It’s not the most elegant grab-it-off-the-bookshelf cover I’ve ever seen, but once you start reading this book, it’s very engaging. It’s a biography of the author’s father, Lonek Lew, told through the lives of his many friends and relations, some of whom are prominent figures in history. With numerous examples of Lonek’s humour and wisdom, Lion Hearts is inspiring reading.
This biography might well have been sombre reading. Like many Jews of the post-war generation, Henry Lew sees himself as a victim of the Holocaust because unlike his own children, he had no extended family around him: ‘no grandparents, no brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts or cousins’. (p. 21) Growing up in Melbourne, he had only one uncle, an aunt and a cousin in far away Paris, not meeting them until he was twenty-five. Until he was forty, he did not even know that his ‘favourite uncle’ who died in a Gestapo cell in 1942, had another name. He knew this man, Monia a.k.a. Naum, only from his father’s bedtime stories about childhood escapades in which Monia was always the hero.
Lonek and his wife Genia survived the Holocaust only because Poland was carved up between Stalin and Hitler in the short-lived Molotov-von Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Their city Bialystok (in eastern Poland) was ceded to the Soviets, and it was only through a series of lucky accidents that the young newly-weds survived the outbreak of hostilities in 1941, eventually ending up in Moscow. Lonek ended up working as a lawyer defending soldiers accused of treason, but of course he lost every case even though the soldier had done nothing more sinister than to call Stalin a swine or something similar. When Lonek realised that he himself was at risk of being denounced for defending these people, he was lucky again, being able to organise a transfer to a remote part of the Soviet Union, where he was able to sit out the rest of the war in comparative safety.
But others in Lonek and Genia’s family were not so lucky: nearly all of them perished in the Holocaust. Part of what makes this book so moving is the story of how the author conquered his reluctance to visit Poland so that his children would connect with their heritage. Today Poles are starting to speak up about their history and how the end of World War II was not a happy ending but for Lew, Poland was the ‘killing fields where 90% of the Jewish population, and an even larger proportion of my own family, had been brutally murdered.‘ (p. 73) He wished to stick with his father’s stories of Bialystok before the war, his mental images based on his own imagination.
I had no wish to change this personal view, to pollute it with new material. The Holocaust had cleansed any relevance present-day Poland might have held for me, and many Polish Jewish survivors I had spoken to expressed similar, even stronger viewpoints. Their sentiments were clear. ‘We never want to see Poland again. A plague on all their houses! We hate the Poles, not only for the atrocities they committed against us during the war, but because they were the only nation who continued committing atrocities against us once the war was over’. (p. 73)
Yet as the author makes clear, this was not a view held by his parents, who separately and together had visited Poland several times since the war. Lonek was still travelling the world well into his old age and seems to have had a remarkable ability to overcome any feelings of hostility he might have had. Considering how many of his family died in the Holocaust and the grisly circumstances in which they met their deaths, it is inspiring to read that he never hated, saying that there were ‘no bad nations, only bad people‘. (p.74)
The roll call of remarkable people in this book is impressive. In celebrating the lives of family members and Lonek’s friends, Lew introduces successful businessmen, industrialists, and philanthropists. There are men and women of great initiative, and still others of great courage.
Written with a bereaved son’s great love, Henry Lew’s biography does not pretend to reveal everything about his subject. If Lonek had flaws, they are hard to find in this book. Lew stresses his father’s intelligence, his ability to learn languages, and his capacity to adapt. He shares anecdotes that demonstrate his father’s lively humour, his wise-cracking jokes, his and cheerful attitude to the indignities and illnesses of old age. It is Lonek’s indomitable spirit which shines through and makes bearable the tragedies that this book bears witness to.
At times I found it a bit hard to connect up the relationships and would have liked a family tree and an index to refer to, but more than anything I would have liked some photos of these amazing people, all of whom deserve the epithet ‘lion hearts‘.
Author: Henry R. Lew
Title: Lion Hearts: A Family Saga of Refugees and Asylum Seekers
Publisher: Hybrid Publishers, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Hybrid Publishers