The train rumbles noisily across the German Fatherland, and for one 14-year-old passenger there is little to do other than stare out the window. This boy, like thousands of other Jewish children, is leaving Germany for the first time in his life.
The young fugitive surveys his surroundings. Hopefully, in a short while the train will have crossed over the border and put him out reach of his infamous, genocidal neighbor.
For Edgar Feuchtwanger, life was like riding a train that only moved forward. For many decades he kept the secrets of his past mostly to himself and his inner circle. But as old age began to encroach he reconsidered, and resolved to share his story with the world.
In an exclusive interview with Ami, Edgar Feuchtwanger reveals what it was like to grow up across the street from the front door of Amalek himself.
It’s a Boy!
In September of 1924, Hitler was thrown into jail at the Landsberg Prison following the Nazis’ failed attempt to overthrow the local government in Munich. His supporters and sympathizers petitioned the Bavarian Supreme Court for Hitler’s early release. But the local authorities, none too pleased about that prospect, decided to take proactive measures by having Hitler extradited to Austria, his country of origin.
At the same time, while efforts were being made to revoke Hitler’s German citizenship, a Jewish child was being granted his, when the Feuchtwanger family welcomed their only child into the world. They named him Edgar. Of course, little Edgar had no way of knowing about the political exchanges that were going on between Germany and Austria regarding the future of the rabble-rouser with the ridiculous moustache.
Eventually the proposal reached the desk of Ignaz Spiegel, the Chancellor of Austria, who declared that his country was categorically refusing to take back the felon, on the grounds that he had forfeited his Austrian citizenship when he enlisted in the German army during the First World War. Hitler remained incarcerated in Munich. Unfortunately, less than three months later, and much to the chagrin of the city’s law enforcement, he was once again out of the streets.
Edgar spent his childhood in an apartment on Grillparzerstrasse, in one of Munich’s more affluent neighborhoods. At first, the Feuchtwangers weren’t the only Jews in the vicinity, and little changed when Hitler moved right across the street from them in 1929, in the corner apartment of a building at the intersection of Grillparzerstrasse and Prinzregentenplatz. Just how close was Edgar’s house from Hitler’s? A bit too close for comfort.
“My address was 38 Grillparzerstrasse, and Hitler lived sort of diagonally across the street at 16 Prinzregentenplatz. You could see it quite clearly through some of my windows. Very often I would look outside and watch him moving about his apartment.”
A Near-Collision with the Devil
“I had a pretty sheltered upbringing,” Edgar relates. “My parents were older when they got married—it was my father’s second marriage—and I was an only child. My father and his family had been Orthodox Jews, but by the time he married my mother he wasn’t very religious.”
But all that would change. As the Nazi Party’s power increased, so did the Feuchtwanger family’s interest in Judaism.
“I suppose the thing that really awakened my Jewish feelings was the rise of the Nazis. Before that, I knew about Judaism about as much as anyone who is eight years old, when one doesn’t know too much about most things. But the Nazis’ discrimination against the Jews made me much more aware of being Jewish. I started attending synagogue fairly regularly,” he admits, although more often than not the congregation wasn’t Orthodox. “The way I remember it, the Reform synagogue looked a lot like a church, whereas the Orthodox one was much more austere”
Edgar was no older than five when his infamous new neighbor moved onto the block. He clearly recalls hearing the man’s name for the first time.
“One day my mother told me that we weren’t going to be having any milk, because the milkman had to leave a few extra bottles over at Hitler’s flat. That’s sort of embedded in my mind.”
At first Hitler lived on the second floor. But whereas his previous apartment at 41Thierschstrasse had only two rooms, this one was much more spacious with nine. It was considered quite luxurious, which caused quite a scandal in Germany at the time: “Hitler claims to be a man of the people, yet he lives a lavish apartment in an upscale part of town,” blared some of his political opponents.
Growing up, Edgar would watch the future mass murderer and his cronies getting into and out of his private Mercedes (and later a fleet of Mercedes) that was always parked in front of the house. Edgar and Hitler would see each other from time to time, occasionally making eye contact through a window. But there would be much closer encounters as well.
When Edgar was eight years old, he nearly collided with Hitler in the middle of the street.
“The first time I saw him face to face was soon after he became Chancellor, in the spring of 1933. Around eight o’clock in the morning I was being taken for a walk with my nanny. Most of the Jewish children in the neighborhood had nannies, and the nannies weren’t Jewish. Just as we reached the door to Hitler’s building he stepped outside. I even remember what he was wearing: a light-colored Mackintosh raincoat with a belt around the waist and an ordinary sort of hat. I think it might have been unusual for him to be out of military uniform at the time, but later he was always in uniform.
“My nanny and I were sort of in his way, standing between the door and his car, so we stopped and looked at each other. There were a lot passersby that day, and they all immediately shouted ‘Heil Hitler,’ from which we can deduce that he was already an important personage. But he didn’t salute back; he just lifted his hat a little and then got into his car.”
Meeting Hitler in person didn’t intimidate Edgar in the least. “I knew who Hitler was, but I wasn’t frightened. Hitler had no idea that I was Jewish. And even if he did, I knew that he wouldn’t do anything to me right there in the open.”
As he walked past, Edgar recalls thinking that Hitler was much shorter than he’d imagined.
Interestingly, Edgar reveals that he and Hitler used the same dentist.
“My dentist was very discreet; he never talked about it. But it was something that was known at the time.”
The Scandal that Rocked
How often was Hitler at home? At one point, very.
“Before he became Chancellor, Hitler used the apartment a lot. After he became head of state he was there pretty much every weekend. During the week he would travel around Germany showing himself off and attending mass demonstrations. Then he’d return to Munich by the end of the week before continuing on to Berchtesgaden (Berghof), his mountain retreat. It was far too dangerous to fly there, so he’d normally drive into Munich with his entourage, stop off at his flat and maybe go out to eat in his favorite restaurant, Osteria Italiana, before continuing his journey. The first autobahn ever built went from Munich to near Berchtesgaden.”
A lot of history would take place on that street, and Edgar got to witness much of it. One of the first disturbances he remembers took place on September 18, 1931. A fight broke out in Hitler’s apartment that almost ended his political career before he even came to power.
Hitler’s half-niece, a young woman named Geli Raubal, was living with her uncle in his apartment. One day the pair got into a particularly nasty fight, after Hitler forbade her to leave town without his permission. At some point a shot rang out, and Geli’s lifeless body was later found slumped over in Hitler’s apartment. The cause of death was a single gunshot wound to the lung that had issued from Hitler’s pistol—the same one he had used during the famous Beer Hall Putch, his failed attempt to take over Munich by force.
In the weeks and months that followed, speculation arose as to whether Geli had committed suicide or if Hitler had murdered her in a fit of rage. Facing political extinction, Hitler fled to the Alps. Rumors proliferated throughout the street and press. Much of the media and German intelligentsia saw this as an opportunity to bring about an end to the Nazi Party, and they made sure to keep the story relevant for as long as possible. Some of the upper echelons of the party even quietly considered replacing Hitler, and according to one report, Hitler almost took his own life.
But after a few months the story blew over, thanks to a local detective named Heinrich Muller, who was one of the first to arrive on the scene. He made sure to destroy all of the incriminating evidence, for which he would later be appointed chief of operations for the Gestapo.
With key evidence missing, the Nazis took the initiative, threatening to sue the press for libel. Eventually the scandal died down.
But the Nazis had long memories, and once they assumed power they made sure to arrest every journalist who had covered the story of Geli’s death or had written anything negative against the Nazis in general. Noted author Lion Feuchtwanger, Edgar’s uncle, managed to make it to the top of the list of Hitler’s personal enemies [see sidebar].
Nazi Rise to Power
“Very soon after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 the Nazis took over that entire apartment building. The SS moved in and occupied the whole first floor. People are under the impression that there were guards standing outside the building but there weren’t any. To my knowledge there were never any guards outside the door; they were always inside.”
This easy accessibility to the building even afforded the young Edgar an opportunity to approach the entrance to check if the doorbell said “Adolf Hitler.” To his recollection it did not, and had a different name instead.
“In 1933 it was still possible to walk right up to the entrance.
You could see Hitler’s car whenever it was parked there, so we knew not to get any closer.”
A few times a year, especially on holidays or when notable dignitaries would come to meet with Hitler, the entire neighborhood would be converted into a giant hodgepodge of Nazi pageantry, which Edgar remembers as involving “lots of extravagant draperies and banners.” The neighbors had no say in the matter, and every window displayed whatever the party officials told them to.
“You would have stood out like a sore thumb if you didn’t, and that would have been the end, more or less. To a child it was very impressive to have the whole street draped in color. Of course, you could only do something like that under a tyrannical regime; otherwise, people wouldn’t cooperate.
“There were endless holidays. That’s how the Nazis kept the populace on a tight leash, to the extent that they could hardly think of anything else. They would go from one to the next: the Day of German Work, the Day of Labor, the day of this and the day of that, all the time.”
Sometimes giant draperies were dropped from the rooftops, blocking out all the light on the upper floors. For some events, each family would be given candles to put in the windows, while for others they were given different kinds of night lights. At a prearranged hour, everyone was to light the candles or turn on the light bulbs at the same time for maximum effect.
How did Edgar’s family feel about such displays? “We despised the whole thing, but we knew that we couldn’t do anything against it. We were powerless; we had to go along.”
Evil Loves Company
There were other famous individuals living nearby as well. Edgar pinpoints November 12, 1933 as the day he encountered Ernst Röhm, the leader of the Nazi militia, while walking on the street. It was the day of the first plebiscite (referendum vote) on the matter of Germany departing from the League of Nations.
“As my nanny and I passed the polling station we saw a press photographer standing outside. They were very conspicuous in those days with their huge cameras, so we assumed that something was going on inside. A minute later out came Röhm, who was the second most powerful man in the Reich. He was also one of our neighbors.”
There were others too.
“Every day on my way to school I would pass by the villa of Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler’s private photographer.” Also on the way to school was the home of Eva Braun, Hitler’s longtime companion with whom he would later commit suicide in 1945.
Between the homes of Hoffman and Braun lived one of Edgar’s classmates. “I remember there was a chap I knew quite well, who had the villa next to Hoffman. If you looked through the fence, you could often see Hitler sitting on a deck chair in the next garden. At the time, we had no idea what these people would do to the world.”
There was always plenty of action to be observed on that infamous street corner. Edgar thinks back to the day when Ernst Röhm was removed from power and executed.
By 1934 the Nazis were firmly in control and were trying to rebrand themselves as a legitimate political organization. This meant that Ernst Röhm and his SA (Sturmabteilung) Brownshirts no longer had a place in the Nazi Party. For one thing, the SA was still instigating street riots, which wasn’t the image the Nazis wanted project. Moreover, thanks to rampant unemployment there were over two million SA Brownshirts, whereas the regular German army had been limited to 100,000 troops. At that point the Nazis had to choose between the SA—the militia that had gotten them into a position of power—and the German army—the militia that would allow them to keep that power. But how to get rid of a tremendous paramilitary force without an even larger one to help bring it down?
To resolve the issue, Hitler invited Röhm and several others to convene at a posh hotel in the resort town of Tegernsee to discuss their future in the Nazi-controlled government. Röhm and the SA leadership remained blissfully unaware of the events to come, which would later become known as the “Night of Long Knives.”
“On June 30, 1934 the situation was very tense. I could see all the activity going on outside Hitler’s apartment. While I didn’t know it at the time, they were getting his motorcade ready to drive out to Tegernsee to arrest Röhm.”
By the end of the day, many members of the SA leadership had been shot at point-blank range. Röhm himself had been arrested for “high treason” and hauled back to Munich, where he was incarcerated in the Stadelheim Prison (the same prison where Hitler had been locked up in for a month in 1922 after a brawl with a local politician). Röhm was killed a few days later.
The executions were carried out by the SS, which up until then had been little more than an elite bodyguard force. The SS would subsequently succeed the SA as the paramilitary force of the Nazi government.
In 1938, at the age of 13, Edgar watched Hitler’s motorcade depart from home with a large military escort. It was headed for the Austrian border, where Hitler would personally announce Austria’s annexation to Germany.
“I also remember seeing him return [from Austria]. It was March 16, 1938, which happened to be a Wednesday,” he says.
Perhaps the last time Edgar recalls seeing his notorious neighbor was “around the time of the Munich Conference of 1938.”
At that gathering, Hitler met with a number of world leaders, including Italy’s Benito Mussolini and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain. The result of that summit was Chamberlin’s famous premature “peace in our time” speech and Hitler’s premeditated invasion of Czechoslovakia.
A Jewish Boy
in a Nazi School
According to Edgar, up until 1938, as long as Jews stayed off the Nazis’ radar they were pretty much left alone. And although Nazi propaganda was deeply integrated into every aspect of the curriculum, anti-Semitism wasn’t its primary focus in his particular school.
“Most of the material in our books had to do with the glorification of Germany and the history of the First World War. It was also focused on Hitler personally. The obsession with Jews and everything Jewish wasn’t the main theme at all, despite what people might think. Of course, it was at the forefront if you were Jewish because your rights were being stripped away and you were increasingly barred from holding certain jobs, but for the ordinary population it wasn’t a very important issue.”
Edgar insists that he didn’t have to hide the fact that he was Jewish.
“I would imagine that all of the students and teachers already knew that I was Jewish. Not that it saved me from having to do all the Nazi stuff. My notebooks were full of it.
“Back in 1933, only a few weeks after the Nazis’ rise to power, I had a teacher who was extremely pro-Nazi, but she never uttered a word against the Jews. I was a very diligent student and wanted to please her, so I drew whatever she told me to in my exercise books. If she told me to draw a swastika, I drew it. If she wanted me to draw the sun with a swastika emblazoned on it, I drew that too.”
One time the students were instructed to write down the names of their classmates, and to mark down the number of close relatives that each one had lost in the First World War. Several members of the Feuchtwanger family had made the ultimate sacrifice for Germany. One relative had even been awarded the Iron Cross. But of course, their sacrifices counted for nothing because they were Jews.
Even the damages in the forms of iron and coal that Germany was being forced to repay under the Treaty of Versailles was the Jews’ fault.
“We were taught that World War One was a Jewish problem. Everything, in fact, was a Jewish problem. But now Germany’s problems were all over, because Germany was rising up again.”
Pasted inside one of Edgar’s old notebooks are various photographs of German leaders, especially [President] Hindenburg and Hitler. Edgar, like his classmates, was required to write poems about Hitler. “Here’s one,” he says, pointing it out. “It’s entitled ‘To Adolf Hitler, Our Leader, on His 45th Birthday.’
“I knew that Hitler wasn’t good for us, but at the same time I wanted to be in my teacher’s good graces. Look, my father even had to sign it. And here’s my teacher’s signature, under which she wrote ‘good.’”
Edgar flips through his tattered notebook and indicates the margins of one page. “See how carefully I illustrated it with swastikas running along the side.”
A bit further there’s an essay on Horst Wessel, a thug who was killed in a brawl. The Nazis found him the perfect candidate to be recast as a martyr. They even named the party’s secondary anthem after him.
“Here are the words to the ‘Horst Wessel Song.’ I remember quite clearly that it took a very long time. First we had to sing the German national anthem, then came the ‘Horst Wessel Song,’ and the entire time we had to keep our hands up in the Nazi salute. We used to rest our hands on the shoulder of the person in front of us. That was the trick.”
No one at school made a big deal about Edgar’s infamous neighbor.
“My teachers and peers knew that I was Hitler’s neighbor, but they didn’t treat me any differently because of it.”
Other members of the Feuchtwanger family had run-ins with the devil himself, before Edgar’s birth. One incident took place in 1922 at the Hofgarten Café, where Edgar’s Uncle Lion and several friends were congregating as Hitler and his cronies were having drinks one table over. When Lion and Hitler both stood up to leave at the same time, Hitler reached up and assisted the Jewish author with his coat. “Allow me, Herr Doktor,” he said.
(It is speculated that during the early years of his political career, Hitler still engaged in sporadic acts of political correctness.)
On another occasion, after giving a performance for some Nazi leaders, a famous Munich entertainer overheard Hitler saying that Jews lacked courage in battle.
“What about Berthold Feuchtwanger?” the entertainer asked, referring to Edgar’s uncle who had received an Iron Cross for bravery in May 1915.
“The exception proves the rule,” Hitler is said to remarked dismissively.
Throughout the 1930s, the city of Munich was filled with shrines to Nazism. A monument stood at the location of Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and all passersby had to give the Nazi salute in memory of the “victims.” Those like Edgar who were the real victims would make sure to avoid that street by using a narrow passageway known as “Dodgers’ Alley.”
In 1937 Edgar visited Berlin with his father, a place he describes as being far less anti-Semitic than Munich. “Munich was the capital of the Nazi movement, whereas Berlin still had something left of its liberal past.”
At the age of 12 it was decided that Edgar would have a bar mitzvah. “The rabbi was quite well known and he taught me everything.”
Everything, that is, except how to read from the Torah. “My Hebrew wasn’t quite good enough for that.”
But there wasn’t any party. “By that time it would have been difficult. We had to keep a low profile.”
Shortly after coming to power, Hitler gave orders to relocate all the Jews living in the vicinity. For reasons unknown, the Feuchtwanger family managed to avoid detection and their eviction notice never arrived. Soon the neighborhood was one family away from being Judenrein.
“Towards the end of 1938 we knew that something was about to happen because of that incident in Paris, when that German diplomat was shot. It was all over the news, on the radio and in the newspapers. On the morning of November 10, 1938 my father was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp. My father had been the director of one of Germany’s biggest publishing houses, and his entire library was confiscated by the Gestapo. We were very frightened and not at all sure if we would ever see him again.”
Right after Kristallnacht Edgar was expelled from school. “By then we knew that we were in mortal danger.”
Edgar, his mother and a few other close relatives spent several weeks huddled together in their apartment, hardly daring to venture outdoors. Even the slightest noise could give them away. “We even covered the phone with a cushion,” Edgar recalls. But the dreaded knock on the door never came.
After six weeks in Dachau his father was released, although his condition was greatly compromised and he was barely alive. Releasing someone from a concentration camp after a short time wasn’t unusual in those days, according to Edgar.
“At that time the policy was to arrest German Jews and give them a shock in order to induce them to leave the country. The intention at that point wasn’t to keep them there indefinitely. But of course, it wasn’t all that easy to survive a concentration camp. If you fell down and couldn’t get up or anything like that, you were just finished off.”
As soon as Edgar’s father returned it was obvious what the family’s next move was going to be.
“We learned that it was possible to get a family visa into Great Britain for 1,000 pounds, which was to be deposited to the British treasury. It was a huge sum but we had some connections, including my uncle the writer, who could mobilize that sort of money. They did it because they knew my father was in danger, and that’s basically how we got out and made it to England.”
At the age of 14 Edgar was whisked out of Germany.
“Have you ever heard of the Kindertransport? Well, my journey was quite similar. My parents brought me to the train station in Munich, and my father accompanied me all the way to the Dutch border. At that point he was forced to turn back because his papers weren’t ready yet. Oddly enough, it never really entered my mind that I might never see my parents again. I looked at the whole thing as an adventure. When I made it over the border I felt that I had truly left an ‘evil empire,’ as Ronald Reagan would have said.”
Edgar describes the thick, uneasy tension that pervaded his early years. In fact, as soon as he was in Holland he felt a noticeable difference in the air itself. It was also the first time he had a glimpse of the open sea, only one of many new “firsts.”
“It had been arranged that I’d be picked up by a family that lived in London. From there I was taken in by a different English family in Cornwall. There were many families that were willing to take in a German refugee child.”
Two months later his parents arrived in Britain and family was reunited. But the war broke out shortly afterwards, and England was soon in the crosshairs of the German bombers. Edgar also had to endure the teasing of his fellow classmates about his nationality and accent.
“Even before the Nazis, the schooling in Germany was much more authoritarian,” he recalls. It was difficult for him to adjust to his new country’s system of education.
“We never felt that Britain was going to surrender, but there were bombings all the time. I was briefly in London in the autumn of 1940, and I saw the docks being attacked. The sky was bright red from all the fires. Then later on in the war there were the V1 and V2 rockets. We had a bomb shelter in the building, and I experienced the war just everyone else.”
“Then Hitler turned eastward and attacked Russia, giving us a little respite. The bombings suddenly ceased, and there was never a country as popular among the British as Russia was in 1941.”
Towards the end of the war Edgar was conscripted into the army to help hammer the final nails into Germany’s coffin.
“I was lucky that I wasn’t sent to work in the coal mines; instead, I was sawing up planks of wood to rebuild the French railways after the D-Day landings. But I never actually fought against the Germans. My contribution to the war was entirely an industrial one.”
to the Yanks
April 30, 1945 was a particularly momentous day in many regards, as Hitler popped a pill of cyanide and a cap of lead, thus effectively ridding the world of himself. The next day American troops rolled into Munich, with the aim of cleaning up pockets of resistance and eliminating sniper’s nests.
One unit was charged with setting up command posts throughout the war-ravaged city for the approaching GIs. Sergeant Arthur Peters, accompanied by three privates—Andrew Sivi, George Sachs and William Soltz—happened to notice one particular housing unit that had survived in better condition that most of the houses in the area.
From the outside, the lights at 16 Prinzregentenplatz seemed to be in working condition. The group cautiously approached to conduct a security sweep, mindful of the possibility that it could be an ambush. It wasn’t.
A terrified Frau Annie Winter, whose surname still appeared on the doorbell after all these years, opened the door and identified herself as the person in charge of the building. In reality she was the housekeeper, who along with the janitor, his wife and two maids kept the place nice and tidy over the years. But for whom?
The five frightened residents revealed to the Americans that the apartment used to serve as the private residence of the recently departed German chancellor, and offered to give them a tour.
On the first floor they discovered the SS headquarters, which had long been vacated by the elite corps. In the basement they found a bomb shelter and an entire cellar full of the Fuhrer’s bottled water.
The second floor housed Hitler’s private quarters, which had been left untouched. The bedroom was decorated with a profusion of German flags, swastikas and eagles. Another room served as an office, the contents of which the SS had neglected to destroy in their haste to save their own lives. Personal documents and photos were in abundance. Inside one of the drawers was Hitler’s old pistol, the same weapon that had claimed the life of Geli Raubal and almost brought about an abrupt end to Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Another trophy discovered by the Americans in the same drawer was a collection of medals, which some historians believe had belonged to Hitler’s partner-turned-rival Ernst Röhm.
Inside the Devil’s Den
Edgar is amazed by how little his old neighborhood has changed over the years. The apartments in which both Hitler and the Feuchtwangers lived remain almost entirely intact, and the nearby buildings that were destroyed in bombing raids have long since been restored to their original condition. But it wasn’t until recently that he was given permission by the authorities to enter Hitler’s apartment, which otherwise remains strictly off-limits to the public.
“For the first time ever, only a fortnight ago, I was inside Hitler’s flat,” he discloses. “It was under heavy surveillance so that no one could ever get in and turn it into some sort of shrine. I and some of my associates were allowed to enter and take videos.”
Hitler’s desk was exactly where it had been, as well as whatever was left in place by the American soldiers.
When Edgar peered out the window, he realized it was the same one that had served as a portal to the Fuhrer to his younger self. Next, he stepped out onto the balcony—the same one from which Hitler would stand and rile up the masses. From there, he could see his old childhood home.
“I felt absolutely elated. I had survived—and he hadn’t! In many ways the whole experience was bizarre.”
Is it any wonder that Edgar Feuchtwanger, who spent much of his childhood in front of this three-dimensional theater of history, would grow up to become a professor and author numerous book on various historical subjects?
These days, Edgar spends much of his time traveling and telling his story; neither Hitler nor old age have managed to hold him back. He carefully studies the ever-changing world in which we live, not unlike the eager-to-learn schoolboy he was back in 1933.
While Edgar still lives in Britain, he makes sure to follow the goings on of his native land. In a recent interview with a French publication he said, “I always read the German newspapers on my computer. [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel is blissfully without charisma. And that’s a good thing, because Germany has had enough charismatic personalities in its history to last forever.”
A Threat to Hitler
Neither Hitler nor his collaborators were aware of the Jewish background of the Feuchtwanger family living across the street. (Delivering mishloach manos to the real Haman is generally frowned upon; the same goes for the selling of the chametz.) They were also lucky that the neither the Brownshirts nor the Gestapo was aware of the family’s name, as it didn’t have positive connotations to the Nazis, thanks to Edgar’s uncle, Lion Feuchtwanger.
“My uncle Lion was the author of many books, one of which ridiculed the early days of National Socialism and the failed Beer Hall Putsch. All of the main characters are given different names. Hitler was changed to ‘Rupert Kutzner,’ and in the story he’s a garage mechanic. The story ends with the Nazis going down in defeat. At one point, it was the second best-selling book in Germany (right behind Mein Kampf!).Of course, they didn’t like that at all.”
Lion also penned other literary works, many of which went to great lengths to criticize the Nazi Party. His writings did much to help those suffering under the early rule of the Nazis by providing comic relief.
Within hours of the Nazis’ rise to power, Lion’s home was ransacked. Fortunately, the controversial author was long out of Germany by then. Nonetheless, he was one of the first people to be labeled an “enemy of the state” and his German citizenship was stripped (in absentia), with a caveat that should he ever reappear on German soil he would be shot on sight. All of his books and plays were banned and burned. Ironically, one of them, written in 1920, foretold a future in which book burnings would become commonplace. At one particular event in Berlin, Goebbels himself was observed casting copies of Lion’s books into the flames.
Lion’s opposition to the Nazis was so fierce that in 1937 he took the initiative and met with Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, who agreed to a rare interview.
“One must bear in mind that this was in 1937, and it seemed that Stalin was the one man who consistently opposed Hitler,” Edgar says. “That’s what was important to my uncle.”
Practically nothing remains of that interview, aside from one question he posed to the Soviet leader about whether or not he enjoyed being made into a cult figure, which Lion recorded in his diary. Stalin’s response has been lost to history.
After the war broke out, Lion was captured twice and imprisoned at the de Mills concentration camp by the pro-Nazi government in Vichy France. He eventually managed to escape and make it to the United States with the help of Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped rescue as many as 4,000 Jews and political refugees.