Refugees from Europe: Edith Lewinsky
Edith Lewinsky married Jiban Mukerjee in the UK in 1945. Thereafter they returned to India and after living for a few years in Bombay, where Jiban worked for Unilevers they moved to Calcutta where they lived from 1950 – 1963. Edith enjoyed her years in Calcutta and recalls what a relief it was to be embraced and accepted by their friend’s circle as “Jiban’s wife, not Jiban’s Jewish wife.” Jiban’s parents had died while he was studying law in London. When he announced that he had met Edith and intended to marry her, his Uncle cut him off. However, Edith’s comments about being accepted, her faith not being an issue, references the Anti-Semitism she confronted in Europe that took her beloved family to the concentration camps.
Edith and Jiban and their two children Tanya and Kim lived for more than two decades in Calcutta where Jiban worked for many years in several prestigious companies including the Tea Board and Grants Advertising. He was transferred to Belgium in 1963 and the family moved there. Jiban died very young and Edith and her children stayed on in Europe. Tanya, after her French husband’s untimely death, moved back to Kolkata where she now lives.
Edith was a German Jewess. In a diary written for Tanya, Edith recounts the story of her life in Berlin as a young girl and her escape to London till the time Jiban and her land in Bombay. Tanya shared the contents of the diary as well as photos of her family, the meager cutlery and monogrammed napkins that Edith was permitted to take with her out of Germany that Tanya has kept all these years that are soon to go, along with the diary, to Yad Va Shem (Holocaust Memorial) in Jerusalem.
Edith grew up in a bourgeoisie Jewish family in Berlin. Her parents, Isidore Lewinsky and his petite wife owned a factory in Pomerania. Due to Mrs. Lewinsky’s illness, breast cancer, they had to sell their enterprise to move to Berlin for medical treatment. The Lewinsky’s bought a four-floor home in Berlin on 6 Claudius Strasse. They lived on the spacious top floor and rented out most of the other apartments to Jewish families. They were urbane and well integrated into German society. Isidore loved classical music and both were involved in the Masonic Lodge. They were not “Ghetto Jews!” They saw themselves as Germans above all else!
Edith, born in 1918 in Pomerania, was the youngest daughter with 3 siblings much older than she. She writes of how she was pampered as a child, living a life of ease and comforts in the beautiful city of Berlin where she had many German friends. She enjoyed skating at the lake, hiking in the forests around Berlin, was active in her mixed school in the various sporting clubs and enjoyed the restaurants, cafes and parks for which Berlin was famous. It even had a restaurant with a baby elephant for the children to ride that she wrote of fondly.
She was for the most part protected from the increasingly Anti Semitic forces that were brewing in Germany but reached a crescendo in her teenage years
forcing her to flee for her life to England. In her diary she recounts in details of how privileges were taken away from her and her family one-by-one, noting in detail how her world kept shrinking. Each time the Lewinsky’s thought that the situation could not get worse, that the bad times would soon be over.
The Lewinsky family woke up to late to the reality of what was occurring in Germany. By the time they sought to emigrate and flee for their safety it was too late. They could not get the necessary visas. By 1938 all exit doors were closed. In 1939 the Lewinsky’s managed to get Edith a permit to leave to work as a domestic help for a family in the UK. Little did they or she realize that they would never meet again. When Edith was interned at the Isle of Man she received her last telegram from her father saying: “Dearest Child, Travelling on Tuesday.” Her parents, sister and brother-in law were sent to Theresienstadt, Czech Republic, one of the 67 concentration camps set up by the Germans.
At twenty-one Edith found herself alone in the world. Having had a maid in her own home, she was treated very badly by the English family she worked for till 1940 when she was interned as an “Enemy Alien” with other German Jews and Nazis. In 1941 she was released from the camp and made her way to London where she found herself a job as a waitress and later as a tax accountant. It was through a German family that she knew in Berlin, from whom she rented a room, that she met their friend, Jiban. The two “instantly clicked.” Together they made it through the terrible war years in London till Jiban returned to India, with Edith who had been hospitalized again for Pleurisy, following soon thereafter.
In Calcutta, Jiban and Edith had many friends. They decided from the onset that their children would not be identified with any religion. Their son, Kim, later embraced Judaism and went to live in Jerusalem. Edith, while not part of the Jewish community of Calcutta by choice, was one of the many European Jews who lived in the city in the 50’s and 60’s.