By Sabine Baeckmann
The Evans Senior Center was honored to host a very special event on Thursday, September 7th. I was honored to pick up both Holocaust Survivors Stephen H. Lewy and Grigory Shershnevsky in Williamsville, to bring them for a visit to the Evans Senior Center to tell their stories and experiences as Holocaust survivors. Every chair was filled as these brave gentlemen made their presentations.
The event featured Stephen H. Lewy, a German-born jew born in 1925, who spoke about his childhood in Berlin, Germany during the Nazi oppression in the 1930’s. Lewy spoke about how two rows of Hitler Youth whipped him and his Jewish schoolmates with belts, while German police were watching.. He couldn’t play with a non-Jewish friends after the Hitler Youth told the other boy’s father that his son couldn’t play with Lewy.
Lewy told of how his mother used a bird cage in the window, to warn his father not to come home because the SS was looking to arrest him. If there was no bird cage, his father would come home.
To this day, Lewy appreciates the talk they had when his father came home on the day of his bar mitzvah.
“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,” Lewy recalled. “That was his bar mitzvah speech to me.” On that day, which normally is a joyous celebration of a boy’s passage into manhood, SS troopers arrived to arrest his father.
Lewy also recalled and explained the significance of Kristallnacht, the night during which the Nazi’s destroyed all the synagogues in the city. He and other Jewish youths had been locked inside a synagogue by the Nazis, who cut the gas lines. An other boy rescued them all by helping them escape. Kristallnacht marked the official beginning of the war against the Jews in Europe, along with others such as Poles, homosexuals, government politicians, etc.
Lewy survived the horrors of pre-war Nazi occupation, and was taken to France in 1939 with about 40 other children via what was known as the Kindertransport. He later came to the United States, became not only a citizen, but enrolled in the armed services. As a member of the occupation force in Germany in 1945, Lewy went door to door, arresting high-ranking Nazi Party officials. He had come full circle, and his military service later earned Lewy the Bronze Star.
Mr. Lewy befriended a fellow survivor, Mr. Grigory Shershnevsky, who also travels and speaks about his experiences during the Holocaust. He spoke to the audience briefly about his own life and how he came to America.
Grigory Shershnevsky was born in Lithuania shortly before the German occupation in 1941. His father was active in the underground resistance movement, so his parents knew they had to smuggle their young son out of the ghetto. His mother cleaned offices and was allowed to leave the ghetto for those chores. A family friend knew of a woman who took care of Jewish and non-Jewish children alike, but the question was, how to smuggle the baby out of the ghetto.
“So my mother put some rags in a cleaning bucket, put me in and covered me with some rags,” he stated. “Everything was agreed, so at some point, she just left the bucket on the sidewalk and continued walking, and Aleksandra Drzewecka, the lady who saved me, just picked up the bucket and brought [me] to her house.”
Grigory was just 7 months old when Aleksandra Drzewecka picked up the bucket and smuggled him into her safehouse. She then helped Grigory Shershnevsky obtain a birth certificate, changing his Jewish name to be more Christian. With this certificate, the infant Grigory Shershnevsky became Stanislovas Mazijonas Kosta.
Lewy and Shershnevsky’s stories have reached thousands of students and adults to tell them about their experiences, and they encourage them to embrace not only history, but to always be kind to all. You can read. Stephan H. Lewy’s story in a book called “The Past is Always the Present,” written by Lillian B. Herzberg.
In closing, Stephan Lewy left us with his view on tolerance and acceptance:
“My advice to you, the students – to all of us – Don’t Hate. Don’t discriminate by reason of religion, country of origin or color of skin. Don’t gang up on minorities.
“We should remember – The day we were born and rested comfortably in the nurseries of hospitals__
“We did not look around for different color skins — different religions or different physical features.
“We aquired these bad habits after birth AND we CAN change them to make this a better place to live.
“Hatred is NOT a genetic disease.”
— Stephan H. Lewy, Holocaust Survivor