They were inseparable. Marion Ein Lewin and her twin brother, Steven Hess, were only six years old when they were taken by the Nazis from Holland to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where they endured brutal conditions and lived in a state of perpetual fear. The twins and their parents were imprisoned in Bergen-Belsen for approximately one year, after narrowly escaping being sent to Auschwitz. They ultimately were liberated and moved to the United States in 1947.
Now, 79 years later, this remarkable story of a set of twins that survived the horrors of a Nazi concentration camp was chronicled by author Faris Cassell. The book, “Inseparable,” was released on Sept. 12, and serves both as a lasting memory of the Holocaust and a means through which to spread awareness in the face of rising antisemitism in the United States.
“If we contribute anything, it is enlightenment. We’re telling a story. And then finally a few people in the audience learn something they didn’t know before,” Hess said.
For many years, the twins’ story was largely out of the public eye. That changed during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Lewin, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md., wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times comparing the courage of people risking their lives to treat COVID to people like herself during the Holocaust.
Her story gained massive traction and led to Regnery Publishing contacting the twins and asking if their story could be turned into a book.
The twins debated the idea before they agreed, and Cassell was asked to write their story, having previously published another Holocaust book in 2021, which netted her the National Jewish Book Award that year.
“When we were asked whether we’d be interested in having someone write our story, we actually discussed it. First of all, there are a lot of Holocaust books out. And we wondered whether one more would make a contribution,” Lewin said.
Eventually the siblings decided that even the prospect of having a relatively small impact in the ongoing battle against antisemitism was worth it, particularly for people who don’t know much about the Holocaust, thinking that the book could help expand their knowledge about the atrocities that occurred.
Over the next two years, the twins met virtually with Cassell, slowly piecing together the events of their early lives.
“I didn’t want to risk traveling for myself or to possibly bring a virus to these eighty-year-old twins. We began talking by phone and we became comfortable with each other. And then I started asking them questions by email … this went on over the course of 100 emails,” Cassell said.
The book details the personal accounts of Lewin and Hess, as well as their father’s memoir, to provide a complete picture of the family’s pre-war life, running from Nazi persecution and their time in Bergen-Belsen. Their personal narratives are then interwoven with the historical context, according to Cassell.
“I think it’s a good book. I mean, it’s not a joyful story, but yet it is a joyful story, because in some miracle and enormous fortune, we survived as a family. So in a way, it’s not a tragedy. It’s a true story,” Lewin said.
And in the context of rising antisemitism and surveys showing an alarming lack of knowledge about the Holocaust in the U.S., their story shines more light on an important topic.
Hess, who lives in Rochester, NY, and has been teaching about the Holocaust and his experiences since the Reagan administration, shared a recent story that highlights the importance of Holocaust education from a trip to Buffalo, where he went to speak to a high school in a small, heavily Christian town.
“I went out of my usual thing [presentation], and I said, ‘How many of you kids have any Jewish friends, will you raise your hand?’ And none of them raised their hands. And then I said, ‘Okay, there’s about 60 kids. How many of you know someone who’s Jewish?’ Not one hand went up,” Hess said. “And I’m thinking ‘go for it.’ And I said, ‘How many of you have heard about Jews in the media?’ and about a quarter of the class raised their hands.”
Hess says that story is an example of how so many people are ignorant of Jewish people and Jewish life, and that it’s a major reason why continuing education is so vital.
Lewin echoed her brother’s sentiment but added that recent years have made her reflect on the beginning of her life that she has tried so hard to move beyond.
“I told my mother; I don’t only want to be a Holocaust survivor. I want to be an American girl. Of course, I was nine years old. But I guess that’s what I wanted to be. And I’ve loved my life. I’ve been very privileged in my career. But you realize that at some point something nags on your heart, that you have a story to tell, that you don’t want people to forget this story,” Lewin said.
She says she feels an obligation to tell her story, being a member of the small group who were lucky enough to survive. It reminds Lewin of something her mother used to say, that the reason they all survived wasn’t some miracle – they were kept alive to tell the story.
“[It’s] like someone pulling you back and saying, you’ve had a good life, but don’t forget the beginnings and all those people who never had a chance to have a good life,” Lewin said.