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  • Moshe LewinA Reminiscence and Appreciation
  • Alfred J. Rieber (bio)

Misha Lewin used to joke that as soon as he arrived in a new country it began to decline. Like many of Misha's jokes, it contained a psychological insight. In his adult life Misha did not, I believe, find an equivalent to what was for him the ideal community of Hashomar Hatsair (Youth Guard), the left Zionist youth group in his home town of Vilnius. I remember how, after a quiet evening of dinner, moderate drinks, and good conversation, he might take out some old photographs. He would linger over one portraying a group of young people in their teens with bright, eager, healthy faces exuding intelligence and self-confidence, Misha among them. "All dead," he would say, "killed by the Germans." And then he would pass on. For Misha the comradeship and lofty moral qualities of the movement continued to be a guide and inspiration.

When I first came to know him more than 30 years ago, he was teaching in Birmingham, but the word reached me that he was looking for another place. He came to the University of Pennsylvania at my invitation to deliver the Kaplan Memorial Lecture. I hoped that we could attract him. But everything seemed to go wrong. It was an unusually hot fall and the air conditioning at the motel broke down; the elevator failed and there was some mix-up about the scheduling of his talk. Throughout he maintained his good humor, and there was always the joke about decline on the tip of his tongue. I should have known that a man whose life was a series of unexpected and often tragic events kept little annoyances in their proper perspective. [End Page 127]

His full biography is well known to many. Born on the fourth anniversary of the Russian Revolution—of more than anecdotal significance, he would joke again—to a Russian-speaking Ukrainian mother and a Polish-Jewish father, he grew up in a multicultural environment. Learned in Hebrew, speaking Russian, Yiddish, and Polish, he always had a witty reply when someone asked him what his native language was. If he was Michel Levine in France, he was Moshe Lewin in the Anglo world (even Mike to his neighbors in Philadelphia) and Misha everywhere. He suffered the indignities and brutalities of Polish antisemitism as a youth, but this did not deter him from admiring Polish culture, if not the Poles. Although considering himself "a Jew," he was thoroughly secular and broadly tolerant of other customs. For over 20 years, he celebrated Christmas Eve at home with us, joining in singing carols; he knew the words and still had a sweet high baritone voice. Then, the smile and the little joke: "in Wilno [sic], the Poles would spill into the streets after Christmas service and beat the Jews, and here am I."

In 1941, even before the Germans arrived in Vilnius, a local nationalist militia attempted to cart off his father. A tough and resilient man of many parts surviving as a circus strong man and occasional smuggler, he resisted until they shot him down. Misha barely escaped with a few friends. He was rescued by Red Army peasant soldiers who hauled him on board one of the last trucks pulling out of the city. His odyssey (or was it an anabasis?) had begun. He is the best recorder of his wandering life in Soviet Russia, as a kolhoznik, factory worker, and Red Army recruit.1 It was these experiences with what he called the "popular layers" of Soviet society that later inspired him in his historical studies but also haunted him. He graduated from officer's candidate school on the last day of the war, too late to see combat. He participated in the ceremony in Red Square when the Wehrmacht battle flags were thrown down at the base of the Mausoleum. He was actively recruited to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) but declined. Instead, he became an organizer in the Jewish underground, smuggling Jews to Palestine. What hair-raising stories he had to tell! Just before the net closed around him, he emigrated to...


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pp. 127-139
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