LOS ANGELES (Dec. 26)
Former heavyweight champion Max Schmeling sheltered two young Jewish brothers in his apartment while a Nazi mob raged outside, one of the brothers recently told guests at a party honoring the German boxer.
Henri Lewin, now president of the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas, was a 14-year-old boy in Berlin on Nov. 9, 1938, when organized bands of Nazis smashed Jewish stores, burned synagogues and attacked Jews during the infamous Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
At a special tribute party two weeks ago at the Sands for the now 84-year-old Schmeling, Lewin, with tears in his eyes, recounted what had happened. Pointing to Schmeling, who was seated at a table next to Mike Tyson, the present heavyweight champ, Lewin said:
“I’m going to tell you what kind of a champion Max Schmeling is. Beginning on Nov. 9, for four days, Max hid my older brother Werner and me in his Berlin apartment. He risked everything for us. If we had been found in his apartment, I would not be here this evening, and neither would Max.
“The first day (of the riots), Max didn’t leave the apartment. He told the front desk that he was sick and not to let anyone come up . . . After four days, Max felt it was safe to take us to an apartment my father owned in another part of Berlin.”
Lewin later said that he had not publicly revealed the story before, at Schmeling’s request. Even after Schmeling agreed to attend the tribute in Las Vegas, he asked Lewin not to “glorify” him, Lewin said, adding, “He told me what he had done for me and my brother was ‘doing the duty of a man.’”
IDOLIZED BY THE NAZIS
From his early days in Berlin as a little-known light-middleweight boxer, Schmeling had many Jewish friends and, according to Lewin, continued to assist German Jews even during World War II.
Levin recounted one incident when Schmeling’s American Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs, came to Berlin in 1935. Jacobs had booked a room at the Adlon, one of Berlin’s finest hotels, but was told the management could not accommodate him.
When Schmeling, then Nazi Germany’s most idolized athlete, heard about it, he went to the authorities and warned them that he would stop boxing if Jacobs didn’t get his room. The Adlon manager rapidly changed his mind.
During the same visit, Lewin said, Jacobs decided to attend services at the Fasanenstrasse Synagogue to hear its charismatic rabbi, Joachim Prinz, and Schmeling accompanied his manager to the lobby of the synagogue.
The relationship between the Lewin family and Schmeling began in the mid-1920s, when the boxer frequently stayed at a hotel owned by Lewin’s father in the Berlin suburb of Potsdam. The senior Lewin also was proprietor of a fashionable clothing store, called The Prince of Wales, where Schmeling bought his suits.
On June 12, 1930, Schmeling won the world heavyweight crown in New York on a foul from Jack Sharkey, and lost it to the same fighter on a decision two years later.
But Schmeling is best known for his two dramatic fights with Joe Louis. In 1936, before Louis became champion, he suffered his first career defeat when Schmeling scored a knockout.
The victory was headlined in the Nazi press as “a victory for the white race.” Hitler had been trumpeting Schmeling throughout the 1930s as the great Aryan warrior.
An angry Joe Louis had his revenge two years later when, as world champion, he knocked out the 33-year-old Schmeling in the first round at New York’s Yankee Stadium on June 22, 1938.
Lewin decided to override Schmeling’s request and go public at the Sands party, he said, because “Max is 84, though in excellent shape, and I am 67, and I wasn’t sure how much longer both of us would last.”