".. that’s what they call me here!” An interview with Swedish born New Yorker Bert Lehman whose life story could easily fill several book volumes.
“Well, that’s what they call me here!” says Bert Lehmann as he raps the table with his knuckles a couple times. “The Rabbi of the Swedish Church. I’ve known every pastor here for the past 30 years, and I’ve been good friends with them all.”
Bert Lehmann is 93 years old and has a story that could easily fill volumes. Born in Stockholm in 1916 into a family of Orthodox German Jews, his life took him to Germany and through Poland at the beginning of WW2, and finally to America where he met his future wife and raised a family. Lehmann came to New York in 1939 and still speaks Swedish—flawlessly.
“My father initially came from Leipzig,” Lehmann says. “He was born in 1885, my mother was born in Berlin in 1886, her family immigrated to New York in 1903. My father became a salesman in Germany and one of his districts was Scandinavia, so he finally settled in Stockholm in 1911. He met my mother on a business trip to New York. They were married at a Jewish hotel on lower Manhattan, after which Father took Mother back home to Sweden, where me and my brothers were all born.”
Although he was being raised an Orthodox Jew, Bert Lehmann’s life was very Swedish. He began drawing and painting early and his paintings frequently featured Santa Claus and julgranar, despite the fact that Saturday at the Lehmann’s meant observing the Sabbath.
“But in those days in Sweden, children went to school on Saturdays and I had to, too. But Orthodox Jews are not allowed to do anything on Saturdays, so I asked a friend of mine to carry my books for me and so forth. Although I was blond and Swedish-looking, everybody knew I was Jewish, and there was always somebody in each class who had an issue with that."
Living kosher in Stockholm in those days wasn’t all that hard, but there were no schools for Jewish children and that posed a serious problem for the Lehmann family. Eventually they moved to Hamburg when Bert was 12 years old, in order for the sons to get a genuine Jewish education. They stayed for five years. When Hitler came to power in 1933, they immediately returned to Stockholm where Bert’s father had kept his business. And Bert Lehmann began studying art.
“I went to Otto Skjöld’s prestigious art school,” he says.
Painting aside, there was something else that young Bert Lehmann felt he simply had to do. In spite of the fact that he had grown up in a Jewish home, he needed to know more, to dive into the spirit of Judaism. Against his parents’ will, he arranged an enormous trip to Mir, in what was then Poland, to study at the well known yeshiva.
“It was a dangerous journey, but I had a friend there with whom I very much wanted to study,” Lehmann explains.
Joining 500 other youths from all over the world, he stayed at the Mir Yeshiva for a year and a half, studying Talmud, the collection of ancient rabbinic writings on Jewish law and tradition. Lehmann believes he is probably the only Swedish-born student that yeshiva has ever had. He interrupted his studies only because he was called back to Sweden to do his military service.
“Thus I had to go through the boring chores of the Stockholm regiment Svea Livgarde ‘harva på Svea Livgarde,’” he says with a smile. “From time to time, I was also a guard at the Royal Castle.”
With the war darkening the skies over Europe and threatening Sweden, Lehmann’s father thought it best if Bert left for America, where his mother’s family had remained. And so in 1939 he came to America to work as a designer before he became a representative for a Swedish company in Härnösand.
“Because of that job, I visited Sweden every year and kept my Swedish intact,” Lehmann says.
Then in 1944, on February 14—Valentine’s Day!—he met a girl on Miami Beach, Betty, who later became his wife.
“We got married and my parents and brothers came over by boat for the big wedding. After that I took Betty to Sweden on a freighter. Betty was a teacher, so she was bright; she learned Swedish in five weeks.”
Nevertheless, it was New York that was the couple’s home and they returned there after a year and a half in Sweden. They raised two boys, who today are successful doctors. Lehmann has five grandchildren.
Today Lehmann spends much of his time painting and has exhibited not only at the Swedish Church, but also at other places, like Barnes and Noble. He paints mainly in acrylic and his motifs range from the abstract to paintings inspired by egyptology.
“I come here to the Swedish Church once or twice a week to read the news,” he says. “I still feel very Swedish—I am still, after all these years, a Swedish citizen. My father always told me, ‘Don’t give up your Swedish citizenship for anything.’ And I haven’t. The last time I visited Sweden was six years ago. But I miss the Swedish nature a lot. The Swedish forests. And the strawberries of course. There’s nothing like svenska jordgubbar!”
by Eva Stenskär, August 2009ADVERTISEMENT
The story of the Yeshurun Synagogue
As told by Bert Lehmann
As my father and I stood on a chilly April day in 1939 at the pier in Stockholm awaiting the arrival of a freight ship, a moment of fascinating history was about to happen: The rescue of the only synagogue to have survived the barbaric Kristallnacht destruction of November 8, 1938 in Nazi Germany.
It is hard to believe that the municipality in Hamburg gave the chief rabbi permission to ship out the complete interior of that old small shul at the Heinrich Barthstrasse to anyone outside of Germany ready to accept the untouched House of Jewish worship. The Nazi hoodlums simply bypassed the hidden synagogue inside a regular city building, making it the only synagogue to survive that fateful night. My father, Hans Lehmann, of blessed memory, without hesitation agreed to have everything saved to be shipped to Sweden. This is what we waited for at the pier.
However, as the ship unloaded we noticed with dismay and sorrow that the Nazi-German workers evidently were eager to break everything possible. My father was told to forget the whole thing. But this was not his way. He mobilized good carpenters and people ready to fix everything to its previous beauty.
Since that time, the rescued shul became a vision for the future of the Jewry in Sweden, and a beacon for traditional Judaism all over the world.
Adat Jeshurun, as the synagogue is called, is located at Riddargatan 5, Stockholm 102 42. Phone: 46 8 611 91 61.