit: GERMAN FEDERAL ARCHIVE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)
‘Night of broken glass’
‘Jewish Berliners like myself were almost all executed by the Nazis in World War II,” Bert Lewyn wrote in his 2001 memoir On the Run in Nazi Berlin, coauthored with his daughter Bev.
In 1933, he continues, when Hitler became “Supreme Ruler and Dictator of Germany,” Berlin’s Jewish population was around 165,000.
“About 1,700 Jewish Berliners stayed alive by hiding out in the city... 3,000 more survived in the concentration camps.” Lewyn focuses on the point 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.”
Lewyn was born in Berlin in 1923, and through the early years of his life experienced horror after horror in Nazi Germany.
It wasn’t until June 1949, at a railroad station in Atlanta, Georgia, that he felt he “came home again.”
“There was only one person waiting on the platform,” he recalls. “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.”
Lewyn, my cousin, discovered many years later that Geffen, his great-uncle, had exchanged more than 40 letters with his father, Leopold, in the 1930s, trying desperately to get the three Lewyns – father, mother and son – out of Berlin.
“When I reached the Geffens,” Lewyn emphasizes strongly, “my years of misery ended at last. On that day, June 29, 1949, I finally came home once again.”
After briefly reviewing his many blessings in America at the end of the book – Lewyn married Esther Sloan, had five children and has six grandchildren – he concluded that “whatever the future holds, the nightmare of the Nazi Holocaust will remain a memory, never to be forgotten.”
ON THE 76th anniversary of Kristallnacht, we commemorate that terrible night and day of broken glass – November 9-10, 1938 – by looking through the eyes of one who “was there.” Lewyn’s book can educate and inspire us as it recounts his most unusual will to survive in the ghastly hell he endured in Berlin, 1942-1945, after his parents had been forcibly taken away by the Nazis and then murdered.
After his memoir was published more than a decade ago, it reached the hands of a noted author of teenage works, Dr.
Susan Campbell Bartoletti. 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 book in 2005, 140,000 copies have been sold in English. Moreover, German high schoolers study the government-commissioned translation of the book, confronting these issues in the land where the Holocaust was born.
Lewyn, now 91, is thankfully still with us.
“We never know who will survive a tragedy,” Bartoletti said after first reading Lewyn’s book, “just as we don’t know who will step up to be a hero – but there is something in Bert that he drew upon to survive. 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 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 Jewish.”
Back in 2002, Bartoletti “cracked open the book” at her home in Moscow, Pennsylvania, a small community where she has written dozens of books. Unable to put it down, she found this tale of a Jewish youth in Berlin a “gem,” demonstrating the uniqueness of Lewyn’s existence in the horrors swirling about him.
Having researched Hitler youth for several years in the US and Germany, she believed the current draft of her book then was ready for the printer. However, she changed her mind, recognizing that her book would not be whole without Lewyn’s story.
In Holocaust studies for teenagers, Hitler Youth is one of a few books which compare the growth of German youth side by side with a German Jewish youth in the Nazi era.
AS HITLER was coming to power in 1923, Johanna and Leopold Lewyn welcomed their son, Bert. Lithuanian Jews sent to Berlin to study, they married, went to work and started their family as the city and the nation became a Nazi stronghold.
In November 1938, a 15-year-old Bert experienced firsthand the events now known as Kristallnacht.
Nazi leadership claimed the assassination of a German diplomat by a Jew was the cause of the tragedy of German Jewry. The rampage began when the SS men stormed synagogues in Berlin and throughout the country, destroying stained glass windows and setting fire to the interiors. Other Nazis, civilians and militia men attacked Jewish shop owners, punching and clubbing their victims senseless.
On November 10, 1938, having been sent home from the Jewish school he attended with his fellow classmates because of the events, Lewyn’s innate curiosity led him to one of Berlin’s centers.
There, 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.”
That day, Lewyn witnessed horrific Nazi actions highlighted by many synagogues going up in smoke.
In the book, Lewyn sought to recall his feelings back then.
“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.”
Even as he wrote, he said, “he could still smell the smoke from the Berlin synagogues burning continually.”
In an appendix, the book offers an amazing document translated by Lewyn from German. While researching at the archives in Berlin, he located a key Nazi military order describing exactly what “was to happen on Kristallnacht.”
Signed by Reinhard Heydrich, deputy chief of the Gestapo, the document is an “eye-opener, as each sentence spells out precisely how Kristallnacht was to occur throughout Germany, not a detail is lost.”
How did the world react to what the newspapers titled, “the worst pogroms in modern Jewish history: Four dead – 25,000 Jews under arrest in Germany...
a trail of burned synagogues,” as cited by JTA, with “smashed homes, wrecked and pillaged shops.”
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, became president of the State of Israel. The rabbi’s namesake, his grandson, MK Isaac Herzog, is the head of Israel’s Labor Party and leader of the opposition.
IN HIS annual Thanksgiving Proclamation in November 1938, US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt wrote: “In the time of our fortune, it is fitting that we offer prayers for unfortunate people in other lands who are in dire distress.”
The New York Times editorial on November 20, 1938 – five years since Hitler had come to power – read as such: “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.”
There were many letters to the editor, but there is no full record in the paper of the actions of Americans in the wake of these “pogroms.”
The story of Bert Lewyn is more extensive than just his actual teenage presence at the Kristallnacht events. 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 Lewyn 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, when 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 Lewyn 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 Lewyn, was convinced of his Jewishness because he had used one of the Levin texts in his university studies.
Bartoletti helps us understand what Lewyn’s book has accomplished.
“Why is Bert’s story of faith, miracles, courage so special to me?” she asks.
“Surely Bert was afraid. And yet, Bert moved through his fear.
“I have a special interest in survivors,” she continued. “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.”