Leon is 92 years old, light on his feet, and always willing to share his story. I met Leon Levy at “Witness Theater,” a year-long drama therapy program that connects high school students to Holocaust survivors. We met every week and learned about the survivors’ lives. In the late spring of 2015, after many rehearsals, the program culminated in a play. The students represented the survivors and their family members, but the survivors sat on stage, in a half-circle, for the entire duration of the show.
Leon invited me into his home when I reached out to him for an interview. We sat across his dining room table on a Saturday afternoon. He splayed out sepia-toned photographs with notes scrawled on their backs in smudged pencil. He peered at me over the top rims of thick reading glasses, loose skin hanging under his eyes like hammocks, and asked, “where should I should start?”
Leon Levy was born in 1924, and grew up in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland. He had five siblings. Anti-Semitism had infected his hometown long before Germany invaded.
Two years before the war, we knew it was coming. Life wasn’t comfortable. You can point this out, there was prejudice. Because we were a different religion. We were Jewish. These people just didn’t like Jews. We didn’t do no harm, [we] were not killers, not alcoholics. [We] were just people who were working hard. We were not comfortable in our country. None of the Jewish people were comfortable.
Beyond the general discrimination Jews faced, Leon also described jarring personal examples of bullying and bigotry.
Jewish people did not eat pig. So they could hurt us. They would take a little piece of skin from a pig and put it in our briefcases. They knew how to hurt us. It’s a little stupid thing. But it hurts.
The family owned a dairy business. Leon grew up working with his parents. But as the tensions that led to World War II began to grow, business lagged. Leon’s parents struggled to feed and support their children. When Germany occupied Poland, the life for Leon’s family rapidly deteriorated.
When the war broke out, well there was nothing we could do about it. Where you gonna run? Where you gonna hide? You can’t run. You can’t hide. The Germans marched in. Drove in. Whatever. And they took over the country of Poland. They came in with that boom because it was the Hitler time. They took away people’s businesses. Things started going right away sour. No such thing as a savings account. No such thing as money hidden in the house. So things started going sour. Do what? What can we do? How do we start living? Things were getting worse and worse. There wasn’t enough to eat. No place to borrow, no place to give. Nothing to pawn. (Begins to cry) Hang on. I just need to get a hanky.
Leon described to me various instances when the Germans perpetrated psychological abuse. Leon’s family had a little dog that they loved dearly. One day, German officers burst into his home. The lead officer had a giant hound. He snarled, “get it,” and the hound killed the family’s dog in front of them. On another occasion, a drunk German officer came to their home at night. When he saw their beautiful horses, he said, “I’ll be back in the morning to take them.” Leon explained to me, “any German guy could do that.”
Leon’s family was later forced into a ghetto. There, they were packed into a one-room flat. His father was taken away. His mother was left with six small children to take care of by herself. Leon’s older brother fled east, to Russia, and Leon never saw him again. The Germans wrenched Leon’s sister from her home and sent her to work in a factory for knitted materials. Her hand got caught in a machine, so she was sent home until it healed. Leon’s father was friendly with the neighborhood doctor, so he asked him to prevent the hand from healing. He hoped to relieve his daughter, just seventeen, of the grueling work the labor camps demanded. Despite Leon’s father’s best efforts, Leon, later said to me, “they outsmarted us. We couldn’t win.”
Leon’s sister was killed because the Nazis said she was “too beautiful to live.” Leon was shaking when he told me how had she not been such a pretty Jewish girl, she would have had maybe, “a 10% chance at surviving.” Leon reverently murmured that she was a “gorgeous creature,” as he brushed his fingers over her photograph.
Leon was ultimately sent to a forced labor camp, called ZAS.
They said they needed 30 men for work. If you got to work, you get coupons for bread. So I went, because we needed it. So I went to City Hall. While we are waiting for our assignments, two Germans came with machine guns, (crying), and took us away. Slave labor. Do all kind of work, for fences, factories, loading bombs, all kinds of things. We slept 100 people in a barn.
His name at the camp was 64530. He worked day and night, fell ill, and was given little food.
And while we were there, we got sick. All of us, 500 of us, we all got diarrhea. And diarrhea was not ordinary, it was red color. So this was contagious. They did not want us to be near people, because a lot of Germans were there. So they took the whole camp and sent us to quarantine camp. Locked in. No one can go in, no one can go out. We got very little, just to survive.
In 1944, Leon exchanged some clothing for a beet from a peasant on the other side of the fence that enclosed the labor camp. Leon got caught with the vegetable and received two hundred lashings. He could not sit down for a week. When I asked Leon what he thought about during his time at the camp, what he tied his hope and strength to, he said simply, “We hoped. We hoped to survive. That’s all. Listen, human nature, my feeling is, that most…people think, if they don’t kill you, you try to live.” When I asked Leon if he remained close with any of the other men at the camp, he said, “Maybe I didn’t know how to get close with nobody. Maybe we grew up in a certain way that you can’t be too close. It’s hard to tell.”
While Leon was at the forced labor camp, he met Lili, (now, his wife of 70 years). They exchanged notes through the wire of a fence that separated the men’s and women’s camps. Leon showed me the photo he had given to her when he was just nineteen years old. He wrote his message in German, so as not to arouse suspicion if the note was intercepted. He translated it for me. It said, “To my dearest Lili. To friendly memories.” He then pulled out of a small plastic bag the picture of Lili that she had given to him. After re-reading it to himself and sighing deeply, Leon said aloud, his voice laced with a slight tremor, “Dear Leon, be a star for everybody, be only the sun for me!”
Someone said to me, “oh there’s a pretty girl for you!” So I just looked and saw her. And she was a kid herself. Maybe 15 years or 14. And maybe we exchanged a word here or there. Then we were separated. Anyway, when the war ended, I went and stole a bicycle, and went to find Lili, and that’s how we started!
I asked Leon to describe seeing Lili again after the war. He exclaimed, “she saw me from far away, and she started running!” We both laughed. He then added, by way of explanation, “she was a kid. She was maybe 16 that time. We didn’t have anything like close relation. She was still a baby. I was four years older than her.” After the war, Leon and Lili began to spend more time together. He remarked sweetly that, “We grew up together. Things changed in our feelings, in our mind, we became friends.”
Leon explained the mindset that he, and many survivors shared after liberation.
The important thing is this: my wife or I, or hundreds or thousands of others, who survived World War II, they knew that most of the people were dead or burned or disappeared from this world. So we knew we could not go home to a country where there was so much prejudice and poverty…so we would go anywhere. Canada, Australia, United States. Wherever we could go in the world that wasn’t home, we would go.
After the war, Leon learned that one of his brothers had been shot during a death march. Hungry or thirsty, he had bent to eat snow, and a Nazi killed him as soon as he stepped out of line. Despite learning of this, and of the many other atrocities inflicted upon his family, Leon maintained his unbreakable spirit.
He moved with Lili to the United States. Leon described Lili as a “giver,” and as a “good mother.” Today, Leon and Lili have two sons, four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. When I asked Leon what advice he has for the younger generation, he said, “What you do is—work hard. And harder yet. Do the best you can. Do not waste. I was hungry to save. I was hungry to give to my children better food than we used to get.”
Leon also described the way his character has remained unchanged, through all the hardships he has faced.
I’m still a hard-working, helpful, do-the-best-I-can, thrifty person. But if I ever do have to take out the wife for some dinner, we don’t go to a restaurant, we go to a diner. Take one dinner and split it. We don’t want to waste food and throw it out. We can’t. It’s in our mind. When you grow up that way…I guess some people change. I don’t change. I don’t want to change.
Leon’s resilient spirit would seem like his defining quality, until you learn of his unwavering humanity and limitless heart. After the war, Leon was a prison guard. Many former Nazis were incarcerated at this time, and under his watch. Leon had a gun. But he never taunted the prisoners, never screamed at them. He had the right to hit them. But he never laid a finger on them. Leon said to me instead, eyes filling with weary warmth, tenderness, and tears, “we have to forgive, because we got to live.”