Survivor tells of hiding from Nazi oppression
Eva Levitt, of Allentown, visited Salisbury MS Feb. 5 and described to some 250 sixth and seventh graders how she and her family survived the Jewish Holocaust in her native Czechoslovakia during the late 1930s and the years of World War II.
Levitt, who is president of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley, often speaks to school and community groups about her experience and the survival of her family when six million Jews were killed during the European Holocaust.
Levitt’s visit came as the result of an invitation by the sixth grade English and reading class students of teacher Kara Bellis.
In the fall , Bellis’ students read the book “Refugee,” by Alan Gratz, as part of the Global Read Aloud education program. Through the program, students throughout the world read books and partner with classes in other cities or countries, to discuss assignments linked to the book reading. Bellis’ class partnered with middle school students in Minnesota and New Hampshire, and interacted with students who read the same book. Bellis said the book piqued her students’ interest and they reached out to Levitt to hear her personal story of survival.
In the late 1930s, Levitt related, as German Nazis gained strength in Europe, Jews in her country began to slowly disappear as they were deported to work camps in Poland. Her father, in an effort to protect his family, arranged for forged identity papers which depicted the family as other than of Jewish heritage.
Levitt’s father, who owned and operated a lumber business, was deferred from deportation because his labor was needed for the war effort. During this time he asked a school friend of Levitt’s mother for help in acquiring false papers, which the Catholic family did. The friend also found a small room where they could live, telling people that Levitt’s mother was his cousin and her husband was in the Army. She worked as a domestic. Though Levitt’s father also had false papers, he knew they wouldn’t prove useful if they exposed his family to scrutiny.
Not wanting to risk revealing the identities of his wife and daughter, he did not carry them. When his service at the lumber yard was no longer needed, he was deported to Auschwitz. Levitt’s mother had no idea where her husband had been deported to. Having been in the lumber business, her father was found to be useful in the preparation of wooden railway ties. Being accustomed to hard work outdoors, he was better prepared than many others to survive the slave labor conditions he was subjected to, Levitt said. He was liberated by units from the Russian Army at Auschwitz.
With her mother, young Levitt moved often from rented quarters to rented quarters. Because of neighbors who might reveal suspicions they were Jews, they moved often to stay out of sight and ahead of any betrayal.
After the war, Levitt and her mother returned to her hometown to await the return of any family members.
“We went to the train station day after day, hoping that he was alive and would return,” Levitt said. One day her dad – hardly recognizable at 78 pounds and recently recovered from typhus – stepped off the train. On another day her maternal grandmother returned.
In 1949, Levitt and her parents secured sponsorship from relatives living in New York, and made their way to America, by way of Paris. A year later they were able to bring over Levitt’s grandmother.
Levitt expressed deep admiration for the way her family acclimated themselves to their new homeland. Levitt learned English in school classes she attended and the family would go to the movies once a week to be exposed to the English language and to absorb American culture.
Levitt went on to attend college and become a teacher. She married a physician and they formed a friendship with a Lehigh Valley businessman whose wife the doctor had treated. That businessman followed the doctor’s career and 40 years ago invited the Levitts to come to the Lehigh Valley so he could practice medicine in the Allentown area. That businessman was Leonard Pool, who founded Air Products & Chemicals Co. and was a founding force in the creation of what is now Lehigh Valley Hospital.
Levitt participates in regular mission trips to Israel and is proud of the memorial tree she placed there to honor the Christian family which helped her family survive the Holocaust years.
Levitt, a longtime resident of Allentown who has been involved with the Jewish community in many different ways, has enjoyed deepening her connections to Israel over the course of eight Jewish Federation missions. Now she’s getting ready for mission number nine this April.
“First of all, I love going to Israel,” Levitt said when asked why she keeps going back. “Second of all, each mission has its own uniqueness,” she added, recalling several experiences across a variety of missions that helped her delve deep into the history and the vibrant community of modern Israel.
The trips include tourist destinations in addition to the theme of each trip, which dictates its main attractions. “Going to the different markets, like the Carmel market, is very exciting and all these people selling foods … it makes our farmers markets here look like nothing. That’s always nice to do, and going to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem is an awesome thing to see and of course Yad Vashem is beyond description,” Levitt said.
The trips take on more meaningful aspects as well. “I have the Catholic people who saved my mother and me during World War II memorialized in the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles. It was, for me, very special to go and see their names under a tree,” Levitt said. “If you keep in the back of your mind that there was nothing and the Jews built all this, it’s just a very unbelievable thing to see. It’s unbelievable what the Jews have done in Israel.”
On one particularly meaningful mission, Levitt and her group visited lone soldiers, who volunteered to join the Israel Defense Forces from around the world and often do not have family in Israel. When engaging in conversation with one lone soldier, she recalled, he asked where she was from, and after conversing with his grandfather, the soldier discovered that his grandfather knew Levitt’s family from Czechoslovakia from before World War II.
In addition to going to Israel, some Federation missions include traveling to other destinations where the Jewish Federation supports programs to create community and enrich lives for Jews around the world. Levitt has traveled to Budapest, where she observed a “hopping” Jewish Community Center filled with people of all ages engaging in programs.
Levitt has made several lifestyle changes thanks to her mission experiences, as well. After spending time in Neve Michael, a village where young people can stay during the week if home life is too big of a challenge, she was inspired by how the caring house parents in the village “really made a difference in these children’s lives. I was so inspired by this that I started my knitting project and half of it goes to Neve Michael and half of it goes to a soup kitchen in Jerusalem,” she said. On another trip, when she went to the Technion and got inspired to wear a new type of shoes invented by Israeli orthopedists, she ended up being able to cancel a knee replacement surgery. “Every time I go, there’s something unbelievable, something inspiring, and it just gives me a high, and I hope the people who go in April will feel the same way,” she said.
Levitt encourages other members of the Lehigh Valley Jewish community to join Federation missions. “I always found that each mission does something new that I see or learn, and the mission in general is very inspiring and gives me and most of the people who go a real boost about how they feel about Israel and how fantastic it is to see what this country has accomplished,” she said.
The 2017 Federation mission will run April 24 through May 3 with an optional extension May 2 through 5. Interested in an Israel experience with endless possibilities? Call 610-821-5500 or email Mark Goldstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.jewishlehighvalley.org/missions.