The first time that I agreed to serve on the local Holocaust Remembrance Day Committee was painful, even after almost seventy years since the end of World War II. I agreed to assist in promoting the event beyond our Jewish community and I agreed to participate in the reading of the names of the victims. And I resigned myself to being an usher at the event, not my favorite thing. What I didn’t bargain for was a seat on the stage when I offhandedly shared that I was helping in memory of my father who was a U. S. military intelligence officer during World War II. Aaron Levine was an army translator of German and French. And by the way, he was a liberator of a labor camp.
I add the off-handed introduction because dad insisted that his commanding officer was in front of him. It was the officer who actually opened the door. It was to this officer, not dad, that the first prisoner they saw said, “Do you know my cousin Moe in Brooklyn?” before dropping dead at their feet. No one agreed with dad’s perspective, but his attention to detail was honed by his military intelligence training and we knew to just say, “Yes, sir.” He would later serve on the Board of Overseers of the American Jewish Archives and as executor of the estate of its founder, Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus. He was still fundraising for the Archives when he died at age 84, just months before the opening of the Education Building named for our cousin, Edwin A. Malloy.
Fearless and seemingly indestructible, my father rarely spoke about his own experiences during the war. But he did leave the Archives, and me, his letters and papers from the period. Not surprisingly, they are organized, dated and filed in true archival fashion as they rest undisturbed in my files. When I was asked to give the details of Dad’s service, it was easy to go through his meticulous filing and pull out his army discharge papers. I may have read them in the past decade, but the information hadn’t registered with me. The dates were clear as was his rank, Staff Sergeant. His military intelligence training at the top secret Camp Ritchie was noted. His duties were described more starkly than he had ever done when alive, “espionage and counter espionage.” His Silver Star medal was documented. It was a medal that dad rarely acknowledged, saying that it was given to any soldier left standing and finally awarded to him because they ran out of soldiers.
Dad described the camp that he liberated as an underground facility that made V-2 bombs and missiles. Judging from his letters, the timing and the region, the camp would have been Nordhausen. Historic documentation recounts that a small group of US soldiers stumbled upon the camp and the thousands of dead bodies in it. Dad recounts the smell in the letters that he wrote my mother and now reside in my office. Partly to protect her and partly to comply with censorship rules, he abbreviated the description and simply said that humanity could not imagine what he’d seen. Little of this was discussed in my childhood although I do remember asking dad, “Did you kill anybody during the war?” His response was strange, “No, but I slapped somebody once.” Why would you slap a person in war time? “I was interrogating a prisoner of war who said, “I’m only sorry that Hitler didn’t kill more of you Jews,” dad explained.
It would be several decades before I asked for any more explanations. But I often wonder if The Diary of Anne Frank appeared in my bedroom book case in the late 1950s by accident. The somewhat furtive feeding of information continued into my forties. Dad refused to come with me when I was invited to a private opening of the National Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, but he did call me long-distance for my reaction. “A national house of horrors,” I called it. “How could people not know all of this was happening?”
He talked about how many of the surrounding villages were afraid and did not want to know. He described how he and his fellow soldiers marched the villagers to the camp to see for themselves what it was, what was in it, the dead bodies, and the smell. Dad and his fellow soldiers wanted no opportunity for anyone to deny what had happened, to forget, as the years passed. Yet, Holocaust Denial did happen and continues to grow.
Working for the Jewish Federation in Tulsa, was asked to attend, in an undercover capacity, a presentation by the poster child of international Holocaust Denial, David Irving. I saw him hold up a letter and claim that it was written by Hitler and proves that Hitler actually had affection for the Jews. Not Hitler’s fault! The only reason the world doesn’t understand this is that Hitler wrote in an ancient form of German that only Irving could translate. The audience sat in rapt silence and an unquestioning awe.
I was never eager to enter into the ‘Jewish Civil Service’, the advocacy organization working within and on behalf of the American Jewish community. My first job was as a Sunday school teacher working for my mother, the school principal, who bribed me with a classroom with windows, new carpeting, and the best high school intern she had. I later became coordinator of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee in Chicago as a favor to my mother who was dying. They hired me because I was used to representing Jews as one of the sole Jewish family on the island of Bermuda. It seemed natural to soon create my own interfaith organization, the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network, and write for national organizations and publications.
Scattered here and there were a few Holocaust related projects, and then a few more. I considered each as an offshoot of my career path – a coincidental, random occurrence not likely to be repeated. What I’ve come to understand is that none of my work in the Jewish community and in the area of the Holocaust is by chance. My path began long before I was born, in the German hills where my father forbade us to travel. With the skill of a military intelligence officer, he cordoned off the memory and got on with life. But it was there and it seeped out much as the Yiddish he rarely spoke and dismissed as Old World. The past showed up in his insistence on doing the right thing and the belief that there is true evil in life.
His legacy included an intolerance of bad behavior and the certainty that sacrifice for the greater good is what stands between civilization and chaos. He was not a human being prone to closeness, and, I suspect, neither am I. There is more fight in me and sense of tikkun olam, the pursuit of justice in Hebrew, than can be contained in this one body or lifetime. My voice is soft and my face is sweet. But those who know me understand that I am as fierce as my father.
Occasionally, I feel his hand on my shoulder, quietly urging me to surface from the depths. While my gift for compartmentalizing is thinner than his, I hope that maturity has mellowed me somewhat. Yes, I hear my friends snicker at that. What maturity has accomplished is my comprehension that life changing events encompass entire families. Where there is silence, there are hidden depths that bubble up in generations to come.
There are no coincidences, no random accidents that determine entire careers. Call it fate, or history, or a divine plan, a liberator’s soul merged with mine and increasingly, I see that tikkun loam is my life’s blood. Yes, the form has changed over time: an executive in the Jewish Civil Service, an intercultural trainer working with Volkswagen Chattanooga, a writer sharing my dad’s letters in my latest book, Inspire Your Inner Global Leader. So much effort, but my drive to make a difference gets stronger with every year, as it did with dad. Yes, I will light that candle for my father on Holocaust Remembrance Day not just to honor his memory, but in greater understanding that I, too, was there.
Editor’s Note: This article now appears on my blog on The Huffington Post – Deborah J. Levine