One Survivor, Two Identities: The Kurt Lewin Collection (Curators' Corner #4)

Uploaded by ushmm on 22.06.2012

My name is Rebecca Erbelding and I work with new collections for the Museum's archives.
Kurt Lewin's collection was one of the first collections that I worked with when I came
to the Museum in 2004.
Kurt's collection is particularly interesting because it is so thorough. We have a lot of
material about his father, who was the chief progressive rabbi of the Jewish community
of Lvov. And then we go into Kurt's wartime papers. And it's really rare that someone
was able to collect papers for their entire experience. Usually if someone goes into hiding
they have to destroy their old papers. Kurt managed to keep his, so we have papers of
his as Kurt Lewin and papers of his when he was in hiding.
When the war began, Kurt and his family were living in Lvov, which was a city in southern
Immediately before the war began in September 1939, the Nazis and the Soviet Union made
a deal to split up Poland. So when the Germans invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, they
invaded from the west and the Soviet Union invaded from the east and Lvov was in the
part of the country that was controlled by the Soviet Union.
On June 22, 1941, the Germans broke the deal that they had made with the Soviet Union and
invaded the Soviet territory of Poland. Lvov becomes chaotic. The Germans are moving in,
the Soviets are moving out. They're clashing in the streets. And Kurt's father, Dr. Jecheskiel
Lewin, the chief progressive rabbi in Lvov, was arrested almost immediately. Right before
his arrest he had gone to a friend of his, the Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, the head
of the Greek Catholic Church in Lvov, and asked for assistance. On the way home, he
was arrested and put in prison and was killed very soon after. The relationship that he
had with Metropolitan Sheptytsky became really important in saving Kurt and his brother Nathan.
After Rabbi Lewin was arrested and killed, Kurt was really the man of the house. He was
living with his stepmother and his two younger brothers, both of whom are much younger than
he was. Life in Lvov was not going to be getting any better. They had a family home, in Rawa
Ruska, outside of Lvov and so Kurt went there to find work to try to set up a way to bring
his family out, and maybe keep them safe in the countryside.
As a Jew he could not travel freely, so every time he wanted to go between Lvov and Rawa
Ruska, he had to obtain a pass from the Germans. Normally these passes identified him as Jewish
in the first line, so it would say, "Der Jude Kurt Lewin," "the Jew Kurt Lewin," requests
travel from this place to this place on this day. If he was caught without his pass or
if his pass had the wrong day on it he could be arrested.
Kurt is traveling back and forth between Rawa Ruska and Lvov for about a year. He does find
work in Rawa Ruska, but notices that life in the countryside in Poland isn't any better
than life in the cities in Poland. He's seeing people being rounded up. They're being taken
to the Belzec extermination camp. Kurt learns enough about Belzec to worry that his mother
and his younger brothers might get on a train and be sent there. In September 1942 he returns
to Lvov to warn them not to get on any trains, because he fears that if they were deported
they would be immediately killed.
When Kurt returns to Lvov, he finds that the situation is really quite dire. He goes to
the Metropolitan Andrew Sheptytsky, and says "Is there anything you can do for my family?"
The Metropolitan manages to arrange for Kurt and his younger brother Nathan to go into
The Metropolitan’s brother was the head of a monastic order called the Studites, which
was a Greek Catholic order of monks. Clement was in charge of these monasteries in and
around Lvov, and Clement was able to arrange for Nathan and Kurt to go into hiding in the
monasteries, Nathan as an orphan and Kurt as a novice monk. This was not only a risk
for them, it was a risk for the entire Studite community hiding them. If they were found
to be hiding Jews in the monasteries, and they hid more people than just Kurt and Nathan,
they hid others as well, the entire community would be arrested, deported, and most likely
To go into hiding as a monk you can't just walk in and say, "I'm a monk." You had to
have identity papers for everything, otherwise you risked arrest. Immediately they had to
make false identification papers for Kurt as a novice monk. Clement actually hand-forged
this document, which is Kurt's baptismal certificate. He also couldn't go as Kurt Lewin. That would
be too obvious a Jewish name, so he was given the name Roman Paul Mytka. This has “Roman
Paul Mytka was baptized,” it has the same birthdate that Kurt had, and it's a notarized
baptismal certificate within the Greek Catholic church.
If you look at the photographs between some of Kurt's earlier identification papers and
his identification papers as Roman Mytka, you can see him move from identity to identity
not just through the documents but through the photographs as well.
In the summer of 1944 the Soviet Union is able to invade Poland from the east, so Kurt
Lewin decides that he would like to join this liberating army and joins a Polish unit attached
to the Soviet army. And so he has to reestablish himself as Kurt Lewin. So this document states
that this man Roman Matkowski or Roman Mytka, born on February 28, 1925, is also Kurt Lewin,
son of Dr. Jecheskiel Lewin, born on the same day. It says that he took this false identity
during the war in order to save his own life.
The Museum's mission to rescue the evidence really has never been as critical as it is
right now. It's really important that we work with survivors to learn what's behind the
documents that they give us. It's difficult to be able to figure out experiences just
based on the documentary evidence. So having Kurt there to tell us "this is what was happening
when I was using this document" is really crucial.