What’s Behind the Shadow: Holocaust Survivor Alex Levy Comes to Speak to Freshmen English Classes

by Alexander Vincenti, Freelance Writer

The day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27, the day that Auschwitz was liberated), English 9 students had the privilege of Zooming with Holocaust survivor, Alex Levy. I was able to listen in on the Zoom meeting and hear Mr. Levy’s story and ask him some questions. Mr. Levy started off his presentation by quoting Joseph Stalin, who said, “one death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic.” Alex got straight to the point of his speech, “I do not want the six million Jews who died in the Holocaust to be just a statistic, because they were more than just that. They were people who did normal everyday things just like you and me.”

Mr. Levy was born in Berlin just as the Nazi Party took power in Germany. His family started to notice the growing antisemitism in Germany and on Kristallnacht, a night when many Jews were rounded up and taken away, Jewish shops were destroyed, and Synagogues were burned, his family left to escape the violence. However, most countries were not accepting Jews, so his family snuck illegally over the border and into Belgium.

However, Mr. Levy and his family were not safe for long. At the beginning of the Second World War, on May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium and the Nazis imposed their antisemitic rules in Belgium. Then in 1942 the Nazis declared that they would try and kill all Jews and eliminate the Jewish population.

“Everyone was scared all the time,” Mr. Levy said. While he was in Belgium he heard of a Cardinal in Brussels who hated the Nazis and was protecting Jews children. This worried Mr. Levy’s family because they were cautious about sending their Jewish child off to live in a Catholic convent and feared that there would be efforts to convert their son to Catholicism. However, the Cardinal assured people that he would not make any attempt to convert Jews and he simply wanted to protect Jewish children. With this assurance, Mr. Levy was sent to Brussels to live in a convent for the duration of the war.

When he first got to the convent he was told he had to change his name to avoid the Gestapo (German secret police). He was given the name Arthur Martin. While in the convent he was not fed well and there was very little food to be shared among all of the children. He described his time there saying, “the two and a half years I spent there were years of starvation and sickness.” On one of his first days in the convent, Mr. Levy was eating an apple and a girl asked him for the core of his apple to eat. He was shocked but gave it to her anyway and watched in as she ate the rest of the core. To this day Mr. Levy says that he still eats the entirety of an apple and his time in the convent permanently changed how he viewed food.

Towards the end of his speech Mr. Levy said something which shocked me. He said “It would be easy to assume that those years in the convent were miserable and terrible, but in truth I enjoyed a lot of my time there. There were new things to learn and things to do.” Being a Jew, it was a new experience to all of a sudden be surrounded by catholic symbols and have to attend mass. He found the catholic religion fascinating and loved hearing stories of religious figures.

Life outside the convent, however, was much more bleak. Mr. Levy’s family except for his parents were arrested by the Gestapo and sent to concentration camps where they later died. His Mom stayed in hiding in her Aunt’s home. The Gestapo searched her house multiple times and in some cases came extremely close to finding her. The Gestapo knew Mr. Levy’s mother was there and as punishment for being unable to find her they took his uncle instead. He was then sent to Auschwitz where he was killed. “Out of my large family of thirty five people, only about six survived,” Mr. Levy said.

After two and a half years of living in the convent, Brussels was finally liberated on September 3, 1944. Mr. Levy’s father came to pick him up and he saw his father wearing an armband symbolizing his participation in a resistance movement. “For me the greatest day of my life was that day,” Mr. Levy said. People celebrated in the streets and people were cheering everywhere in the streets. Later on in the war new fears of another invasion reemerged during the Battle of the Bulge, but fortunately Belgium would remain free for the rest of the war.

Before Mr. Levy moved on to do a question and answer session with the students, he mentioned that unlike other members of his family, he did not harbor a deep hatred for Germans. He said, “I never held grudges against Germans, because I knew that not all Germans were responsible for what happened.” This showed an incredible level of understanding on Mr. Levy’s behalf and was an important lesson for students learning about the Holocaust to hear. These issues of the Holocaust are not black and white and they are often complicated. Mr. Levy tried to make sense of a complicated issue for the students and told them that there were many Germans who rose up against the Nazis and did not support them. Therefore it is inaccurate and unfair to blame all Germans for the Holocaust.

Obviously Mr. Levy’s story is deeply upsetting, as are the stories of other persecuted Jews who lived in fear of capture and execution during one of the darkest times in history. Mr. Levy demonstrated incredible bravery and courage in sharing his story. This begs the question: why did he come and speak with us? Most people in Mr. Levy’s position would try to forget such horrible events, but nevertheless he spoke about his experiences and recounted as much as he could of his time hiding in a convent, away from his family, during a time of starvation and fear.

I asked Mr. Levy this exact question, “why did you decide to speak to us today?” He responded by talking about Plato’s cave allegory. For those who do not know, Plato’s cave allegory is a story Plato wrote to describe how information is passed on. In the story there are people in a cave and on the cave walls they see shadows, but they are unable to see what causes the shadow. As a result the people in the cave may not fully understand the object causing the shadow. The point is that because of an intermediate source, information is lost. Mr. Levy said that it is important for people to hear first hand accounts from these events. Students can learn about the Holocaust from a textbook, but to truly get the best understanding of what life was like during this time, you must hear it right from the source. This was Mr. Levy’s purpose, exposing the objects behind the shadow so that a group of ninth grade students could hear an accurate description of life during the Holocaust.