In the late 1930s, Stephan H. Lewy and other Jewish kids were once locked in a Berlin synagogue by Nazi soldiers who cut a gas line, leaving the children to die and suffocate. An older boy helped save them.
Fearing for his life, Lewy embarked on a nearly 4,000-mile journey in 1939 after obtaining safe passage on a Kindertransport to France, and eventually a visa to the United States.
He was just one of tens of thousands of German Jews seeking refuge across the Atlantic. But he didn’t realize he’d soon be traveling back to Europe to fight against the Nazis.
“I got a letter from Uncle Sam,” Lewy, now 93, said.
After arriving in New York City, Lewy was drafted and sent across the ocean as an interpreter and interrogator in the U.S. Army’s 6th Armored Division.
He didn’t want to go back. Lewy had been forced out of his Berlin school because he was Jewish. His father, Arthur, had been taken to a concentration camp in 1933.
“We just had to make sure that we stayed alive,” recalled Lewy, during a recent interview at the Montabaur Heights senior living facility in Clarence, where he resides.
Lewy was terrified about returning to Europe in 1944. But he would help liberate the infamous Buchenwald death camp and later be honored as a war hero.
The 6th Armored Division was a personal favorite of Gen. George S. Patton. It landed on Utah Beach in war-ravaged Europe shortly after D-Day, and the Army warned Lewy to be careful. If he was captured as a refugee by a Nazi officer, he would be sent straight to a concentration camp.
“Some of our soldiers, German refugees like myself, were caught in battles. And some of them didn’t make it,” he said. But Lewy was never recognized, and lucky.
His division cut across France, south of Paris. It would eventually cross the Maginot Line into Germany during the late fall of 1944. Lewy’s division fought on the front line amid gunfire and bombings, and he spoke to German prisoners captured by American forces.
It became an art in identification. Lewy was trained to match German insignia to different generals, battles and injuries. By looking at a uniform’s patch, he could provide a brief history on any given soldier.
He would often travel by Jeep, and as the “Super Sixth” division pushed through Germany, soldiers would offer civilians chocolate or cigarettes.
Everything changed when he reached Buchenwald.
Buchenwald, or Konzentrationslager in German, was one of the largest concentration camps in the country, just northwest of Weimar. Lewy’s division was the first to reach it.
“We forced them to bury the people that were killed by the Germans,” Lewy said of the camp's civilians, who claimed they had no idea Jews were being killed in Buchenwald.
Lewy and the rest of the division found emaciated, dying Jewish prisoners. Young Elie Wiesel was there. He would later document the moment in his book, “Night.” Soon after being liberated, Wiesel looked at himself in a mirror. A corpse looked back, he wrote.
“It’s a very difficult situation. Because you are angry, and you want to do something about it,” Lewy said. “And on the other side, they were denying it existed. So it was an internal battle.”
He shipped back to the United States after the war and was reunited with his his stepmother, Johanna, and his father, Arthur, who had escaped a concentration camp after suffering a heart attack in 1933.
Lewy attended Northeastern University, married his love, Frances, and worked for years as an accountant.
But he has never forgotten the bloodshed. And he has never forgotten Buchenwald.
Stephan H. Lewy, 93
Hometown: Berlin, Germany
Rank: Staff Sergeant
War zone: European Theater, World War II
Years of service: 1944-45
Most prominent honors: Bronze Star, French Legion of Honor
Specialty: Interpreter and interrogator