Born in 1923, Gad Beck entered the world at a time when Jews were a vibrant and active presence in Berlin, but within ten years, Hitler became Reich chancellor and Jewish life and culture were at risk. In An Underground Life, Beck takes us through the years under Hitler, describing the chaos and terror occurring all around him without dwelling on it. Instead, he provides a frank, yet positive, account of his struggle to survive while living in a world governed by fear and intimidation. He tells his story honestly, with the constant juxtaposition of the ordinary with the horrendous, describing in one moment the shared repetitiveness of daily life and in the next punctuating it with descriptions of Nazi oppression and persecution. Throughout, Beck’s calm expression of events belies the tension present just below the surface.
Beck’s mother was Christian, his father Jewish. Beck grew up in an ecumenical home that embraced both sides of the family and educated the children in both traditions. With both religions comfortably coexisting, Beck did not emphasize his own Jewishness until faced with exclusion at school on account of it, but from that point on, it became an aspect of himself that he celebrated and nurtured.
He became involved with the Zionist movement and the resistance, working to assist those living illegally and to help others escape. As the noose closed around those Jews still in Germany, Beck and his friends, also members of the underground, slipped through it, at least for a time. They lived in the shadows shaped by secret papers, forged identities, smuggled goods, and bribery. Here Beck’s story becomes a compelling and tense account of arrests and near escapes, risks taken and miraculous coincidences. The cruelty and brutal efficiency of the Nazis is contrasted with daily acts of heroism by Jews and Christians alike.
On occasion Beck found support and comfort through these times by becoming sexually or romantically involved with other men in the underground movement. On other occasions he used his sexuality to buy his own safety, exchanging sex for a safe place to stay or to ensure that a secret was kept. In the book, Beck writes often and quite frankly about his sexuality and these sexual encounters. Though his experiences in Nazi Berlin were shaped more by his racial status than his sexuality, the latter cannot be ignored, for while Beck was never arrested for his homosexuality, it most assuredly defined him. His intimate relationships and sexual exploits highlight how tenaciously Beck tried to reclaim some sense of normalcy, however short-lived, in the midst of such insanity. Regardless of the environment, Beck’s love of life, and of love itself, could not be extinguished. This book stands as testament to that spirit.
An Underground Life: Memoirs of a Gay Jew in Nazi Berlin, only the first part of Beck’s memoirs, includes two maps and numerous photographs. Part II of his memoirs, though not yet published, is expected to address his life after 1945.
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