S.F. hotelier recalls the day a German boxer saved him

There was a time in Hitler’s Germany when you couldn’t go out for a night on the town without catching a glimpse of Max Schmeling dispatching American heavyweight boxing legend Joe Louis, and bringing the world championship to the Vaterland.

“He was honored in every movie house for months. He was an icon of the sport, of the German male, of Aryan supremacy. When Schmeling came home, it was advertised how the white race had nullified the black beast,” recalled Henri Lewin, a German Jewish teenager at the time.

Lewin pauses for a moment and then chuckles a bit. “So, if this guy is caught helping Jews, what the hell do you think the medal is for that, huh?”

Yes, Schmeling played ball with the Nazis — he allowed Hitler to tout his ring achievements as proof positive of the superiority of the Germanic race, and he gained much fame and fortune. But the boxer never joined the Nazi Party or agreed to spout Goebbels’ propaganda line. And, despite heavy pressure from the Reich, Schmeling refused to disassociate from his Jewish friends or fire his American Jewish manager, Joe Jacobs.

And he saved the Lewin brothers’ lives during Kristallnacht.

“With what I know today, I wouldn’t have done that. He risked his life for us; our lives weren’t worth a penny,” said Lewin, now a 79-year-old hotel consultant and former top executive for both the Fairmont and Hilton corporations.

Schmeling’s strengths, weaknesses and heroism are the subjects of the new TV movie “Joe and Max,” which premieres on the Starz network at 8 p.m. Saturday.

“In the Third Reich he committed an act of treason, breaking the law of the Third Reich to clean itself of every Jew. By knowing this and doing what he did, he has made himself a mensch among menschen,” said the San Francisco resident.

As anti-Semitic rioters roamed the streets of Berlin, haberdasher David “Dago” Lewin sent his two boys, 15-year-old Werner and 14-year-old Henri, to his customer and friend Schmeling’s suite at the palatial Excelsior Hotel. Despite great risks to his career, social standing and even his life, the national celebrity spirited the boys up to his room.

“When we came into this suite this man had, I thought I was in the palace of Versailles. Then he gave me a five-mark coin. I will remember that until I die, because I had never seen five marks together!”

Schmeling explained to the brothers that their parents were “out of town on business” and he would be taking care of them. Feigning illness, he did not allow anyone up to his room for several days, instructing the boys not to answer the phone or open the door for anyone.

“He asked if we played cards; he wanted to be nice,” recalled Lewin. “The food was very good and he was there with us around the clock.”

After the pogrom subsided, Schmeling slipped the two boys out of the hotel and back to their parents. The Lewins escaped Germany, settling in Shanghai, where eventually they were incarcerated by the Japanese. Werner and Henri subsequently immigrated to America, where both became world-renowned hoteliers.

More than six decades later, Henri Lewin and Schmeling still correspond regularly. “The Black Ulan of the Rhine” is 96 now, but, according to Lewin, “he is in absolutely fantastic health and his brain is clear.

“I talk to him at least twice a month. He always says, ‘You must come here; you and Werner must be with me more often.'”

Yet, in the minds of most Americans, Schmeling was still “that Nazi” until Lewin revealed the boxer’s heroism at a 1989 Las Vegas dinner in Schmeling’s honor.

Lewin is still fairly reluctant to tell his fascinating story, but he has repeated it for print a few times since ’89, most recently for a December issue of Sports Illustrated.

“I said, ‘If this is a Nazi, he’s a good Nazi, but I want you to know one thing: I wouldn’t be sitting here today if it wasn’t for this Nazi.'”

Schmeling’s refusal to fall in line drew the ire of Hitler, and the führer arranged for the-then 34-year-old boxer to be drafted into the German paratroopers and sent to the front line.

The boxer survived the war but emerged in desperate financial straits. He fought a few more bouts to boost himself and actress wife Anny Ondra from the brink, eventually landing a successful Coca-Cola distributorship through a friend.

Traveling through America on business in the 1950s, he tracked down Louis, rekindling their unlikely friendship. “The Brown Bomber” had been sucked dry by unscrupulous managers and hangers-on, and Schmeling often passed him a little spending money. When Louis died in 1981, Schmeling paid for his funeral and entrusted Lewin with an envelope full of money for the great boxer’s widow.

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.