Those of us who did not live through the Holocaust — by now, that’s the vast majority of us — cannot help but be awed by the fortitude, resilience, and some or other stroke of luck in the unimaginable blackness that kept its survivors and refugees alive.
We know that no matter how much misfortune or even purposeful terror we’ve lived through, it can’t come close.
The pandemic that has separated so many of us from family, friends, jobs, lives, prosperity, and even sanity during this year, and that has killed so many people we love, who were doomed to die alone, has been a huge ordeal, but it’s barely worth saying the absolutely obvious truth that it’s nothing like the Holocaust.
Every Holocaust survivor or refugee who is alive today, however, has endured both historic nightmares. They have much to teach the rest of us.
Selwyn Levine of Teaneck is a pulmonologist who has been on the front lines at Holy Name Medical Center in Teaneck since the pandemic began. He has many stories from this year, but the one he’s concentrating on now is that his father, Irving, a Holocaust survivor, now is vaccinated against covid-19. Irving Levine’s life, that is, traces the arc from brutality to decency, from science and technology and record-keeping being used as a weapon to its use today as a tool.
It also shows how the human will to live, to keep going, to find something good and hold onto it, can succeed.
That’s something that Irving Levine’s life makes clear.
After Mr. Levine was vaccinated, at Holy Name, as his son looked on, he talked about his life. That’s a fairly new thing, Dr. Levine said; as he and his twin sister, Carol, a pharmacist, were growing up in Brooklyn, neither his father nor his mother, Corinne, another survivor, talked much about the past. But that’s changing now.
Mr. Levine, who has a Yiddish accent and warmth palpable even over the phone, is good humored about his life today. How is he? “I manage!” he said. “I walk with a walker; I don’t need a wheelchair.”
He was born in Oszmiana, Poland, on May 20, 1927. His father, Dovid, was a carpenter, and the family had a good life until 1941, when the Germans invaded. “They came into the shul on a Saturday, and they picked up all the men there, 1,000 of them, and they had graves prepared. They shot all of them.” His father, though, had to work, so he wasn’t at shul. “They came into my house, and I was in bed. They asked my mother,” Meryl, “how old I was, and she said that I was 11.” They left. He was 14.
During this time, the Russians and the Germans were fighting each other in Poland; that made life even more precarious for the Jews. Three months after the Germans massacred the synagogue full of men, Mr. Levine said, “My brother, Shlomo, had a job. He was working for the Russians, a Pole wanted his job, and spoke to the Germans. He was shot right away. He was 17.
“That left me, my sister, Ruth, and my parents.”
Pretty soon, he said, the Germans decided to clean up the small towns. They herded all the Jews onto trucks and brought them to work camps. Many people died there — the Germans certainly didn’t care, they had huge pools of Jews to use, abuse, and discard — but some stubbornly clung to life. Eventually the Germans decided they’d had enough; they took them to Dachau.
The prisoners all were told to strip, and given striped uniforms. Men were separated from women — “We saw the women through the camp wires, said goodbye through the fence, and that was that,” Mr. Levine said. It was the last time he saw his mother. Later, after the war, he learned that typhoid had ripped through the crowded barracks that housed about 500 women. “The Germans didn’t want to have anything to do with it, so they made all the women go into a barn, and then they set the barn on fire.”
Meanwhile, back at Dachau, “they put all the men outside, and made them form a line,” Mr. Levine said. “A German stood at the head of the line, with a cane, and everyone had to pass him, and he sent them to the left or the right. The left was for sick people and kids.” Those people were murdered immediately. “My father and I were together, but the Germans separated us. They sent my father to the left. I said ‘I don’t know what to do. I am alone now.’ He went to the left, to be killed.”
He managed to evade the guards, “and I found my father on the death line. I said to my father, ‘Let’s try it again.’ I said to him, ‘Try to look stronger.’”
They went through the line again, “and they put us both together, on the right line.” The men and boys on the left went immediately to be slaughtered; the men and boys on the right were sent to auxiliary camps at Dachau, where they would wait for death. “It was a camp of 30,000 people that Hitler built when he came to power,” Mr. Levine said. “It was a camp for his enemies. We didn’t work. We didn’t have a change of clothes. We had lice. We stayed in one room, about 450 people and every day they would chase us outside while they got rid of the ones still inside, who had died overnight.
“I slept in one bunk with my father. My father used to give me part of his bread” — that’s all they got to eat — “and my father got sick. He died one night, at about 10 o’clock, and I stayed in bed with him the whole night.
“The next morning, they kicked everyone out, they counted us, and then they took out the dead people. I saw them take out my father.”
That was in 1944.
In 1945, when the Americans were getting close and the fall of the Third Reich seemed inevitable, “Hitler gave orders to clean Dachau. We were each given a little piece of bread and told to just get out. To go anyplace in the woods and hide.”
He heard and saw the Americans but had been told to fear them; at that point, quite realistically, he trusted no one. He hid in the woods for three days. He was entirely alone. Eventually, though, “I figured I gotta do something, so I went into town and knocked on doors,” he said. “I knocked on 10, 15 doors, and the minute they opened the door, and they saw me in the stripes, the uniform, they chased me away. I did that for a whole day.
“At 5, 6 o’clock I knocked on a door and a German woman opened it, and she gave me something to eat, and told me to go up to the attic. She said she’d let me know when the Americans got there.” She knew that they’d be billeted in her house for the night.
She did what she said she’d do. A few days later, American soldiers came to the house, and she brought him to them.
One of the soldiers “spoke broken Yiddish,” and Mr. Levine was safe, at least physically.
The Yiddish-speaking soldier took Mr. Levine to an abandoned house and told him to exchange his filthy uniform for clothing hanging in the closet there. Mr. Levine did — but when the soldier left, he put the stripes back on. He was afraid he’d be mistaken for a German. When the soldier came back, “he grabbed me from the back and ripped the whole uniform off me.
“The stripes? That was it. No more stripes.”
Mr. Levine was 18 and entirely alone. He knew his father was dead, and he assumed correctly that his mother was too. He was in Germany, not at home, but he knew that there was nothing and no one waiting at home for him. So when he saw a posted announcement that a transport would be leaving for Munich, “I figured that I had nothing else to do, so I went to Munich.”
He found someone he knew from home in Munich, and the two discussed going back home, “but where was home?” Mr. Levine said. He found his sister’s name on a list — she’d survived! — and he went to Warsaw to meet her. He’d gotten her address, he said, “so I found the house where she was staying, and I knocked on the door, and sure enough my sister opened the door.”
She’d gotten married in Warsaw, to a man she’d met when she was recuperating in a hospital there. “This guy was a barber,” Mr. Levine said. “My sister was very beautiful, and he said, ‘She’d never would have looked at me before the war.”
Then he, his sister, and his new brother-in-law, Jacob, decided to go back to Germany. “I slept the night there, and I was in Poland maybe six or seven hours, and we went back to Germany.”
The three of them soon became four — Ruth had a baby, Marilyn — and after trying to figure out the future in Europe, they were sponsored by American cousins. Eventually they were able to get visas, and then on a boat that took them to the New World.
“We landed in the middle of the night, 2 o’clock,” Mr. Levine said. “My family in Long Island came to meet us, but we didn’t know who they were. They told us that one of them would wear a green dress and one would wear a suit. Five of them came. We didn’t find them until 4 in the morning, at the 34th street train station. They drove us to Long Island — to New Hyde Park — and we slept there.”
Ruth and her family soon left for their own apartment; no longer after that, so did Mr. Levine. He moved to Brooklyn, where he got a job as a carpenter, a skill he’d learned from his father. After seven years, he and a friend opened their own business, which they called Brooklyn Fine Art Mirror and Tables, on Pitkin Avenue. The business flourished.
In 1953, Mr. Levine married Corinne, who was born in a small town in Poland and survived the war as a hidden child. The Levines had twins— Carol is now Carol Smilow, a pharmacist who lives in Bergenfield and works in Monsey — and Selwyn, her 45-minute-younger brother. The children were born in East Flatbush and grew up in Mill Basin; although the family had not been observant until then, Irving and Corinne Levine sent their children to the Yeshiva Rambam School there. The principal was not impressed by the twins’ lack of background, Mr. Levine reported having overheard, but, on the principle that living well is the best revenge, they graduated as joint valedictorians.
Life went on. Ms. Levine got a job in the jewelry business — “she didn’t know anything about jewelry when she got the job, but she was very smart,” Mr. Levine said — but because her children didn’t get home from school until 4:30, and because the Levines were very protective parents, neither Selwyn nor Carol knew about their mother’s job until much later. She always got home before they did.
Life went on. The twins both got married and had their own children. Dr. Levine went to Holy Name in 1987; he thinks it’s an extraordinary institution, and stayed there. Corinne Levine died in 2007, and Irving Levine moved to Teaneck. After a few years, he married Esther.
Everything was fine until the pandemic hit. The family is close-knit; they’d spent holidays and many Shabbatot together.
“It’s been a very challenging 11 months,” Dr. Levine understated. “Because I work in the healthcare world, I would have been separated from my family anyway, but I was even more hesitant to be around my father.”
The pandemic has changed Mr. Levine, his son said. “He is much more verbal about the Holocaust. It seems that the isolation has jarred some more painful memories.” Although he’d heard the outlines of many of Mr. Levine’s stories, “there are some specifics that I hadn’t heard before.”
“A lot of memories come back, day and night,” Mr. Levine said.
“And he tells them without emotion,” Dr. Levine added.
So it was a great joy when Mr. Levine got his first vaccine. (Dr. Levine, as a health-care worker, already had been vaccinated.)
Mr. Levine is descriptive rather than emotional as he talks about it. “I came there, and I had my walker, and I see guys with cameras,” he said. “Four of them. I said ‘What is this? I am a nobody. I was wondering why they gave me such a honor.’”
“It means a lot to me that my father got vaccinated in Holy Name,” Dr. Levine said. “That is where I experienced these last 11 months. His being vaccinated, right here on my home turf, was even more meaningful for me in terms of establishing my life with him going forward.
“This will allow me to reestablish my relationship with him, and it will allow him to see his children, his grandchildren, and his great grandchild.”