An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin by Gad Beck (translated by Allison Brown), University of Wisconsin Press, 1999.
International Holocaust Remembrance Day is held each year on January 27, to commemorate the date when the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army in 1945. I value the focus on global awareness, as the Holocaust was neither exclusively European nor exclusively a Jewish tragedy. Nonetheless, Israel has an additional, national Memorial Day on each 27th of Nisan (which usually falls in April). The day is called Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laG'vurah (usually translated as “Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day”), known colloquially as Yom HaShoah. We are encouraged to commemorate the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust and the Jewish resistance during that period. This year, Yom HaShoah falls on the evening of April 17 to the evening of April 18. To practice this act of recognition and remembrance, I like to spend a week before the date reading (often rereading) an apt survivor memoir. If you find yourself similarly inclined, I would like to take this opportunity to make a recommendation.
Gad Beck’s “An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin” is, from my perspective, unique among Holocaust survivor memoirs as an open-hearted celebration of life and love amidst unrelenting chaos and destruction. Beck was what the Nazis identified as a “Mischling,” the child of one Christian and one Jewish parent. This left him in somewhat of a limbo state, neither banished from Germany nor a full citizen thereof. He lived in the margins, first visibly and then underground. That a gay Mischling teenager not only remained in Nazi Berlin and survived the Holocaust but also acted as a resistance leader is astonishing. But, as the memoir’s back cover has it, that he endured all with “an open heart, with love and without vitriol, and has written about it so beautifully is truly miraculous.” I must agree.
We follow Beck from his birth and childhood through the years of the Holocaust and, in a very brief Epilogue, beyond. He combines a frank recognition of his own homosexuality from a young age and his parents’ acceptance with the rise of Nazi antisemitism, a far more important and complex “problem.” He is direct, his language full of good humor and wit as he explains sexual awareness alongside life in an interfaith household – a factor that would become important to the survival of family members, for the Christian relatives aided the Jewish during the years of greatest need.
Like some other survivors, Beck finds himself drawn to his Jewishness as a means of defense against the hatred all around him. He becomes a Zionist and a resistance worker almost simultaneously, laboring to find hiding places and then, with the guidance of leaders of the Hechalutz (or pioneer movement) that eventually became the Relief and Rescue Committee, to help as many people as he could escape to Palestine.
Within these years of concealment and struggle, Beck details the risks and tragedies he faced along the way. He smuggled and blackmailed as well as used his youthful body to gain important silences and active support, never expressing resentment or trauma. This may be a coping strategy, of course, for it is difficult to imagine being so untouched by what we would call harassment and sexual assault today. At very least, Beck makes plain that this is not the core of his survival narrative, and we would do wrong to reject his perspective.
The most heartbreaking story in the short narrative (only 165 pages) is Beck’s first experience of love as a teenager, with the gentle, affectionate Manfred Lewin. The two were fast friends, and this became more intimate over time, though Beck is certain that Lewin was not gay. They petted and snuggled and felt secure and happy together. Ultimately, Beck links this to the bonds forged by all the young men he knew: “We were all united by a strong sense of solidarity. We were oppressed and persecuted, and we had no desire to become people who discriminated against others” (56). But there was something particularly sweet and special in his bond with Lewin, made even more poignant by the fact that Lewin did not survive, choosing to die with his family than escape with Beck. Reading the details of their final parting is truly moving, and we are privileged to see even more in the United States Holocaust Memorial’s exhibit of the little remembrance book Lewin made for Beck during their short time together.
Each time I revisit this book – to think about, reread, or teach it, I am reminded of both the brevity of life and the fullness with which even the worst of it can be lived. As Foreword writer Frank Heibert posits, “Gad Beck is a master in the art of living,” and the world is better for his having lived to write about it.
Elyce Rae Helford, PhD, is a professor of English and director of the Jewish and Holocaust Studies minor at Middle Tennessee State University. Her most recent book is What Price Hollywood?: Gender and Sex in the Films of George Cukor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.