Uniting Generations Through Oral Histories
A question, a Google search and a little bit of luck led to a discovery that changed Art Levy’s life.
Levy, a freelance writer in Philadelphia, grew up in a suburban Jewish household where his mother, Elizabeth Levy, would sometimes share stories about living in and ultimately escaping Nazi Germany. Born in Ludwigshafen am Rhein (in western Germany) in 1927, Elizabeth was 12 when she and her parents left Germany with a fake visa.
Eventually settling in Philadelphia, Elizabeth raised a family, worked as a German and Spanish teacher and helped develop the first Holocaust curriculum in the Philadelphia School System. She died in 1995.
More than two decades later, Levy got a call from his daughter, Rebecca, who lives in San Francisco. She was being interviewed by a doctoral student researching third-generation Holocaust survivors who work in the mental health field. The interview provoked more questions for Rebecca.
“My daughter called to ask about her grandmother’s experience,” Levy said. “Back when she was in eighth grade, Rebecca had interviewed her 101-year-old great-grandmother about immigrating to America. But this was now 15 years after that, and she wanted to know what I knew.”
Hoping to find the program his mother had helped create, Levy decided to do a Google search for Holocaust curriculum. Instead, he stumbled upon the Holocaust Oral History Archive at Gratz College. When a perusal of the online archive revealed the name of one of his mother’s close friends, Levy decided to go to Gratz in person.
He met with archive director Josey Fisher, who searched the collection and discovered that an Elizabeth Levy had indeed been interviewed in 1983. She presented Levy with a transcript that day, and later mailed him an audio cassette of the actual interview.
Levy took the transcript home. As he read it, chills crept across his skin.
“My mother gave this interview in August 1983,” he said. “In March of 1985, she had a stroke. She passed away 10 years later, and no one in my family even knew this interview existed.”
From the oral history, Levy learned about his mother’s childhood and the impossibly difficult circumstances her family faced.
For example, in her testimony, Elizabeth states that when she was 11, she and her parents hid in their apartment during Kristallnacht. At 5 a.m. the next morning, two S.S. men arrived and arrested Elizabeth’s father. He spent the next three weeks at Buchenwald.
In an event Elizabeth believed happened to no other Jews, she and her mother were able to enter the Gestapo building in Leipzig, Germany, where they were given permission to go see her father in the camp. Her mother had secured fake visas for the family, which were instrumental in gaining his release.
“When he came back, I didn’t recognize him,” Elizabeth said in her history. “And it was my father, and it was three weeks later. I couldn’t pick him out from the other men that were released.”
The family left Germany in February 1939. They made their way to France for about six weeks and then to England. While waiting for passage to the United States, the family was taken in as refugees by Christian missionaries—who tried unsuccessfully to convert Elizabeth.
“They were some of the nicest people,” Elizabeth said in her history. “But they did try to convert me. That was the wrong period of time. If I was ever Jewish, it was at that time. I mean I’ve remained that way, but I was adamantly Jewish in those years and nothing could have convinced me to convert.”
The family finally arrived in New York and reunited with relatives. But life in the United States was far from easy.
This is where Levy adds to his mother’s story. “No one wanted to talk to them because they had German accents,” he said. “My grandfather couldn’t find a job at first. My grandmother had to work as a live-in maid. They shared an apartment with seven other people. But they were very aware that they had it better than so many people who just didn’t make it.
“My mother and grandparents always talked about how grateful they were to be here,” he said. But they rarely talked about those times in Nazi Germany. My grandfather most definitely never mentioned his time in Buchenwald.”
Without his daughter’s questions, Levy might not have discovered his mother’s oral history. He has since sent the transcript to relatives around the world.
“This only happened because of the urging of my daughter,” Levy said. “Without that, we would not have this absolute treasure.”
But the narrative doesn’t stop there, Levy said. He now feels the responsibility to keep his mother’s legacy alive.
“Her testimony isn’t going to be silent anymore,” he said. “Now there’s something I can pick up, distribute to my family and show to people who don’t understand what happened. Things get so simplified, abstract, removed. When you show someone what your own mother went through, they can personalize it, too.”
The discovery of his mother’s interview, and the Gratz Oral History Archive overall, have renewed Levy’s faith that the message will be passed on to future generations – those who won’t have the opportunity to hear it directly from survivors.
“One of the greatest things about this story is that my daughter asked about it,” Levy said. “To me, that says it doesn’t stop in 1945 or with the survivors or children of survivors. There’s a reason to keep things going.” ■