Prof. Dov Levin: From Kovno to Jerusalem

On the eve of the anniversary of Kristallnacht, we trace one man’s arduous journey to Eretz Yisrael

PROF. DOV LEVIN in his Jerusalem garden (photo credit: BILHA LEVIN)
PROF. DOV LEVIN in his Jerusalem garden
(photo credit: BILHA LEVIN)
‘Who will release us from this pain in our hearts, from the lonesomeness and destruction that call out to us from every corner and every clod of earth?”
Such was the deep anguish of Dov Levin, expressed in his diary in July 1944 as the young man emerged from the Lithuanian forests where he had fought as a partisan. When the capital Vilna was captured, the Jewish fighters and survivors surfaced.
Several weeks later, Dov returned to see his home in Kovno.
“When we heard of the liberation of Kovno, we rushed there like mad. Each one went to his own home with a pounding heart. I went to my house at Mildos 7. Heaps of rubble and burnt bricks – that is all that remained. An enamel plaque with the number 7 inscribed on it in shining white, remained as though to protest the destruction of the house and its occupants.” Born in Kovno in 1925, Dov Levin died in Jerusalem in 2016. For 30 years he was a professor of Jewish history in the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University and director of the Oral History Division. In his hometown, he attended the Schwabe High School in which all subjects were taught in Hebrew. He grew up in a city with 40,000 Jews. By July 1944, when the Kovno Ghetto was destroyed, only 16,000 remained.
Dov and his twin sister, Batya, and his parents Hirsch and Bluma Levin, were placed in the Kovno Ghetto in 1942. When his sister and his parents were taken to the extermination camps by the Nazis in 1943, Dov was left alone and joined a Hashomer Ha’tzair “kibbutz” – the ghetto underground – and learned how to shoot.
In January 1944, he escaped into the surrounding forests during the frigid winter weather. There he joined the Lithuanian partisans with whom he fought until July of that year when the Nazis were driven out by the Russian army. Then he fought with Russian forces in the Baltic area until the war ended. Writer and partisan leader Abba Kovner addressed the partisans in Vilna in January 1945, urging them to go to their Jewish homeland.
One person present wrote, “With excitement, we heard the instructions to leave this town of ours to which we had returned so recently, and prepare ourselves for yet another journey, a journey that may perhaps bring us to a promised shore.”
DOV (LEFT) with fellow soldiers on Mount Scopus, April 1948, guarding the Hebrew University, Hadassah Hospital and Jerusalem Biblical Zoo founder Prof. Aharon Shulov’s menagerie.DOV (LEFT) with fellow soldiers on Mount Scopus, April 1948, guarding the Hebrew University, Hadassah Hospital and Jerusalem Biblical Zoo founder Prof. Aharon Shulov’s menagerie.
IN JANUARY 1945, Levin began that long and arduous journey by himself by foot from Vilna to Eretz Yisrael.
Dressed in his Soviet uniform, which was quickly disposed of, he left with documents indicating that he was on his way to Romania to buy dried fruits. Clearly, one needs to have real self-confidence to undertake such a trip. At some of the initial towns he reached, the police took his documents, examined them and stamped with a visa; in other towns he went directly to police for the stamp.
On February 26, 1945, Levin arrived in Rzeszov, Poland, where he joined a Purim celebration. He had not experienced anything like this for years and recalled the festivities of his youth. Arriving next in Cluj Romania, he began his 500-kilometer trip to Bucharest.
“Boarding the train at Cluj,” Levin told me, “I found the car crowded – no seats available. A Romanian colonel got up to go to the toilet, so I took his seat.” On the colonel’s return, he looked at him sternly and cursed Levin first for his Jewish ancestry and next for his refusal to vacate the seat. Levin saw some Russian soldiers and acted quickly.
“I called to them and asked their help with this ‘fascist.’ They responded readily and together they threw the colonel out of the window as the train was moving.”
The trip to Bucharest took almost a month. What he personally witnessed in the city was a Jewish community still capable of producing Yiddish theater and Yiddish newspapers, in spite of the fact the Nazis had murdered close to 350,000 Romanian Jews during the war.
From Bucharest, after a brief wrong turn back to Cluj, he was on his way to Hungary.
“I was advised by the Jewish partisans in Cluj that the only way to reach Hungary was by train.”
Late one night Levin climbed up the side of a train car on to the roof. For the next 48 hours, he huddled there day and night as his journey continued.
“What one must realize about riding on the top of a train is that standing up is forbidden. At any time a tunnel or underpass, especially at night, can appear and sweep you away before you know what has hit you. Also, whenever the train reaches a town or city, go down the side of the car and only climb back to the roof as the train starts to move. Never assume you are secure – persons on the roof can rob and kill you.” From Hungary, it was not too difficult to enter Austria. Secretly making his way to a known crossing point from Austria into Italy, he finally arrived in the country from which he would embark for Eretz Yisrael.
In Taravisio, Italy, he was warmly received by members of the Jewish Brigade. They registered him as a potential oleh and explained what the process would be to smuggle him in under British surveillance.
“I waited and finally I was notified I was my turn. During the first week of October 1945 I went to Dror, appropriately titled ‘Freedom,’ the secret camp operated by the Haganah near the Italian port of Bari. We all underwent a special regimen. Under the strictest military procedure, the 180 Jews with me prepared for our voyage as Ma’apilim (illegal immigrants). We had Hebrew classes; weaponry training; lectures on Zionist ideology.” On October 15, the group boarded the ship Petra Shetayim (Peter II).
“For nine days the tiny ship moved forward. We had cramped quarters, but never minded them at all. We rarely went on deck – staying down below to avoid detection by the British surveillance aircraft. Water was strictly rationed. I was one of the Ma’apilim on the way home.” On October 20, 1945, aboard ship, he wrote in his diary.
“I remember the railroad car I stayed in for 24 hours in Stanislawow, Russia without ever getting up from my spot; how I rolled under the engine without documents; how I crossed the Alps on foot and more and more. They all embody a long chain of pain, troubles and suffering without knowing the dangers enmeshed in each. There is a time when I benefit from ‘The Land of Israel is acquired only through suffering’ and my suffering for her is dear to me, my illegal immigration and even more so that for me it is finally coming to an end.” On the night of October 23 just before midnight, the ship anchored off the coast near Rishpon, north of Tel Aviv. Two lights were flashed from shore, the signal for debarkation.
In small boats with 10 passengers, they rowed to within 50 feet of the shore, then entered the water. Levin wanted to swim, but a strong young woman, one of those waiting to receive the illegal immigrants, carried him ashore in spite of his protest.
As soon as they reached dry land, each of the 180 women and men, was registered and then transported to a nearby community.
Taken to a villager’s house, he finally knew that he was at home in his own land.
One man’s journey, symbolic of so many others to Eretz Yisrael, had been completed. 
In Israel, Levin married Bilha Deutsch of Petah Tikva. A noted sculptress, her bust of president Yitzhak Navon sits in the garden at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. The couple had three children and four grandchildren.
The noted historian Prof. Martin Gilbert drew a map of Levin’s trip and included it in his Routledge Atlas of the Holocaust, labeled “One Man’s Journey.”