(The Bermuda Jews History Series was originally published in The Bermudian Magazine)
In May of 1941, my grandparents sent round-trip tickets to their eldest daughter, Estelle, to bring her young man, Aaron Levine, to visit them in Bermuda. Estelle, my mother, had met Aaron when she was a freshman and he was a sophomore at Harvard University. The trip was a chance for Myer and Ida to check out their prospective son-in-law. A photograph of Aaron and Estelle on a Bermuda beach shows two young college students, a sweet-faced girl and a skinny young man. She’s kneeling in the sand, smiling unguardedly into the camera. Aaron stands behind her looking proud, defiant and possessive: Bermuda Jews in the making.
Estelle was seventeen when the two first met and her parents were not enthused. Estelle wrote this almost comical reassurance to her father:
I really am glad that you wrote to me because I have been wanting to write to you about Aaron for a long time but I didn’t how to start or what to say. I want to be absolutely frank with you. You are perfectly right about how I feel towards him—I am certainly very attached to him, dependent upon his companionship, and I prefer to be with him than with anybody else. I have felt that way for a long time, since the middle of last year, in fact, but have fought against it, and tried not to admit it, even to myself. I realized that we are both fundamentally very serious, and if we were going to see each other at all it might to lead to something serious, so at the end of last year I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore. For about six months I wouldn’t see him and I was perfectly miserable.
I have tried for the longest time to force myself to go out with other boys but I just can’t do it anymore. It is not a matter of going against your wishes, dear, because you know that I want to do what you would like me to do if I possibly could. I know that what you want is for me to be happy. I feel so much better now that I have told all of this to you. I hope that you understand. I really think that you will. Both youth and lack of money are things that can be overcome—the really important thing is that the boy should have a good character. Please write and tell me that you approve. It is so difficult to know what to do. I can’t give up Aaron but I certainly don’t want to go against your wishes. . . .”
The son-in-law wannabe was determined to win Estelle and set out for Bermuda during Harvard’s 1941 spring reading period. The reading period is an intense few weeks between formal classes and final exams. During my own time at Harvard in the sixties, we rarely left the library, never mind the country, during this mini-semester.
The immigrant work ethic meant that no Levine would have traveled during the reading period lightly. My father’s father, William Isaac Levine, had come to this country as a child and had little formal education before going to work. My grandfather Will sold shoes and sent all five of his children to college, two of them to Harvard. Will, determined to get a Harvard education himself, accompanied my father to class for years.
Yet, when the Malloys summoned my father to Shawmeefe, their home in Bermuda’s Between-the-Walls, Dad complied. Myer lent Aaron a jacket to go out to dinner, Dad was too poor to have ever owned one. Myer and Ida put him up at the Hamilton Inn. The Hamilton Inn sat on the harbor, old even in the 1940s, an icon of Bermuda’s gentle, in-sync-with-nature, way of life. The contrast must have been acute as my father was sharp-tongued, driven, impatient, and intense.
Aaron and Estelle married that fall when England was already at war. Aaron expected a draft notice at any time and couldn’t get a job; employers didn’t hire soon-to-be recruits. My mother took a job as a receptionist at Filene’s Department Store in Boston despite her father-in-law’s objection to working wives. Phone connections were made manually in those days and the job was a disaster. Mom just giggles when she describes how the boss yelled, “Who’s that idiot at the reception desk?” just before he fired her.
My father’s weight gain diet of bananas and milk shakes finally worked and Dad went into the army. He modestly described his greatest military skill in boot camp as cleaning latrines. He grabbed the opportunity to join the army’s military intelligence and moved on to Europe. He wrote regularly to Estelle about war, loneliness and literature.
“Am still in the middle of Henry Adams – it is a remarkable book for its analysis of the value of experience – or rather I hope it will be for as yet I don’t know what Adams means by education and what his goal is in being educated. At the moment he is about 27 and has learned nothing which will qualify him to earn a living or to fit into society; he has learned that men in politics are liars-tho he doesn’t believe that that discovery has any value. Germany-as a student-he found heavy and boring; Italy was pleasant but valueless; England was foreign and closed to him and lacked wit and strength. . . ”
The realities of war soon appeared alongside his philosophical musings. While admiring the famous rivers in Europe he had seen, Dad spoke of the beautiful river in Leipzig where a local crowd had watched silently, some applauding, at the drowning of Jewish women and children. My father pined for Bermuda in a letter home, December 1944.
“. . . Bermuda, where the flowers bloom, the sea and water are green and white not ordinary blue, where little children laugh except when they are very young and have to stay in their cribs all day [referring to his newborn son, Joseph] where the girl you left behind you is lovely and sweet like something in a song that reminds you of home and college and a thousand memories. I wish I could write then perhaps I could tell you simply and eloquently how I feel about you and missing you. To put it straightforwardly, I love you and want to get back to you now, now, now.”
Army censorship dictated that Aaron couldn’t write much of what he saw but in May of 1945, Dad wrote:
“I can now say that I am in Leipzig. We have been in destroyed towns like Aachen, Exhweiler, Duren, Koeln and in preserved ones like Marburg and Eisleben. Nordhausen was a wreck and also the scene of concentration camp leftovers-we saw over 2000 bodies in one place-the sight and smell are still with me.”
My mother, now pregnant, had managed to return to Bermuda to live with her parents. She responded consistently with love and generosity to her husband at the front despite the loneliness of giving birth without him.
“We have so much to look forward to. I want to be in your arms again and to have you love me and to know that we are really together again, that what I have been dreaming about for so long is actually true at last -and then I shall be blissfully happy and at peace with the world. I want to kiss you darling, comfort you, fuss over you, love you up. When you return I think I will probably have you talk yourself hoarse because there is so much I want to know and hear about. I honestly feel that I too am over there with you sharing everything with you. That my sound silly but in some strange way it is the truth. I feel so very close to you my dearest, and living and thinking about you so intensely every single second, and all of that combined with your absolutely wonderful letters have had an absolutely miraculous effect on space and geography. . . “
“Write me as much as you can sweetheart about how things are with you. Is it very bad? Is it terribly uncomfortable? Do you work awfully hard? . . . God damn this war anyhow! I suppose the worst part is the loneliness, lack of recreation, seeing so much destruction, the feeling of unfriendliness (to put it mildly) all around you. Aaron darling, I love you very much and I can’t bear that you should be Unhappy. Soon it will be all over – just like a bad dream and then you begin to feel nostalgic about when you were in Paris and England and tell everyone about your adventures.”
Mom taught Latin at the Bermuda High School for Girls and continued to dream of life together, reunited in Bermuda.
“I am glad you sent it [the Bronze Star] to the states because I will probably be there when it arrives. I haven’t been able to find out what the medal looks like but I had the official report on just what the Bronze Star medal is typed out for me…. About your changing your address to Bermuda – you wouldn’t be sent back here but if you asked for permission to come home to Bermuda-when you should ever get a furlough – they would probably let you come. The three of us in Bermuda would be pure heaven.”
Estelle and Aaron lived in Bermuda after the war, relocating to the States circa 1956, returning during the summers. Those summers were all about coming home to an enchanted island as my childhood friend, Chrissie Gorham, described those times…
“I lived “between the walls” on the same road Debbie did when she lived in Bermuda. I remember the trolls, brownies and fairies we thought inhabited the bushes – and the night-blooming cirrus that grew on the wall opposite her house – it’s once a year blooming a big event in our small lives . . . I remember your [Deborah’s] grandparents’ dock shaped like a boat and their immaculate house [Highwinds]! You would come to Bermuda on school vacations after you moved back to the US and we would have “play dates.” I thought going to your grandparents’ house was exotic and very special – the dock, the perfect quiet adult house in such stark contrast to our crowded, kid infested wild home, and your beautiful dark hair!”
Time has grayed my dark hair and taken most of my immediate family. My grandfather died in 1964 but my grandmother lived another 20 years and became the self-styled “dowager” of Bermuda’s Jewish community. My father died at age 85 in 2004 of complications from diabetes. Dad served as CFO of Hebrew Union College (HUC) and executor of the estate of Dr. Jacob Rader Marcus, the founder of the American Jewish Archives. My father helped build the Edwin A. Malloy Education Building at HUC, named for our beloved late cousin.
My mother was the principal of the religious school of Cincinnati’s Rockdale Temple, dying of cancer at age 67 in 1988; my brother Jon died of cancer in 1996 and my older brother Joe died of cancer in 2011. My brother Joe’s last words to me were, “Tell our stories, keep telling our stories. They say so much about the Bermuda Jews and our lives.”
I hope you’ve found my family’s stories in this 4-part series on Bermuda Jews inspiring. Their stories have always been an inspiration to me. After studying at Harvard Divinity School as part of a BS degree in cultural anthropology, I directed interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee / Chicago office and served as a consultant to the New York headquarters. For a decade I was an executive in Jewish Federations in Illinois, Oklahoma, and in Tennessee. A life-long fan of interfaith work, I created the DuPage Interfaith Resource Network and the Southeast Women’s Council on Diversity.
As an award-winning author of 14 books, I share cross-cultural lessons in many of them: Teaching Curious Christians about Judaism, Inspire Your Inner Global Leader, The Matrix Model Management System: Guide to Cross-Cultural Wisdom, and Going Southern: The No-Mess Guide to Success in the South. I am founder and Editor-in-Chief of the American Diversity Report. For those who would like to hear more of my personal and family stories, please see my memoirs: The Liberator Series
My gratitude goes to scholars program of The American Jewish Archives/Hebrew Union College for supporting my research. Many thanks also to the late Dr. Archie Hollis Hallet, dean of the Bermuda College and founder of Bermuda’s Archives, for his encouragement and reminder that the island of Bermuda is where my heart finds its true home.
Jewish in Bermuda Series © Deborah Levine
originally published in The Bermudian Magazine
See previus articles in the Bermuda Jews History Series