MAX LEWIN'S INTERVIEW VIDEO
On September 20, 1918, Beckley's sole Holocaust survivor, Max Lewin, was born in Lipniszki, in German occupied Lithuania. Known as Lipnishoḳ by its substantial Jewish population, it officially became part of Poland in 1921. On the day prior to Max Lewin's twenty-third birthday, the Germans returned to Lipniszki and most of its Jews were apprehended and taken 14 kilometers to Ivye, where Max and his family would begin to experience the horrors of the holocaust firsthand.
Coming to Beckley in 1946, Max rarely discussed the Holocaust. While many knew he had been imprisoned in several German concentration camps and were aware of his registration tattoo on his forearm, Max was hesitant to speak of what he experienced. That is until one Havdalah ceremony at the end of one Sabbath in 1990. While Temple Beth El members were sharing various hopes and plans for the coming week, Max began to share his experiences.
"I don't know why that was the time, but I guess it was God's way of saying, 'Let it out and deal with it,'" reflected Temple Beth El member Ruthann Arnstein. "Here was something very deep, serious, life-changing for Max — that he had previously kept quiet about," Dr. Joseph Golden said. "But at that particular setting, at that particular moment, he wanted to tell his experiences and stories."
At the end of 1990, Max began telling more people his story. In 1994, the late Mel Hancock approached Max about creating a tangible memorial to his family — most of whom died in the Holocaust. The Lewin Family Bell Tower, dedicated on October 20, 1996, became the centerpiece of Mountain State University's campus.
In 1996, I was producing a television show for MSU that aired on WVVA-TV every Sunday morning at 6:30 AM. The purpose of "Our Gift to You" was to give television viewers the opportunity to learn about the university, as well as be introduced to the school's faculty, administration, and its donors.
Three days after the Bell Tower's dedication, I had the opportunity to interview Max Lewin about his holocaust story and the importance of the memorial and its dedication. Understandably, Max became emotional during the taping when he spoke about losing his family.
Early the next day, I received a phone call from Max. He politely asked me not to use the video, as he could not bear the masses seeing him in an emotional state. "Don't show anyone that tape until after I'm dead," said Lewin. I agreed. Although Max died in 2002, the video was archived until this year. It was first aired to the public during the Beckley Annual Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 15.
As I stated at the ceremony, I did not record this interview with the purpose of it being an oral history. In hindsight, I wish I had. I was looking for sound bites that could be woven into a larger story. Max at times is distraught. He confuses the timeline, dates, and ages when compared to his memoirs written after his release and published in 1968. These are minor issues; the important matter is that this man, who was the only Holocaust survivor from Lipniszki, Poland, told his story. The complete transcript is below.
Owston: Tell us a little bit about your experience with the holocaust — how your family was taken by the Germans.
Lewin: (Sigh) Well, my family was taken first in three parts. The first part was we were in a labor camp in Russia — they pulled up — it was the second, second I'd seen. They were — pulled up one morning; they pulled up trucks, a half a dozen trucks, big trucks. We were in an underground barracks — barracks or whatever they wanted to call them. And they, uhm, and they "everybody, out, out, out!" And there [it] was, so everybody just got out the best way, the best they could, and the best way they were.
And then, and they loaded them up. They didn't count. They used to before they did — before, they used to count. They used to go and put you up in rows and this time they didn't. They just picked you up as they went, and most of the people, and a lot of the older people and a lot of woman. And then my — and, they took my mom and my dad [emotionally] and my sister [Chaia] and I believe they took my wife [Fruma] there too.
And there was only, there was in my family the first time they went to Germany and you could hear machine guns going inside a wooden area. And since we'd seen something like this before in '41 [actually 1942], so we knew exactly what, what happened to them. But we couldn't come close to it neither could we see where they were, how far they were, and what they did to them.
The three of us were left: me, my younger brother [Joseph] that we were just talking about, and one sister [Leah]. And from there, they took us from this camp back because they were losing the war. They were taking us back and they brought us to Minsk. And also, some kind of barracks in front of the Russian, the Russian, the Russian territory. And they, em, there we lost our sister, our older sister, the old sister [Leah]. And this left two of us, me and my younger brother.
And they again loaded us in car loads and they brought us to Germany. In Germany, there was a lot of cars, but I don't know exactly how many people were there, were left. There was not too many left maybe a couple thousand. And they put us up in the lines, we stood up in lines. And there were some people left from my hometown. My father-in-law [Eliezer Karklinsky] was killed there and I had a couple cousins and friends.
They [the Germans] all stood in one group. A fellow was going, a short German SS man was just walking, going this way, and going and going. I guess he was counting. I'm a guessing he was counting. And he came to, to — I was standing on the right-hand side [cries] and my little brother was standing on the left-hand side and all the people was behind us. And he came, and he split right down the middle between me and him. And he just went right through the hands with a little stick he had, he just went right through the hands. Our course, we turned right, and he turned left. That was the last I'd seen him — I seen him go a little ways [sic].
Owston: When they came and got your family, you said you'd seen this before . . . happen [before] . . .
Lewin: Well, if you talk from the beginning when they took us — you mean when they took us away from home?
Lewin: They concentrate the Jewish people. For a while the Germans were . . . for four or five months, maybe longer. Everybody was going out to work and they would put you on rations and there was soup lines and things like this. They took us out, they took away our home and put us all in one room because we had a beautiful home and they made quarters out of it. And they took other quarters and all kinds of materials and anything. And they concentrate, concentrate most of the Jews from the area — like my family and some other people from other small towns that they lived individually, and they put us took us into one place — 14 kilometers from our town. They told everybody to line up and [we] just walked not knowing where you were going.
And we came to the city. I wasn't in the town, but this wasn't too big of a city, but it was a lot bigger than our city. I knew the city, because I went to school there. They put us all in one area — three families in a house, four families, wherever you could find a place. We were there in what was called ghetto. And there we would go out to work every day and they would give us rations, some would go out a week and you'd have to stand in line to get it — so much, whatever they gave you.
That last[ed] for a while maybe for about four or five months and winter come around. This is the town where there was that first, the first massacre. That town, that town you'd take out in one morning was — they killed seven thousand people in one morning.
And the Judenrat was the Jewish committee. They [the Germans] give the orders, they give the orders to the committee and the committee had to fulfil it. They asked for a hundred people, young people with shovels. They didn't say what it was for and I was one them. And they took, took us to about two or three miles and I guess from our town.
We come there, and it was all marked out in white — they laid it out before, somebody laid it out. It was the length of a baseball field maybe 80 feet long and about 60 foot wide or so. And they didn't say nothing about how deep to dig they just said start digging. It was soft ground and we worked there four or five hours; I don't know how long exactly how many hours we were all there. They were yelling "quick, quick," you know to work faster. Finally, we cleaned out the dirt and they checked it out and it was the right height, I'd say it was about four foot.
And they didn't say nothing, and it was already getting dark and they took us back to town. The people started putting two and two together . . . nobody didn't dream about it. Nobody didn't even think that kind of thing, but they didn't know what we were doing. And we came home, and the people were waiting for us; "what did you do?" After that they finally came to know what was going to happen.
The next morning at five o'clock in the morning they start knocking on your doors. The Judenrat, the Jewish committee, before we came home said to everybody, "the Germans are going to have an inspection and they want to see how we look and everything. Dress up in your best clothes and put on all your jewelry and everything." Well, you had to do it.
"Everybody, out, out, out." And told everyone to go on to the parking lot, well actually a farmers' marketplace and everybody was on their knees simply waiting. And in that area, there was three ways: go straight, there was right and left — an intersection like this. If you went straight, you went to the ditches. If you went right or left, you went to life.
And you could hear screaming and you know guns. They were beating them. The police, the soldiers took them over to go down the hill and they pushed them, and some people was too weak to walk, you know. Our family was spared. They sent a part of us right and a part of us left and nobody straight.
At that time the Jewish committee said that they killed seven thousand people and they did that in one day. And that afternoon they wanted the same men; they wanted same people back who dig the ditches — back. We had to go; and on the way, there was clothes, shoes, and all kind of stuff on the street. I guess they tore off their clothes or they themselves did it . . . nobody knows. And they, uh, and we came over there, there was some screaming and people were hollering help — half alive people, honestly. I don't know how many were half alive people.
They gave us gloves and some kind of white stuff in bags or barrels, and I can't recall, and they told us to spread it out and then put the dirt on it. So, we had to do it. And when we came back there were families, some lost their children, some lost their husbands, some lost their dad, some lost their mother — every family, there were very few families left who were in one piece. Something missing: father, children, somebody.
They took us out from there and put us in a different place and that was already guarded. You couldn't go no place except from eight to six — the hours to be out cause you had to go to work. And after that in a certain time and they finally in the wintertime, and my mother was a very weak lady she had bad arthritis [cries and hits table twice] and they put us in carloads again and there was only left was just . . .
No, I'm wrong, that's wrong. This was the first one, that was the second one when after the people was left in the carloads, they took us to Russia. Whatever people was left, they took us to Russia. And then we went to a place called Biale Blota and there was an underground barrack like I said a while ago, that was definitely the second [place], as you asked me where my family was going.
And little by little, my family was left we came back to Minsk and maybe 1500 people of us left and they took us to Germany and there in Germany I lost my brother. And all the only people that is from my hometown, my cousins and everything, I don't know how. I can't understand why [cries and pounds table] they didn't take me; I was the only one of the people — all over Germany and after the war and in Israel — nobody, nobody, but I was the only one in this area left — in my town, in my area, the people I know — I knew. That was the end of it.
Owston: How did you cope? This had to be a trying and emotional time.
Lewin: You were stoned; you were stoned. You couldn't think. You couldn't go nowhere. You couldn't talk to nobody. You didn't know who you were talking to. There was no such thing as friends there. We had Jewish police that would turn you in. And, I don't know how I was; I really don't know. I guess, I would be crazy.
Owston: Now, your brother Harry was here in Beckley, West Virginia when you came, and you mentioned you had a sister?
Lewin: I didn't have no sisters.
Owston: Ok, how many of your . . . was it just you and your brother Harry of your family that escaped?
Lewin: Yes, no, no I had a brother [Avner] in Israel. He was in Paris. My father sent him to study engineering and, and he was free, and he met a girl when he was in France and he married her and went to Israel. And he knew about it — they knew about it, and other places in the world knew about what was going on. And my brother wrote letters home to my father and said, "Europe is on fire; run; go; leave everything; go." But my father couldn't do it. Maybe, I don't know why he couldn't do it. We were just children. He didn't move until the last minute.
Owston: Your brother escaped prior to all of this?
Lewin: Yes, both brothers.
Owston: Oh, both brothers did?
Lewin: Harry did. Harry came in 1920 — in the 20's. Yes, sir.
Owston: You're the only one of your family that went through the Holocaust that that survived.
Lewin: Yes, sir. Yes, sir. After one of us left; I had one cousin in Israel, but he was not in the camps. He was hiding. There was an aunt [Sarah Kabatsnik], you know, in a town not far from us. She had a lot of money. She was in the letter business. She had a lot of other friends and they were hiding. All the time during the war they were hiding.
Owston: This last Sunday, we dedicated a memorial to your family — the Lewin Bell Tower. What kind of feeling do you have about this? Is this sort of closure on the tragedy that your family has been through?
Lewin: I was always close to my family [cries]. I guess I thought more about them than anybody did. Maybe, Harry. I don't know why. I'm sure my parents were good to him. But, for some reason, he was not as close to them as I was. Maybe, because I was the youngest for a long time. There was eleven years [actually eight] between me and my younger brother.
Maybe, because I was close to them . . . closer to them. And I took a lot of, maybe more, part in my family's actions. In whatever my father did, I always helped. Whatever he did. We were a team. So, I don't know. I don't know how to answer your question [long pause].
Owston: How do you look at this memorial as being an educational tool for generations to come?
Lewin: It should be. Because, you don't know about what could happen in this country. You have groups that are against the government. Forty or fifty people blowing up a building. Talk about blowing up a building in Parkersburg. They got the militia here and lots of stuff. You don't know who could come up like Hitler.
You know how Hitler came up to the power? He took everything from the people who had something and gave it to bums. And just like this, he made a country out of bums. Normal people wouldn't do what they did — just have a machine gun and kill innocent children. So, you never know. It's very educational for children and people who think it could never come here. It could come anyplace.
And somebody was telling me, in Brazil, they had a gang who messed up Jewish cemeteries. It was on the television this morning. The girl who works for me said she seen it this morning on television. So, who knows?
At this moment, I noticed that Max was quite emotional and tired; therefore, I abruptly ended the interview.
Jim Owston, 2018