Herbert Lewin tells us about the best stories of his life: From his childhood in East Prussia, his life in Israel and his return to Europe after the war
Herbert Lewin was born in 1917 in Osterode, Germany (today Poland). Osterode was part of Prussia, a German kingdom that was ruled by the Hohenzollerns. Over the course of centuries, Prussia, with its well-disciplined and highly skilled army, continued to amass power and territory. In 1871 the smaller German territories merged with Prussia to create the German Empire (1871-1914).
After WWI, Prussia became a constituent state of the federal republic that was established in Germany. This state was known as the Weimar Republic and was in effect from 1919-1933. Following the German Revolution of 1918-19, the republic replaced the former imperial form of government with a temporary liberal democracy.
The creation of the German republic was announced from the Reichstag balcony on 9 November 1918 by Philipp Scheidemann. Listen to the original audio tapes documenting the proclamation of the German Republic.
Even though the Weimar Republic faced severe problems, such as hyperinflation and political extremists of all persuasions, it was also a time in which culture flourished. It is known for its unique art, music and cinema. Here is an overview of the Weimar period and here you can find more information about the timeline of events, personalities and read primary sources.
Herbert recalls experiencing very little anti-Semitism in Osterode before 1933.
Then in January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. His ascension to power marked the beginning of Nazi terror, and the beginning of the end for many European Jews. Life became increasingly more unbearable as anti-Semitic policies and violence were legally sanctioned and politically justified.
In 1934, Herbert’s father was forced to close his shop. In 1936, Herbert’s brother was expelled from his Gymnasium, and Herbert had to leave the trade school he was attending. Such measures were part of an extensive number of Nazi policies that were intended to severely limit “non-Aryan” rights.
Herbert’s best friend, Hans, a non-Jew, was forced to join the Hitler Youth or else he could not begin his bakery apprenticeship. After 1941, membership in the Hitler Youth was compulsory for youths over the age of 10. The female branch of the Hitler Youth was the League of German Girls.
Like many Jews in Germany, Herbert knew that he needed to leave the country. He began training for a new life in Palestine.
Herbert left first for Golenic in Upper Silesia. Silesia is a historical region of Central Europe, located primarily in Poland but with parts in Germany and the Czech Republic. There he and other young Jews did agricultural work for farmers. Zionist youth groups had traditionally created training programs throughout Eastern Europe to help prepare workers for agricultural colonies in Palestine.
In Golenic Herbert met and befriended Alfred Rosettenstein who was a committed Zionist.
He then made his way to Subotica in Yugoslavia (now Serbia) where he was with the Hechalutz, or pioneers, as part of his training for aliyah – which is the word used to describe immigration to Israel.
At that time, Palestine was a British Mandate. In 1939 the White Paper was issued as a measure to balance Arab and Jewish power in preparation for an independent Palestine that would be governed by both groups. This policy severely restricted Jewish immigration, making entry into the country nearly impossible.
As a result, many Jews entered the country illegally in a movement known as Aliyah Bet. Herbert received a visa from a Jewish consulate in Prague for travel to Ecuador. He was then taken to Palestine on a Greek ship.
After successfully reaching Palestine, Herbert lived on a kibbutz. “Kibbutz” means “communal settlement” in Hebrew. Kibbutzim are generally rural communities that are built around the notion of cooperative living.
Herbert was in Palestine in 1948, when the Arab-Israeli War/Israeli War of Independence broke out. The war had been preceded by violent outbursts between Jewish forces and Palestinian Arab forces in response to the UN Partition plan. It was concluded with Armistice Agreements signed in 1949.
The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel was approved on May 14, 1948.
David Ben-Gurion became the first Prime Minister of Israel.
In Israel Herbert fell in love with and married Gertrude, a Viennese Jew. Vienna, the capital of Austria, has been the long-time home for many Jews, including many well known Jewish figures such as Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig.
In 1955 Herbert and Gertrude left Israel and resettled in Vienna. He remembers fondly the reopening of the Vienna State Opera, which was badly damaged in an air raid on 12 March 1945. He recounts that he and Gertrude would go often to the Vienna Volksoper.
Vienna became Herbert's new home, where there is still an active Jewish community.