The Night Schmeling Risked All : Boxing: An old friend recalls how the former champion saved his life by outwitting the Gestapo in 1938.
Henri Lewin, the president of the Sands Hotel, recently threw a party for an old friend.
He figured he owed his old friend for past favors. His life, for one.
His old friend is Max Schmeling, the former heavyweight boxing champion, now 84. In 1938, Henri Lewin was a 14-year-old German Jew, hiding in the Berlin apartment of Germany’s best-known athlete.
Lewin, until recently, hadn’t talked about the experience publicly because his old friend hadn’t wanted him to.
But before a couple of thousand people, at a special tribute to Schmeling, tears welled in Lewin’s eyes when he took the microphone and pointed to his old friend, seated at a front table next to the present heavyweight champion, Mike Tyson.
“I’m going to tell you what kind of champion Max Schmeling is,” Lewin told the crowd.
“Beginning on Nov. 9, 1938, for four days, Max Schmeling hid my brother and me in his Berlin apartment. That was the night known now as ‘the Crystal Night,’ when the Gestapo began picking up all Jews off the streets.
“Max Schmeling risked everything he had for us. If we had been found in his apartment, I would not be here this evening and neither would Max.
“And that, friends, is the kind of champion Max Schmeling is.”
In an interview later, in his office, Lewin said he has spoken only occasionally of his being protected by Schmeling after Adolf Hitler had ordered police to begin rounding up Jews.
“Max asked me several times over the years not to mention it,” Lewin said. “In fact, he sent me a letter after I invited him here this week and said he’d come, but asked me not to ‘glorify’ him. He told me that what he’d done for me and my brother Werner in 1938 was ‘doing the duty of a man.’ ”
Lewin said the Schmeling-Lewin relationship dated to the mid-1920s, when Schmeling was a relatively unknown light-heavyweight boxer and Lewin’s father owned a hotel in Potsdam, the Aristocrat, where Schmeling often stayed.
In 1930, Schmeling won the heavyweight championship on a foul from Jack Sharkey. He later lost the title in 1932 to Sharkey, on a decision. But he is best remembered for two historic fights with Joe Louis. In 1936, before Louis was champion, Schmeling handed Louis his first defeat, a knockout, and was hailed by Hitler as a symbol of “Aryan supremacy.”
In a 1938 rematch, Louis, by then the champion, knocked out Schmeling in the first round at New York’s Yankee Stadium.
Over the years, the Louis-Schmeling rivalry mellowed into friendship. After World War II, Schmeling became wealthy as a West German Coca-Cola distributor. Louis not only lost all his record earnings from boxing, but wound up heavily in debt to the Internal Revenue Service.
Louis died in April 1981, and Lewin recalled a phone call the next day.
“Max called me and asked me to go to the funeral and give a substantial sum of money to his widow, which I did,” Lewin said. “He didn’t want me to talk about that, either. But I’ve kept these secrets for all these years. The man is 84. I began to wonder how much longer will Max and I last. Max is a modest man and he won’t like me saying all this, but I wanted people to know what kind of man he is.”
There is a sound in Henri Lewin’s memory that remains vivid to this day: the sound of knocking on the door of Max Schmeling’s Berlin apartment.
“We hid from the housekeepers, waiters, other friends of Max--everyone,” he said. “The first day, Max didn’t leave the apartment. He told the front desk he was sick, and not to let anyone come up. He could have lessened the risk by just telling people we were nephews, or something. But he didn’t. He risked everything.
“Max had a great feeling for Jews, and what was happening in Germany. His manager, Joe Jacobs, was an American Jew.
“After four days, Max felt it was safe to take us to an apartment my father owned 30 minutes away, in the Tiergarten district of Berlin. We bought tickets to Genoa, Italy, where we were to leave by boat for Shanghai.
“But my brother and I were picked up by the police and taken to Spandau prison, and we had our heads shaved. They told us we were going to be taken to a camp. But six days later they released us.
“You see, in 1938, if the police picked up Jews who were older than 30 or 35, you never saw them again. But with very young people, that was a problem for the Nazis. They didn’t want stories about children disappearing to get out.
“So we left for Genoa, met our father and left for China.”
In Shanghai, the Lewin family was running a hotel when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. They were arrested and spent the war in a Japanese concentration camp.
By 1946, though, the Lewins were in San Francisco, back in the hotel business.
“All our relatives in Germany died in the concentration camps, except for an uncle of mine who was a general in the German Army in World War I. He had been awarded the Iron Cross. But he was a Jew, and was arrested in 1937. When he was released, he weighed 90 pounds.”
Lewin was a vice president at the Las Vegas Hilton for several years, then was named president of the Sands eight months ago.
“My father owned hotels and was in the clothing business in Germany,” Lewin said. “Old Germans remember today how well-dressed Max Schmeling was when he appeared in public in the 1930s. Well, he bought those suits from my father.”