By Jon Blumenfeld, 17, Hamilton HS
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A joyous family reunion brought together the Blumenfelds. Front row, left to right: Jon's brother Adam; David's translator Gaby Paluch; the newly found relative David Levin and Jon's aunt Lynne. Back row, left to right: Jon's mother, Jane; his unc
Photo by server at Marino's restaurant

Last May, my family learned that we had a relative who had survived the Nazi extermination of the Jews during World War II. In a phone call from a contact in Israel, we learned that our distant cousin David Levin was a single, 86-year-old man who was an actor, did not speak any English and had lived in East Berlin, Germany since the end of the war.

Not only that, David had already booked a flight to Los Angeles and would be here at the beginning of June. We were his only blood relatives left in the world and he wanted to meet us.

My aunt Gina immediately started planning David’s visit. She arranged for lunches, dinners, museum trips and sightseeing. She set up a meeting at Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation, which records interviews with Holocaust survivors from all over the world. She arranged a special tour of the Museum of Tolerance in West Los Angeles, and invited other Holocaust survivors who were friends of my grandparents to have dinner with David and my family. She bought 30 audio and videotapes to record everything that David would say and do during his visit. She hired a translator and she printed a calendar and filled it in with every family member’s schedule and assignment for the week David was here. She thought that she was doing the necessary planning. I felt like she was being neurotic.

When he arrived June 6 at the airport, I was kind of glad that I needed to study for my SATs and had an excuse not to go meet "some old guy." I was apprehensive about his visit because I figured I wouldn’t have much in common with an 86-year-old German man who didn’t speak English. I met David the next day and was surprised to learn that he was 76, not 86, and he was married, not single. Obviously something was lost in the first phone call we received from our cousin Ari Blumenfeld in Israel. By the end of my first day with him, he was making jokes and speaking English better than he claimed he could. He even told us he could dance the tango, and offered to teach us.

We had fun touring the town

During that week we went to some of the more touristy spots in Los Angeles, but we also visited Jewish museums and other places we thought would interest David. He was always ready to go wherever we wanted to take him; he never cared what we did as long as we were together. We went to El Cholo, a Mexican restaurant in L.A., where he ate his first enchilada. He liked it, and he couldn’t believe how big it was. We went to City Walk, looked at the Hollywood sign, which he insisted on seeing, and more relevantly, visited the Museum of Tolerance, where he joined a tour with a group of high school students. David said he was amazed that the students were so attentive and interested in the museum. He did not expect the kids to want to learn about the Holocaust because it is so depressing and foreign to their lives.

After the museum, my mom and aunt took him to the Milky Way, a restaurant owned by Steven Spielberg’s mother. When he found out that Spielberg was eating lunch there, David grabbed a camera, marched up to him and asked to have a picture taken with him right in the restaurant. Spielberg agreed and David now has a great souvenir of his visit to Los Angeles.

By the end of the week, I had really warmed up to David and felt comfortable enough to interview him about his life, my grandparents’ lives and how he survived the Holocaust. Because he would be here such a short time and he was my only source of primary information on my grandfather, who died in 1962, I felt that I needed to learn as much as I could. I had seen documentaries, read books and heard stories from my grandmother about the Holocaust, but I knew David would have another view of the Holocaust and its importance to our family’s history. I also thought he could help me understand what it was like to be around my age and suddenly left alone to figure out how to survive.

David told me that in the early years of World War II, the Jews were rounded up and forced into walled ghettos, where many died from diseases or starved. As a 16-year-old in the Warsaw ghetto, David was assigned to a work detail that picked up dead bodies on the street and loaded them into carts to be hauled to the cemetery for burial. While doing this work, he was accidentally rounded up with a group of other Jews and forced at gunpoint by German soldiers into trains bound for one of the concentration camps in Poland where inmates were treated as slaves and forced to work until they became either sick or disabled. When the inmates became useless to the Nazis, they were sent to Auschwitz where conditions were even worse—people died by starvation, or were shot, or murdered in gas chambers and their bodies burned in ovens.

For Jon's relative, David Levin (right), it was a huge honor to be photographed with Schindler's List director Steven Spielberg, whose Shoah Visual History Foundation has collected the stories of 52,000 Holocaust survivors and other witnesses.
Photo by translator Gaby Paluch

One day at Auschwitz, David, who was working in the kitchen, saw my grandfather, Israel, waiting in line for food. Israel, who was David’s cousin, was beaten and bloody. David immediately gave Israel his leather shoes, which were a sign of status within the camps—the wooden shoes that were rationed out to everyone made their feet blister and bleed.

"You know that I would not have given my leather shoes to a stranger," he said when talking about how much he respected my grandfather.
They planned to meet again the next day, but Israel never showed up. He disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.

"It is so hard to understand now, but it was ordinary then—and you wouldn’t ask why somebody was gone," David said. As I listened, I tried to understand how people could just disappear on a day-to-day basis, and how you had to numb yourself to survive the constant loss.

By the end of the war, David had been moved to Buchenwald—the concentration camp from which he was eventually liberated. Soon after, David was shocked when he ran into my grandfather, Israel. David had assumed that his family had been murdered.

Israel began to publish The Yiddishe Rundschau (Jewish Weekly), the first Jewish literary and cultural publication in post-war Germany. After David had recovered, Israel gave him a job delivering the newspaper. David told me that the newspaper was published in German to show the Germans that the Jews were still living, thinking and writing about things that mattered to them. I had never heard this before, probably because school lessons about the Holocaust don’t focus on personal stories from before and after the war.

After publishing for several years, and getting death threats from Germans who didn’t like the magazine, Israel moved to Costa Rica with my grandmother, Leah, who was also a Holocaust survivor.

While many Jews, like my grandparents, left Germany for other countries, David stayed behind. He told me that one of the reasons he stayed behind was to prove to the Nazis that they had not succeeded in getting rid of all the Jews in Germany. Staying in Germany had a price, as David soon lost contact with my grandparents, who remained in Costa Rica for five years before moving to Los Angeles in 1953.

David spent many years after the war depressed because his closest surviving family member had moved to the other side of the world and lost contact with him. Though my grandfather was dead, David was thrilled to have the opportunity to meet his children and grandchildren.

"If somebody is as lonely as I am after the Holocaust, any kind of contact to family is very precious," he said. "You can only understand it if you have gone through it."

David’s energy, optimism, kindness and generosity were not the qualities that I would have imagined in someone who has been through such pain and hardship. Maybe having lived through the Holocaust helped him to value life and be optimistic rather than think that everyone is evil.

My aunt’s neurotic behavior before David’s visit even paid off. I realized how much planning was needed to make David’s stay with his newfound family a rewarding one.

I now feel that we can’t let our past be forgotten because it is amazing that my grandparents, David and others lived through the Holocaust. Because they had the courage to survive and rebuild their lives, my family still exists. Without my grandparents’ bravery and faith in the future, I certainly would not be here today.

I hope I can visit David in Germany in the spring. As he shows me around Berlin, I look forward to learning more about David, my family and myself.