On the Run in Nazi Berlin

On the Run in Nazi Berlin by Bert Lewyn with Bev Saltzman Lewyn is about the author’s experiences fleeing the Nazis during World War II. During this time he was known as Dagobert Lewin. The memoir was a flowing and easy read–which in spite of the harrowing subject matter I couldn’t wait to read more–and didn’t seem to be an oral transcription, although it was based on taped interviews the author made with his cousin in 1980.

In 1942 at the age of nineteen Lewin and his parents were deported by the Gestapo. His parents were sent to the Trawniki concentration camp where they were later murdered while he himself, as a fit young man, was spared and sent to work in a weapons factory. Thus began his life on the run. The memoir takes us through Berlin and its outskirts as Lewin finds temporary safe havens at the homes of a Catholic couple, a couple of blind communists and then a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the midst of this relative security he also lived in the bombed ruins of buildings, for he always had to be moving. He risked capture by being seen in the same place for a long perod of time.

The struggle to survive put Lewin into the most precarious predicaments; the riskiest of all being his masquerade as an SS officer, complete with uniform and necessary paperwork. It helped to know people, especially sympathetic Nazis who could furnish him and a Jewish friend with everything they needed (but unfortunately couldn’t keep). Although I had heard about Jews who betrayed others by collaborating with the Nazis for preferential treatment, I learned more about these Greifer from this book. Lewin had to be careful who he confided in, as even fellow Jews on the run could be seen as a risk to his safety.

When single Jewish nurses were being deported, a single mother he met persuaded him to marry her. At least as a married couple with a child they would be spared–but the Nazi regime would soon come after them as they had with his own family. He tells of life on the run with his wife Ilse and stepson Klaus, who at five years of age was not the easiest person to keep quiet when it was a literal matter of life and death.

I was awestruck by the ways the Lewin family eked out their existence, living on diminishing food rations and under the constant stress of the SS approaching their door. They had many close calls, and the first part of the book, entitled Three Miracles, tells what they were.

Anyone who had survived the Holocaust could face a lifetime of psychological trauma. However on two occasions Lewyn wrote, first in Berlin shortly after the war:

“The events that most of us had lived through had hardened us, forming a tough outer shell that seemed to isolate us and deny us the ability to grieve in a normal fashion. For many, there were no tears left to shed. Some were too overwhelmed by the magnitude of their losses and by the horrors they had witnessed to be able to weep freely.”

And then later while living in a displaced persons camp, Lewyn made the following observation:

“The Jews of the camp mostly looked to the future, not the past. Few went around moaning about how they had lost their families. It is hard to say why. My opinion was that their minds were occupied with day-to-day living. No doubt many of them did not want to think about their losses, lest they become overwhelmed by their grief.”

Lewyn’s daughter-in-law Bev, who cowrote the book, briefly analyzes trauma and the Holocaust in the epilogue, saying that “I do think this emotional distance helped him cope and go on to create a very successful life.”.

On the Run is full of tragedy yet also discovery and rediscovery. Bev has continued to learn more about Bert and his life on the run through the research she has done since the first edition was published in 2001. I found her revelations in the epilogue to be fascinating reading.

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