Helen Levinson tells a tale of courage to a Finger Lakes Community College audience
HOPEWELL — A black-and-white photograph of herself as a little girl with her older sister and brother, a cherished prayer book and some Polish money given to her by her father the last time she saw him in 1942 are all Helen Levinson has left of her family.
She showed the keepsakes to an audience Thursday at Finger Lakes Community College during an annual Holocaust Remembrance Week program, organized by Robert Brown, social sciences/humanities professor.
Brown introduced the Holocaust survivor, someone whose small stature belied her tremendous courage.
“On Oct. 1, 1941, an ominous structure appeared on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland, a cluster of austere and forbidding buildings, surrounded by a vast electrified fence and dominated by 19 watchtowers and multiple sentry boxes,” Brown said.
Between 1942 and 1944, an estimated 78,000 Jewish people were murdered in the Majdenak concentration camp and that Lublin's pre-war Jewish population of 45,000 had dwindled to 230 in 1945, Brown said.
“Those few survivors, like our speaker, witnessed their families torn apart and never reunited,” Brown said. “Helen's story is a dreadful one, but it's also an inspiring one … and stands as an incredible example of the resilience and irrepressibility of the human spirit.”
Levinson was just 14 when she was snatched off the street in Lublin by the Gestapo while walking to a violin lesson, and sent to work at Majdanek. A family friend got a Hitler Youth uniform Levinson was able to wear to escape after a harrowing two months.
She was reunited with her family and they all hid out for awhile in the brewery her father managed for a German owner. She attributes the high quality of his beer and its taste being so appealing to German soldiers for keeping the family out of the ghetto, but eventually her father got notice he would have to turn everyone in to work at Majdanek.
The family knew going there would be the death of them and went into hiding, but they were forced to split up, staying two weeks at a time with different friends or acquaintances, who also feared for their lives if caught concealing Jewish people.
“One day not to be killed was like a lifetime,” Levinson said. “So, two weeks seemed long.”
Even many Polish people — including some her father had helped and considered friends — were against the Jews and in favor of the decision to exterminate them, she said.
She and her father went to a man who had received many favors from him and the man agreed to hide one of them, saying he could not endanger his family by hiding two people.
Levinson had a false birth certificate identifying her as Christian that she told her father would protect her. That is when he gave her some money and begged her to never divulge to anyone that she was of Jewish descent.
Posing as a Catholic girl, she eventually decided she might be safer in Vienna where she headed to find work, knowing every minute a wrong word or a wrong move could result in a death sentence.
Aware that her suitcase could draw suspicion, a woman carried it for her to the train station, pretending not to know one another in case they were stopped. Levinson said the woman placed the suitcase near the train platform and left.
“I didn't say goodbye to her,” she said. “I couldn't even thank her. To this day, I feel terrible.”
She was almost sent to be shot when a Catholic girl recognized her from a couple of years earlier when she carried her violin in Lublin, wearing the required Star of David band on her arm to identify her as Jewish.
“I knew that she recognized me,” Levinson said. “My heart was in my mouth.”
She showed the girl her birth certificate indicating her Christian heritage and said it was not her fault her mother had some Jewish blood.
To her surprise, the other girl relented and did something Levinson questioned again and again over the years, pondering how someone could be ready to kill someone one minute because they thought they were Jewish and then, thinking they were not, suddenly want to be friends.
In Vienna, she said she played the role of an Aryan and went to church on the Sundays she had off, which also provided some relief because it was a place she could put her head in her hands and cry without anyone suspecting something.
Going to communion, carrying a rosary and reading from the now cherished prayer book she believes saved her life.
While in Vienna she learned her father had been shot and killed, choosing to die that way rather than be taken to a concentration camp. He was buried in the street like a dog.
She was eventually saved when Allied forces arrived in Vienna, sending the Nazis underground.
“The Jews were being murdered all over,” Levinson said. “They were not kindly spoken to. The dogs, they treated better. After Americans came in, there were no Nazis. They all changed their clothes."
Alone, she placed ads with the Red Cross and newspapers, seeking information about relatives in the United States whose names she did not know because many came to the states before she was born. Many Jewish people of the time — herself included — changed their names to avoid persecution.
She also remembered a close friend of the family had moved to Rochester, and tried to reach him. A friend of his saw an ad and Levinson was able to get in touch with a dear aunt.
She said she clutched the first two letters and telegraph she received and wrote back late into the night, asking if the correspondence was true or a beautiful dream.
She calls the family friend, Sol, her rescue angel and said if not for the loss of her immediate family, she would have been the happiest person on Earth. Levinson said she also felt God and her grandparents were watching over her.
She made her way to Rochester where she married Stanley Levinson in 1948 and was able to have a family and embrace her Jewish heritage once again.
“The reason I'm telling you is because of hatred,” she told the dozens of people in the FLCC auditorium. “I want you to know how terrible hatred is. Hatred made killers out of many people. I want you to know many people don't think twice about doing something hateful to someone. I have lived through this and believe me, it was not easy. Don't hate anyone. If there is someone you don't like, don't have anything to do with them.”