Isn’t life wonderful?

My father, Herbert Levy, was born in Nuremberg Germany on March 5, 1919. Unusual for Jews, he was not given a middle name. His family was upper-middle class. His grandfather invented a pen that could write in various colors depending upon which button is pressed. He had one sister, Hilde, born seven years before him. My father had nothing but happy stories about his childhood. By Donne Levy

His father worked in the family business manufacturing pens and made a comfortable living. He seemed to love Germany and its culture. He showed me medals won by his father who fought in the German army in World War I. He never spoke of any Anti-Semitism in pre-Hitler Germany. Although assimilated into German culture, his family was devoted to their Jewish heritage. My father often spoke of going to synagogue and having a Bar Mitzvah. He said that they went to a Reform synagogue yet there was complete separation of men and women. The women during the service remained upstairs where they could hear but not see the service. He never said what made that synagogue Reform. The religious aspect of his childhood had a permanent influence on him, as he would be active in synagogue and Jewish community affairs throughout his life. Various Childhood Memories He mostly spoke of happy times. He went to a school where he learned as many as five languages at one time.

As for sports, he said that track was his favorite. He described a tranquil home life with a house filled with books and classical music. He told one amusing story about the books. There were so many books that some were kept in a bathroom because there was no space elsewhere. Sometimes a houseguest would need to use the bathroom and spend a lengthy time there due to interest in books. My father said that this became a source of laughter.

They were upper-middle class and proud Germans with my grandfather a German World War I decorated hero. Rise of the Nazis My father lived in Nuremburg, which was an early Nazi stronghold. The first major Nazi rally was held outdoors in that city. Because of that, my father knew Nazis. He once said there were Nazi Party people living across the street. One high official of the party, I believe it was Rosenberg the party ideologist, had a son going to the same school as my father. My father once went to a classical music concert in Nuremburg and sitting by him was Adolph Hitler. These were the years before the Nazis came to power. Because the Nazis including their “Furor” were accessible people who could be talked to, they were not feared by my father’s family. This is probably true of Jews in Germany in general. My father said that he and his family thought of the Nazis as crazy people with nutty ideas but not willing or capable of committing the evil that later occurred. It seems that the most my father’s parents did was vote against the Nazis in the elections. On the morning of January 30, 1933, my father was on his way to go ice-skating when he heard a radio news report that Germany had a new chancellor named Adolph Hitler. My father said that within sixty days their lives and Germany had radically changed. Life in Nazi Germany and Escape My father did not talk much about life under the Nazis (1933-1938). He just indicated that freedoms were abolished and life for Jews became fearful. He said that in the privacy of their home his father would lift a glass of wine or schnapps and offer the following toast: “Hitler should live to be a thousand years old tomorrow”.

My father never offered the details, but said that one day he went to a political meeting and was arrested. All I know is that he was soon released. My father as a teenager got a job as a guide in an art museum. He had been taking English in school for many years making it possible for him to guide English-speaking tourists. One day he gave a museum tour to Judge Briggs and his wife of Attleboro Massachusetts. The Judge was impressed that a German teenager could speak English. My father revealed to Judge Briggs that he was Jewish which made life difficult for him and his family in Germany. The Judge gave my father his address in Massachusetts. Soon the situation in Germany deteriorated. My father wrote Judge Briggs a letter asking whether he could come to America and not be returned to Germany. The Judge, who was not Jewish, wrote back stating that he could sponsor my father’s coming to America but could not guarantee that the U.S. Government would not at some point send him back. Enclosed with the letter were the sponsorship papers. He filled out the papers and booked passage on the passenger liner, the Normandy. The German Government allowed him to leave, but refused to let him take any money. It must have been a daunting feeling for a nineteen year old crossing the Atlantic alone in 1938 on a luxury liner bound for a foreign country without a penny.

My father spoke of the impressive sight as the ship sailed by the Statue of Liberty toward the Manhattan skyline. The New York Experience My father stepped off the ship without a penny. He quickly sought agencies that would help Jewish refugees. The rest of his life he remained grateful to the Council of Jewish Women who provided financial support and helped him find a place to live. He spent the next year or so in New York getting odd temporary jobs that barely kept him from starving. One amusing incident he told us was that one day he saw a newspaper want ad for a short order cook. My father who stood six feet figured that he did not qualify. This was still the Great Depression and a young man with a German accent and not quite fluent English had two strikes against him. He worked on his English by going to movie theaters and seeing the same movie multiple times. On to Texas My father concluded that he had no future in New York during tough economic times. He went to a public library to do some research. He discovered that the fastest growing major city in the United States was Houston Texas. He figured that this is where jobs would be plentiful. He bought a bus ticket for Houston. It was a five-day trip, but he only had food money for three days. My father arrived in Houston and immediately went to an employment office where he saw a list of companies with job openings. The first company on the list was the Lone Star Bag and Bagging Company. This company manufactured burlap bags and it happened to be owned by a Jew. He was given a job laying out bags on the roof of the building, which was hard work especially in hot humid Houston.

My father worked his way into a factory job, then into the office, and eventually became executive vice president of the company. Within a few months after settling in Houston, he went to a swimming party for young Jewish singles and that is where he met my mother, the daughter of Russian Jews who had immigrated just before World War I.

They married in 1941 A Sister’s Arrival and World War II At about this time my father discovered that a distant relative was living in America. He got in touch with that relative who then agreed to sponsor my father’s only sister, Hilde, to come to America where she joined my father in Houston. She too went to work under difficult conditions in a factory and then went to work in a Jewish owned food store. My parents got married in 1941. By then Hitler had overrun Europe and there was no way of knowing the fate of his parents. The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the U.S. entered the War in Europe and Asia. The draft went into full operation, but my father, a German with alien status, thought he might not be drafted. However, in 1942, he was drafted into the U.S. army. After basic training, he was shipped to England. Because of his background, he was placed in army intelligence, which mainly meant that he lectured to the other American soldiers about European customs and language. He crossed the English Channel on D-Day and was part of the forces invading Germany. When they were near Nuremburg, his hometown, he and another soldier were separated from their unit. One night they entered a small town outside of Nuremburg. They broke into a house that appeared to be abandoned and there they spent the night. When they woke up the next morning, they looked out a window and saw a mob of Germans at the front door. My father and his friend thought the Germans had seen the American soldiers enter the house and had come to kill them. My father decided he better go out the door and speak to the mob in German hoping he could talk them out of committing murder. When my father went outside, he realized that these were people who knew him from childhood. They heard that my father had come back in the American army and they just wanted to greet him. My father told another poignant story about another soldier.

In my father’s unit there was another soldier who was German born. The unit was fighting on the streets of a German town when this soldier was wounded and lying face down on the street. An old German doctor was there on the street. He went up to the soldier and said to him, “You are an American, but as a German doctor, I will help you.” The old man turned the American soldier over and began to cry. The doctor recognized the soldier because he was the doctor who brought him into the world. The War ended with Germany’s surrender, but still there was no word of what happened to my father’s parents and most of his relatives. While still in Europe, the U.S. army put my father to work as a translator when Nazi officials were interrogated. One American officer told my father that he could get out his revenge if he wanted to by getting out his gun and killing a Nazi because no one would care. However, my father said that he could not kill anyone. The Fate of His Parents My father returned to America with still not knowing about his parents. However, he soon received official notice that his parents were sent to a slave-labor camp at Riga where they were shot to death.

After the Nuremburg Trials, my father obtained the official transcripts, which were about twelve volumes. He read them thoroughly looking for information about his parents. He said that his parents were never mentioned, but many people he knew were in the transcripts. There was one other remarkable occurrence. My parents went on a business trip to New York with my older sister who was then about five years old. They were in a restaurant when my sister left the table to go to place where children were allowed to play. A man spotted my sister and asked her to take him to her parents. He said that you look so much like a man I knew in Germany. This man was a German Jew who knew my father growing up in Germany. My sister took him to my parents. This man then told my father that he had gone to the same camp as his parents. He witnessed my father’s parents execution and knew the exact day it happened, March 26, 1942 The Lasting Effect Since the Holocaust, there has much speculation about the mental state of the survivors. I can only speak of my father’s case. He saw his democratic homeland turn into a brutal dictatorship.

He believed we in America needed to protect our freedoms vigilantly. The first presidential election he witnessed as an American resident was the election of 1940 when Franklin Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented third term. He did volunteer work for Roosevelt’s opponent because a third term was dictatorial in my father’s mind. One of his favorite political organizations was the American Civil Liberties Union because it works for a broad interpretation of the freedoms in the U.S. Constitution. As the victim of racism in Germany, my father was a strong supporter of the civil rights movement in America. My father’s attitude toward the perpetrators of the Holocaust was controversial. He had nothing but fond memories as a child in Germany. He believed that the German nature or culture was not to blame. Even when prominent Nazis such as Eichmann were captured my father said that severe punishment will neither change the past nor prevent a future Holocaust. He did think the Holocaust should be remembered but not with hatred or bitterness. He thought that William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was the best book written about that great tragedy. Finally, one would think that anyone who had my father’s experience would have a bitter mistrustful view toward humanity. Yet, the opposite is the case. He had a love for humanity and life itself. He even said that he could find beauty in people who had done wrong to him. His goal was to live to see the 21st Century. But sadly, due to cancer he died in 1969 at the age of fifty, loving life to the end. A few months before his death, our family along with millions of others watched on television the first manned moon landing. After the vehicle set down on the moon, there was several seconds of silence as no one uttered a word. My father broke the silence by saying, “Isn’t life wonderful?” I think that sums up Dad.