The recent meeting of Franklin Lewinson and his second cousin Klaus Manzel has been about 80 years in the making.
Lewinson, an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor living in Dresher, and Manzel, an 80-year-old native Berliner, united on Oct. 13 at Lewinson’s home. The two shared the story of the Lewinson family’s survival during the Shoah and Manzel’s plan to have a Stolperstein — a brass plate honoring victims of Nazi extermination — installed at the address of Lewinson’s family home in honor of Lewinson’s father Hans, who was murdered in Auschwitz.
Until a few years ago, neither knew of the other’s existence.
“I was shocked,” Lewinson said. “Because I didn’t even realize there was anybody still alive.”
Born in 1935 in Berlin, Lewinson, originally named Wolfgang, and his younger sister Renate spent most of their early childhood in Blumenstraße, the neighborhood where most Jews were relegated under Nazi rule. The family relocated from their Tempelhof home, where they were evicted, to Charlottenburg, and then to Blumenstraße in the same year. They were required by law to mark their doors with a Magen David.
Lewinson’s mother converted to Judaism in 1930 after marrying Hans, having grown up Christian. Her Christian maiden name, Ruckheim, and paperwork helped her find a job at a time when employment for Jews was scarce. While most Jews were assigned limited evening hours to shop — when most of the food was already gone — Lewinson’s mother was able to buy groceries during regular hours.
Her Christian paperwork was what saved her and her children’s lives, but Hans Lewinson was not as lucky. In 1943, after multiple arrests and imprisonments at Nazi labor camps, he was deported to Auschwitz on a train car carrying more than 1,000 prisoners. He was killed shortly after he arrived at the death camp.
The Lewinson children spent the years of 1940-1945 inside at their mother’s behest. She received no support from her Christian family, who all but abandoned her and joined the Nazi Party.
“I can remember leaving the house two times,” Lewinson said.
On a rare outing, Lewinson’s mother removed the yellow Magen David from her children’s clothing. They hid periodically at convents and farms, but only for brief windows of time.
Fortune continued to be on Lewinson’s side. The family came to the U.S. in November 1946 on a troopship. His mother’s status as a single woman with two children allowed the family to immigrate early. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee helped the family settle in Jackson Heights in Queens.
After a two-year stint in the Army stationed at Fort Dix and Poitiers, France, Lewinson moved with his family to Lakewood, New Jersey. He met his wife Betsy there, and the two married in 1982, moving to Blue Bell in 2000, and to Dresher 15 years later.
Lewinson’s lack of family knowledge was not through lack of trying, Betsy Lewinson said.
“Wherever we have been — we’ve been to Auschwitz, to Yad Vashem in Israel, elsewhere … no one could ever trace his father,” she said.
Across the sea in Germany, Manzel’s grandmother had kept in touch with Lewinson’s mother until her death in 1987. Manzel knew that Hans had been arrested and that the Lewinsons were living in America. With the help of his daughter Julia Flood, who’s now a therapist in San Jose, California, Manzel was able to find Renate in New Jersey and contacted her and Lewinson in 2020. The family exchanged letters, emails and WhatsApp messages.
“For that generation, everyone had died out because they lost their husband, or they didn’t have children,” Manzel said through Flood’s translation. “So [I] was just curious to see if there was anybody left and what became of them.”
During the war, Manzel’s family was afforded some protection by their Christian status, but Manzel’s father was anti-government, and the family was never affiliated with the Nazi Party.
The dedication of a Stolperstein was a way for Manzel to memorialize Lewinson’s father and do his part in continuing the Shoah’s legacy of “never forget.” The stone will be installed in January.
Though Lewinson can no longer travel to Berlin to visit where his childhood home once stood, Manzel plans on attending its dedication.
“The stone will be right smack in the middle of a completely new complex, where you would never know [a Jewish family lived there],” Manzel said. “That street has a new name, but the whole point of the memorial stone is that you wonder, ‘What is this?’. What will be useful is to stumble upon it and pause and consider and hope that something like that will never happen again.”