It was a bird cage, a simple bird cage, that still lives on in Stephan H. Lewy’s mind – a possible symbol of German Jews’ resolve in the face of Nazi oppression in the 1930s.
In late 1938, after the Nazis had destroyed 300 Jewish synagogues in Berlin and rounded up 30,000 Jewish men during Kristallnacht, adult Jewish males were subject to arrest, usually late at night.
So every evening around 6 p.m., Arthur Lewy, the father of 13-year-old Stephan, left his apartment to walk the streets of Berlin. Early in the morning, the boy’s mother, Johanna, had a signal: If the Gestapo were still in the apartment waiting for her husband, she would put her parakeet’s cage in the window, and the elder Lewy would keep walking. If there were no bird cage, it was safe to return.
That’s the pre-war Nazi Germany that Stephan Lewy, now 91 and living in Amherst, managed to escape.
Lewy, though, doesn’t dwell on the symbolic moments from his youth.
“For me, it was all about survival,” he said during an interview in his Amberleigh apartment.
While he never was sent to a death camp, and his parents survived the coming Holocaust, Lewy experienced many Nazi indignities as a child before leaving Germany in 1939:
• Each afternoon when he left school, two rows of Hitler Youth whipped him and his Jewish schoolmates with belts – all under the watchful eye of German police.
• He no longer could play with a gentile friend after the Hitler Youth told the other boy’s father that his son couldn’t play with Lewy.
• On the day of his bar mitzvah, a joyous event marking a 13-year-old Jewish boy’s passage into adulthood, SS troopers arrested his father.
• And on the night of Kristallnacht, the Nazis locked him and other Jewish youths inside a synagogue and cut the gas line, but an older boy helped save them all.
Lewy survived, thanks to the Kindertransport that carried him and about 40 other Jewish kids to France in 1939. Initially denied a visa to come to the United States, he later got his wish, perhaps thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt.
And Lewy later became a U.S. soldier who, as a German-speaking member of the occupation force in 1945, went door-to-door arresting high-ranking Nazi Party officials. His life in Germany had come full circle, and his military service later earned him the Bronze Star.
This is his story, a tale of survival.
Bar mitzvah speech
Lewy’s childhood was all about learning that he was different, that he was Jewish.
His mother, Gertrude, a Protestant, died when he was only 6. His Jewish father approached her two brothers, asking their families to help raise young Stephan, known by his then-first name, Heinz. They refused, because he was Jewish.
“This was my first exposure to anti-Semitism, at age 6.”
With Jewish adult males at risk of being arrested and sent to concentration camps, the young Lewy went to an orphanage. When the racial purification took hold in the mid-1930s, Jewish children were sent to separate schools from the other kids; his was a 45-minute walk from his orphanage.
As they left their school at the end of the day, the Jewish kids had to “run the gantlet” between two lines of Hitler Youth armed with belts. They used the belt buckles to whip the Jewish children.
“Why didn’t we call the police?” Lewy asked rhetorically. “Because the police were there to protect the Hitler Youth, not the Jewish kids.”
On Sundays, young Stephan would go home to visit his father, often playing with a non-Jewish boy in the apartment house. But that ended when the other boy’s father was threatened with the loss of his family’s food rations unless the boys stopped playing together.
“It made me feel as a kid that I wasn’t wanted,” he said. “I was part of the population that was going to be eliminated.”
On the day of his bar mitzvah, in March 1938, Lewy spotted two Gestapo agents sitting in the back of the synagogue. How did he know they were Gestapo? Because they hadn’t asked for prayer books.
After the service, as the family returned to the apartment house, a uniformed officer asked for his father by name and took him to the police station, just for the day.
“The beauty of the day was when he came home that evening,” Lewy said. “He took me aside and gave me a lecture how to take care of my second mother, in case one day he didn’t come home. That was his bar mitzvah speech to me.”
Kristallnacht, the night of Nov. 9, 1938, saw the Germans burn the synagogues.
Lewy and about 100 other Jewish youths were taken into their synagogue, where the Nazi officers cut the gas line to the sacred eternal flame, allowing the gas to seep out. Then the officers locked the children inside.
Two things saved Lewy and his synagogue that night. First, an older boy had the sense to do the unthinkable, breaking the sanctuary’s stained-glass windows with a chair. Local police and fire agencies were ordered not to put out that night’s fires, but his synagogue was spared because it adjoined some apartment buildings.
Lewy’s not sure why he survived that night.
“It wasn’t for the love of the kids,” he said.
Seventy-eight years later, Lewy vividly remembers the sights he and his friends saw when they left the synagogue two days later.
“Beautiful edifices burned out, Torah scrolls and prayer shawls lying in the streets, stores looted,” he has said. “It was then that we knew life would never be the same.”
Time to leave
Since Lewy’s second mother, Johanna, had relatives in Haverhill, Mass., his family tried to leave Germany. But his father flunked his physical, due to a heart attack and high blood pressure suffered after being beaten and losing his teeth at a concentration camp in 1933, just after Hitler had assumed power.
So his parents sent Stephan on a Kindertransport, which left Berlin bound for France with 40 youths on board in July 1939.
There were hugs and kisses and tears, but it was nothing new for Lewy to be separated from his family. Along with two other youths, he used the fogged-up train window and his finger to write “XXX,” a German symbol meaning they’d never return.
To Lewy, though, this was no traumatic event. Just another way to survive.
“That’s as far as I was thinking.”
During what would become a three-year stay in France, Lewy, along with about 40 children and their teachers, marched south to flee the German invasion that had begun in May 1940. Later, the group boarded an inland barge on the Seine, hiding in coal-storage holds as German soldiers boarded the barge to inspect it.
“They look like a bunch of Jews,” the soldiers said in German, pointing their guns at the defenseless children.
“We waited for the guns to let loose, but it never happened,” Lewy said. “Why, I don’t know.”
Meanwhile, his parents had escaped Germany for Haverhill, Mass., beginning a long process of applying to bring their son to America. They couldn’t get him a visa, even after their attorney pleaded their case to the U.S. State Department.
But the Lewys wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and then Johanna Lewy wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt, in early 1942.
Lewy summed up the gist of that mother-to-mother letter: “He’s our son. He’s been in France for three years. He can’t get a visa. If you let him in the country, he will be the best soldier in the U.S. Army.”
The letter apparently worked. Lewy was granted a visa and eventually came to America to rejoin his parents on June 25, 1942, at age 17.
Lewy didn’t get a ticker-tape parade when he came to America. Considered an “enemy alien” by the Roosevelt government, he carried a pink passport, restricting his travel outside a 200-mile radius.
He registered for the draft when he turned 18 in March 1943 and later was shipped to Europe with the 6th Armored Division.
One day at breakfast in Germany, Lewy told his captain that a man at a nearby table in a U.S. Army uniform actually was a spy. How did he know? Because the man kept his knife and fork in his hands the whole time he was eating, a German/European custom.
The MPs arrested the man, a German soldier who spoke English and had taken an American uniform off a prisoner.
That common practice led Gen. George S. Patton to issue an order to arrest anyone with a German accent wearing a U.S. military uniform. So Lewy didn’t dare stray far from his fellow soldiers.
“Naturally, I spoke only when absolutely necessary, unless I knew the person from before.”
Later, Lewy was among the first American soldiers to experience the shocking sight of the Buchenwald death camp.
“I saw mountains of human remains,” he has said. “Living skeletons walking or sitting in a daze and children without parents, not knowing where to go and whom to trust. This picture has followed me and will continue to follow me all my life.”
After World War II ended, Lewy was assigned to occupation duty and went door-to-door to arrest high-ranking Nazi Party members.
“So I volunteered for the job. I wonder why,” he said, with barely a trace of a smile. “It was my way of getting even.”
Coming to Buffalo
After the war, Lewy returned to Boston, earned his degree at Northeastern University, passed the CPA exam, moved to New Hampshire and worked as an accountant for two hotel chains, rising to the rank of senior vice president before retiring. After his wife of 60 years, Frances, died in 2010, he eventually moved to Williamsville to be near his daughter, Ellen Dubie. He also has a son, Arthur, in Seattle.
Lewy is never shy about sharing his story, which is the subject of one book, “The Past Is Always Present,” by Lillian B. Herzberg. At 91, he’s well aware there are fewer survivors left to tell their stories.
“Our stories show what can happen if people do not act,” he said. “Perhaps if enough people hear my story, history will not repeat itself.
“I only hope that the world has learned a lesson.”