Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin

By Gad Beck with Frank Heibert

Univ. of Wisconsin. 165 pp. $24.95


A Boyhood Among the Nazis

By Jurgen Herbst

Univ. of Wisconsin. 234 pp. $34.95

On Nov. 9, 1938--Kristallnacht--brown- shirted thugs ransacked the synagogue on Berlin's Heidereutergasse. For 15-year-old Gad Beck, the attack on his place of worship erased any doubts about how far the Nazis' antisemitic rampages could escalate.

The next morning, 10-year-old Jurgen Herbst stopped on his way to school beside the charred remains of the synagogue in Wolfenbuettel, the German town where he lived. A man near Herbst wondered aloud why firefighters hadn't arrived to extinguish the flames. "For such a fire," another man replied, "you don't call firefighters."

Germany was splitting in two, and Beck and Herbst ended up on opposing sides. The Jewish Beck went into hiding, living underground and working with the Resistance. The Protestant Herbst became leader of a Nazi youth group. Yet the stories they relate in their respective memoirs overlap and intersect, together painting a complex portrait of daily life in Hitler's Germany.

Beck's is certainly the more extraordinary tale. Although previously secular and apolitical, after the war started he immersed himself in subversive Zionist youth groups, smuggling money and Jews across international borders. His stories of secret meetings, backstabbing betrayals and Nazi interrogations are the stuff of spy novels--only here they are real, with a hauntingly young protagonist.

Despite the daily perils of life underground, Beck enjoyed a charmed existence. As he details in his frank and often randy book, the gay teenager found romance, sex, friendship and humor in wartime Berlin. His charisma and optimism buoyed those around him; at war's end, a surprising number of his friends and family members had survived.

But even Beck could not always hold back the horrors of the Holocaust. When his boyfriend Manfred Lewin was picked up by the Nazis along with his family, Beck brazenly donned a Hitler Youth uniform and marched to the assembly camp claiming to be Lewin's boss; Lewin had stolen keys from work, Beck told the camp commander, and would have to return them before being deported. Astonishingly, the commander let Beck remove Lewin temporarily. On the street, Beck offered him money and a safe house, but Lewin said he could not leave his family. He returned to the assembly camp and was deported. He did not survive. "No smile, no sadness. He had made his decision," Beck writes. "In those seconds, watching him go, I grew up."

If Beck's "An Underground Life" is filled with magical triumphs and devastating losses, Herbst's "Requiem for a German Past" seems nearly as remarkable for its lack of anything extraordinary. What Herbst calls "the ordinariness of everyday life" is still worth examining, however, much as Anne Frank's diary is notable for recording the war's periods of relative calm as well as its terrifying disruptions.

Herbst illustrates how easy it was for a German boy without strong political conviction or religious hatred to climb into a position of leadership in the Nazi Jungvolk, a group for young boys--indeed, how difficult it would have been for him not to end up in such a place. Evincing less interest in Nazi propaganda than American schoolboys might express in Little League baseball, Herbst nonetheless rose through the ranks of the Jungvolk due to little more than inertia and the lack of any appealing alternative.

While Beck was knowing beyond his years, Herbst was naive. Still, Herbst's naivete is difficult to comprehend, even for a child who was just 11 when World War II began. Since Kristallnacht, Herbst had been fed antisemitic propaganda in school, newspapers and signs in the streets. Yet the same boy who marched through Wolfenbuettel with the Jungvolk singing songs about throwing the Jews out of Germany and cutting off their legs so they could not return, the same boy whose Jewish neighbors were taken by the Gestapo, was nonetheless shocked to learn the truth about slave labor camps and deportations. Herbst had few people to offer him answers--his parents kept him in the dark about German politics generally and their own positions in particular--but he also failed to ask what surely appeared even then to be obvious and monumental questions.

Beck and Herbst share a common shortcoming: In each memoir, the story is more impressive than the storyteller. Both authors rely on straightforward, linear exposition in which every episode is given roughly equal weight. Herbst--now emeritus professor of history at the University of Wisconsin--tends to include too many mundane details that detract from the book's more dynamic moments: his eye-opening trip to Poland, his confrontation with a Jew in Wolfenbuettel, the confession of his closest Jungvolk compatriot that he has a Jewish aunt. Beck--now teaching Jewish adult education in Berlin--has the opposite problem, leaving too much out. Episodes that warrant careful contemplation, such as his father's expulsion to Sachsenhausen concentration camp and even his own imprisonment, are treated as cursorily as less significant events.

Still, each memoir offers a unique perspective on everyday life in extreme circumstances. The books are especially compelling when they unwittingly mirror each other, providing insights into the common ground between these two would-be mortal enemies. Both men, for example, expound on the fraternity and camaraderie of their youth groups, and how those organizations gave them the strength to endure the war.

"In the midst of all the pain, the worry, and the fear around us, we were creating and upholding a world of boys, of honor, of pride, and yes, of love," Herbst writes. "This boys' world was what carried us through." His words could just as easily have come from Beck, echoing across the chasm that separated the two boys' universes.

Wayne Hoffman, arts editor of the New York Blade News.