Kurt Lewin. A Journey Through Illusions

Anastasiya Prymovych ・ March 2014
Lviv: Svichado, 2007.
Translated from English by Yaroslav Karp'yuk and Lesia Lysenko

A Journey Through Illusions, published in the US in 1994 by Kurt Lewin—son of Lviv rabbi Ezekiel Lewin, witness to the Holocaust, colonel of the General Staff of the Israel Defence Forces and successful Wall Street financier—summarizes the author’s life journey, extending from intimate personal memory to collective memory and, therefore, to history. 

Almost half a century ago Lewin already described the experience of WWII in his work, Aliti MiSpezia (1947), and later in Przeżyłem Saga Świętego Jura spisana w roku 1946 (2006). The 1994 memoir includes new chapters on his successful career as a broker on Wall Street, his travels to Europe to promote business expansion and the mechanism behind Japan’s transformation into a superpower, which started with the use of short-term lines of credit and the introduction of energy-saving policies to overcome dependence on Middle Eastern oil supplies.

Of particular importance are the sections devoted to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky, the attempt to analyse inter-ethnic relations and the reflections on Holocaust memory in the post-war Israeli, European and American worlds. Here the author marvels at our ability to remain indifferent to the game being played out, to use Norman Davies’ words, on “God’s playground”.

After years of Lewin’s unsuccessful campaign to ensure Andrey Sheptytsky’s beatification, this work aims to protest the Metropolitan’s descent into oblivion and express dedication and gratitude to him. Thanks to Sheptytsky, Lewin's brother, Clement, was transformed into the novice Studite Roman Mytka and thus survived the Holocaust. Such were his only means of personal salvation—the concealment or alteration of identity—and it was through these means East European Jewry was able to escape. Sheptytsky’s efforts in saving Jews at a time when the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII remained silent deserve special recognition. 

Another aspect of Lewin’s book is his emphasis on the insensitivity of society to Holocaust survivors: in conversations about the Holocaust, Americans would talk about shortages of petrol, nylon stockings and oil. The “arrogant and cruel sabras” showed little interest in anything apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict; for them, the Holocaust was just a step towards the creation of Israel. In trying to understand such attitudes, Lewin sees a code to deciphering post-war society’s general feeling of indifference. Eastern European Jews have personal memories of the Holocaust—they think of it in absolute categories. World Jewry, on the other hand, remembers the Holocaust collectively, for, in the words of Pierre Nora, the Jewish people require “memory of memory”. For Americans, and over time, Jews as well, the categories of understanding become more relative—the memory of the Holocaust shifts onto the plane of history. 

There are two possible ways for such a shift to occur—when personal experience becomes appropriated by the community as a whole or when it transforms itself over time. The latter is what we find in Lewin’s 1994 memoir compared to the 1946 version: extensive commentaries on historical events have been omitted as well as emotional personal memories, such as reminiscences of the mother who left the family, the first unrequited love and the daily experience of war. The author’s judgment on Ukrainian anti-Semitism has been toned down and rationalized—sometimes by more strongly emphasizing Polish “primordial anti-Semitism” (influenced, perhaps, by his later bitter experience in Warsaw and Rome in relation to his beatification efforts) and the average German’s Nazism. Lewin explains that the fifty years that passed between his two books allowed him to make a more emotionally balanced assessment of his life—to write history and not a memoir of his own illusions.

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