Henri Levin, 1908-1945
Photos of Henoch Lewin in 1923 and 1926, passport application forms, held in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives
Henri Levin’s biography was compiled by two 9th grade students from the French International High School in Vilnius, where Henri Levin was born, from documents collected on the Internet by their history teacher during the Covid 19 lockdown. The students also worked on historical contextualization, researching in particular the French Foreign Legion and the death marches.
During our research, we referred to:
- Henri Levin’s birth certificate, issued in Vilnius, in the city’s Jewish registers kept at the Historical Archives of Lithuania;
- Passport applications made by his family in Vilnius in 1923, kept in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives. This file also includes passports obtained in 1916, during the German occupation;
- Henri Levin’s passport application made in 1926 to enable him to travel to France, kept in the Lithuanian State Archives;
- records of theses presented at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1939;
- lists of voluntary recruits in 1939, published on the Ministry of Armed Forces website “Mémoire des Hommes”;
- Documents from the Mauthausen memorial, published by the Arolsen Archives International Center on Nazi Persecution on the website arolsen-archives.org
Growing up in Vilnius
Henri Levin was in fact born under the name of Henoch Lewin, in Vilnius, Lithuania, on May 5, 1908, as shown by the birth certificate kept in the Jewish registers of the city, which was then part of the Russian Empire.
Registration of the birth and circumcision of Henoch Lewin in the Jewish Registers of Vilnius, held in the Lithuanian State Historical Archives, excerpt published by the Mormon genealogical site familysearch.org
The western provinces of the Lithuania were home to a very large Jewish population. Before its annexation by the Tsarist Empire at the end of the 18th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which in the late Middle Ages and in the modern era extended from the Baltic Sea to the Ukraine, was home to a large number of Jews, who, through their craftsmanship and commercial skills, contributed to the development of the country. Vilnius was even known as the “Jerusalem of the North”.
Henoch’s father, Abraham Lewin, was a tailor from Iwie in Belarus. His mother, Sheina Khaya, came from Varėna in Lithuania. The couple had two children: Henoch and his sister Leïa, born in 1909. The family lived in the historical center of the city, close to the Jewish quarter, and seem to have been relatively well-off: in 1923, the family lived at 2-2 Hetmanskaya Street (Etmonų gatvė in Lithuanian) and in 1926, they were at 7-1 Subocz Street (Subačiaus gatvė in Lithuanian).
Identify photos of the Lewin family in, Lithuanian State Historical Archives
In the 19th century, the circumstances of the Jews in Lithuania, which was by then part of the Tsarist Empire, deteriorated, even though Vilnius was spared the great pogroms of 1881-1914. However, Henoch, born in 1908, was undoubtedly affected more by what happened during the Great War and afterwards, when the city changed hands several times. From 1915 on, Vilnius was occupied by the German army. In 1918, Lithuania declared its independence, but then the Bolsheviks seized the city before being driven out by the Polish army in April 1919. Vilnius then suffered its first pogrom in contemporary history, committed by Polish soldiers who killed several dozen Jews, who were accused of collaborating with the communists, and ravaged many shops, homes and synagogues. Pogroms of this type, committed by armed gangs, broke out throughout the western periphery of the former Tsarist empire in 1918-1920, during the wars of independence, particularly in Ukraine where massacres were widespread.
The subject of a conflict between Lithuanian and Polish nationalists, the historic capital of Lithuania was finally annexed by Poland in 1920. It was not returned to Lithuania until 1939, following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland. The Lewin family thus lived in Vilnius during the Polish period. Anti-Semitism was rampant in parts of Polish society, particularly in the universities, where ultra-nationalist organizations opposed the presence of Jews, and then at the end of the inter-war period a numerus clausus was issued against them. This is perhaps what prompted Henoch Lewin to leave for France.
A student in Paris
In 1926, Henoch left Lithuania to study medicine in Paris, perhaps because the atmosphere there was more relaxed. He was not alone: in the 1920s, many Jews from foreign countries where anti-Semitism was rife moved to France to study or practice medicine. However, in the 1930s, more and more French doctors’ unions began to protest about Jews and “métèques” (foreigners) who were supposedly incompetent and ignorant of French culture. As a result of their pressure, legislation was passed in 1933 to limit the practice of medicine in France to French doctors with a French diploma. Henoch, however, benefited from an exception made for foreigners who were already studying in France at the time the law was enacted: he could still hope, therefore, to be able to practice in France.
He presented his thesis to the Faculty of Medicine in Paris in 1939, on the subject: “Denatality: its social causes”. This was a patriotic topic that was fashionable at the time: people were worried about a loss of power in France due to demographic factors. Henoch thus demonstrated his willingness to integrate into French society and his patriotism, even though he was not yet regarded as being French.
Ill-rewarded for his patriotism
In 1939, when war broke out, Henoch Lewin’s patriotism was reaffirmed when he joined the French Foreign Legion. He was enrolled in the Second Infantry Regiment of Foreign Volunteers, along with many other foreign Jews and numerous Spaniards who had fled Franco’s Spain. The soldiers were poorly equipped – they were known as “shoestring regiments” – but the regiment distinguished itself by its heroic fighting in 1940 during skirmishes against the German invaders. It was perhaps during his time at the front that Henoch Lewin began to use the French version of his name, “Henri Levin”.
Nevertheless, after the armistice in 1940, the Vichy regime neither rewarded these foreign legionnaires nor even gave them back their freedom. Action was taken against Jews and foreigners: former legionnaires were put into groups of foreign workers and used as forced laborers. In 1944, we find Henri Levin in Perpignan, not far from Barcarès, where the Foreign Legion barracks had been located. He was living at 44, boulevard Frédéric Mistral, near the Champs de Mars, an area to which a group of foreign workers was assigned.
It was there that Henri Levin was arrested and sent to the Drancy camp, where he arrived on July 2, 1944. According to the Drancy search logbook, 5,139 francs were found on him at the time, which would be equivalent to a little less than 1,000 dollars today. This was a sizeable sum compared to the other deportees. Perhaps it was money earned in various ways in Perpignan despite his being a foreign worker. In any case, it could not have been through practicing medicine, at least not legally, because the Vichy regime had founded the Order of Physicians and foreigners had been excluded from it. A law enacted on August 16, 1940 stipulated that “no one may practice the profession of doctor in France unless he or she holds French nationality as a native, born of a French father”. A numerus clausus was also placed on French Jewish doctors.
Henri Levin was sent to Auschwitz on July 31, 1944, aboard Convoy 77. He arrived on August 3. Unlike the majority of deportees, he was not gassed immediately upon arrival, but would have been selected for work. Henri Levin even survived until the Germans evacuated the camp as the Soviet forces advanced. He then had to endure what became known as a death march, all the way to Loslau, in Poland. Many deportees, already weak from their time in the camp, did not survive such forced marches, either dying of exhaustion or being executed along the way, but Henri Levin survived and arrived at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria on January 25, 1945.
Mauthausen was a concentration camp in which conditions were extremely harsh and which had previously been used to eliminate the Polish elite. It was a “level III” camp, one of only two at this level, the other being Gusen, intended to exterminate people by overwork. Henri Levin did not survive: exempted from forced labor on March 23, since he was considered too weak, he died on the 30th, just over a month before the Americans liberated the camp on May 5.
His parents and sister, if they were still alive at the beginning of the war, were probably killed as early as 1941, soon after the Germans arrived, or confined to the ghetto in Vilnius. The overwhelming majority of the people living in the ghetto died, due to undernourishment, disease, forced labor and successive waves of eliminations, or when it was destroyed in 1943. A Sheina Lewin can be found in the ghetto registers, and the registers of the Klooga camp, in Estonia, mention an Abraham Lewin, who was interned there after the closure of the Vilnius camp and subsequently executed.