Stuart Lewis believes unreservedly in the power of one-on-one connections. His new book, When Walls Become Bridges, is the story of his unlikely, decades-long friendship with an East German who he met on a visit to East Berlin in 1983. At the time, Westerners were permitted to go behind the Berlin Wall on a day pass, an opportunity Lewis, then a political science student travelling through Europe, found irresistible.
After he and a couple of American students struck up a conversation with two local medical students, the small group spent more than two hours talking about world affairs, music and the similarities and differences between their lives. Lewis and one of the students, Frank Horzetzky, exchanged addresses, and in the years that followed, the two discussed a wealth of topics in a long series of handwritten letters, cementing their friendship, despite different backgrounds and the unaddressed question of what Horzetzky’s father had done during the Second World War.
It wasn’t until almost 30 years after their initial meeting that Lewis – a fourth-generation, British-born Jew who grew up in Toronto – worked up the courage to ask Horzetzky directly, when he visited him in 2011. By that time, however, he had concluded that it didn’t actually matter to their friendship. “If we want to make friends based on what their parents did or didn’t do, we’re going to have many fewer friends,” Lewis told The CJN in an interview in Toronto.
In addition to the main story of his friendship with Horzetzky, Lewis’ book also encompasses the related story of his reconciliation with his own father, who left his family when Lewis was a young teenager, and how he forged new ties with members of the Palestinian-Canadian community, including Izzeldin Abuelaish, the doctor who lost three daughters and a niece when his home in Gaza was hit by an Israeli shell during Operation Cast Lead.
At one time, Lewis was very active in Toronto’s Jewish community, particularly in the areas of day school education and Israel. But in recent years, he’s distanced himself from political causes. “I haven’t seen a lot of politics without (people) being angry,” he said. “I believe that deep down, we have a fear of people who aren’t like us.”
Rather than politics, he now focuses on “the power of the individual to make choices and changes in their life.”
Lewis considers himself lucky to have made peace with his father just months before he died, having waited to contact him until he felt ready. “I got a lot of closure,” he said. “That was an amazing gift.”
The letters between Lewis and Horzetzky also cover many changes in Lewis’ life. In the years since they first met, Lewis, now a father of four, lived briefly in Israel, became a baal teshuvah, married, divorced and left the Orthodox community.
Lewis said the book came about after he rediscovered a stash of letters from Horzetzky dating from 1983, to the early 2000s, before the pair switched to email and Skype. Horzetzky had saved Lewis’ letters, as well, and Lewis pored over them all, carving out the time to write the book and choosing excerpts from the letters, before work and on weekends. In October, he self-published the book, which ends with a reflective postscript written by Horzetzky.
Despite what Lewis sees as an increasingly polarized world, he is optimistic about the future. “I really think the answer is that one-on-one connection, whether in the workplace, standing in line at Starbucks, on an elevator or sitting beside someone on an airplane,” he said.
In spite of “so much hate, intolerance and fear,” Lewis believes there is a way to build bridges. “I think there are a lot of decent people out there,” he said. “We’re tired of this polarization. I really believe there’s way more of us than of the others.”