SYDNEY, Australia – He survived Hitler and cheated Eichmann who tried to murder him, but Berek Lewkowicz’s ultimate riposte to the Nazis’ Final Solution may well have come last weekend when the 91-year-old’s memoir was launched in Melbourne.
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Lewkowicz is the last Jewish survivor of the Little Fortress at Terezin (Theresienstadt), a small prison inside the notorious concentration camp where more than 30,000 Jews died and from which over 85,000 others were deported to death camps.
Some family members who gathered for the launch had feared the family patriarch’s story would never be published; it had lain dormant for 25 years – ever since he had dictated his story to a relative in the late 1980s.
But about two years ago, one of his grandsons, Michael Aladjem, contacted the Write Your Story program at the Lamm Jewish Library of Australia. Its staff transformed the aged pages of typed manuscript into a 185-page book, titled “A Boy From Bedzin: The Last Jewish Survivor of the Little Fortress at Terezin.”
“The raw emotion was inexplicable,” Aladjem told Haaretz this week of the book event. “My speech was filled with choking words and tears from the start to end.”
Lewkowicz recalls in his memoir how one day he begged a member of a group of SS officers passing by to shoot him. “They strolled along the line of Jews until they were near where I stood,” he wrote. “Suddenly I threw myself on the ground in front of the officer who seemed to be the most senior. Clamping my hands together as if praying, I cried out, ‘Please sir, please shoot me.’
"The officer looked down at me, struck a characteristic pose with one hand in his pocket, and said, ‘It would be a waste of a good bullet to shoot you, mein Jude (my Jew). You will die all right, but you will suffer also.’ Turning aside and without a backward glance, he walked away from where I knelt on the ground.”
Reflecting on his brush with death, Lewkowicz wrote: “To this day I am almost certain that the officer I spoke to in the Small Fortress in April 1945 was Adolf Eichmann.”
Lewkowicz was just 16 when he witnessed the SS march into his hometown in southern Poland in September 1939. He was liberated in 1945 “after almost six years of brutal and dehumanizing imprisonment.”
“I was a man of almost 22 with a broken and weakened body, ignorant as to what had happened to my parents, sisters and friends, but with a burning desire to start my life again,” he wrote in his memoir.
His parents and two of four his sisters perished, but two others – Rusha and Lola – survived. Rusha was at the book launch last week.
Lewkowicz moved briefly in Paris before moving to Israel, where he fought in the 1956 Sinai Campaign; he still has family there. In 1958, married and with one daughter, he moved to Australia; he is now a great-grandfather.
Although age has taken its toll on Lewkowicz, it has barely hampered his memories of the Holocaust, which are often triggered by acts of modern-day anti-Semitism.
“Anti-Semitism makes me angry but you have to live with the times,” he wrote. “You can’t kill all the haters. I often feel nervous, but I have a strong will that told me even in the Small Fortress that I must outlast the Nazis and survive. Whenever I decide to do something, I do it straight away and nobody can change my mind. It is my nature.”
“A Boy from Bedzin” is the 120th book published by the Write Your Story program; about two-thirds of its publications are Holocaust-related, according to Adele Hulse, who runs the program.
“It appears that at this time, we are the world’s largest publisher of Holocaust memoirs in English, due to the unusually high number of concentration camp survivors who came to Melbourne,” she wrote recently. More than 30,000 survivors came to Australia after World War II, the majority of them moving to Melbourne.
“It is always worthwhile to take a long time to get to the [subject of the] war,” Hulse continued. “In these memoirs young siblings can still sing together around the Shabbat table, Mother lights the candles and Father says Kiddush. The family is complete. We can reach out and touch them – so lovingly are they drawn from loyal memory. It is a precious gift to future generations and a lesson for the world.”
The launch was memorable, Hulse told Haaretz: “Michael and Danny [another of Berek’s grandsons] both spoke and both broke down – we were all in tears.”