Dov Levin: From Kovno to Jerusalem

A feisty fighter for our freedom.

dov levin book 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
dov levin book 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'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. Finally, after the capital Vilna had been freed, the Jewish fighters and survivors could surface and identify themselves. The liberation of Dov's home in Kovno, Lithuania occurred about two weeks later. On his return there, he poignantly recorded his sentiments. "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 - now a retired professor of Jewish History in the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University - studied at an elementary Hebrew Day School and then at the noted Schwabe High School, where the teaching was completely in Hebrew. He graduated on June 21, 1941, the day before the war broke out between Germany and the USSR. The following day, he recalls, he went to a virtually empty school building to see his final examination scores. At the outbreak of the hostilities in 1941, there were 40,000 Jews in Kovno. By the time of the liquidation of the Kovno Ghetto in July 1944, only 16,000 Jews remained. Dov and his twin sister, Batya, and his parents Hirsch and Bluma Levin, were placed in the 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 Hatzair "kibbutz." As a member of this group, he became a participant in the ghetto underground. There he was able to master the art of weaponry in one of the camp's hidden bunkers. In January 1944, he escaped into the surrounding forests during the frigid winter weather. After proving his guerrilla capabilities, he was permitted to join the Lithuanian partisans with whom he fought until July of that year when the Nazis were driven out by the Russian army. During the latter months of the year, he served with the Soviet forces in the Baltic area, taking on many responsibilities never expected of someone his age. However, along with his fellow Jewish survivors, he was waiting for a chance to leave. The telling message of Abba Kovner, the noted commander of the Jewish Vilna partisan unit, stressed that they must go to Eretz Yisrael. One contemporary wrote in response to those striking words: "With excitement they heard the instructions to leave this town of theirs to which they had returned so recently, and prepare themselves for yet another journey, a journey that may perhaps bring them to a promised shore." It was clearly emphasized that "no one demurred; there was no hesitation. It seemed that they all had just been waiting for a word, a communication, a clear-cut order to leave." So it was that in January 1945, Levin by himself began that long and arduous journey by foot which would bring him to Eretz Yisrael ten months later, in October 1945. An avid chronicler of events, he kept a diary of his odyssey from Vilna to Bari, Italy and then on to Eretz Yisrael. His Lithuania to Eretz Yisrael trip began in Vilna. 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. Having been given a number of contacts and the proper passwords, he alighted on his trek - leading to his future. Clearly, one needs to have real self-confidence on such a trip. At some of the initial towns he reached, the police took his documents, examined them and stamped them with a visa. Now he demonstrated real bravado: he went directly to the police in each locale and asked, yes asked, for the visa stamp. On February 26, 1945, Levin remembers that at a stop in Rzeszov, Poland, he joined a Purim celebration conducted by a Rabbi Wagner. "I had not experienced anything like this for years - it reminded me of my youth in Kovno with all the festivities of this wonderful holiday." Just after that he crossed into Roumania, quickly reaching the city of Cluj. This was to be the beginning of his 500 km trip to Bucharest. It was at this juncture that he used his Russian background to the fullest. "Boarding the train at Cluj," Levin recalls vividly. "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. "I thought as fast as I could knowing I needed help." Levin saw some Russian soldiers and knew what he must do. "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. I never looked back after this incident." The trip to Bucharest took almost a month, but Levin knew that he was headed in the right direction. What he personally witnessed in the city was a Jewish community still capable of producing Yiddish theater and Yiddish newspapers. In addition with the help of the Joint Distribution Committee, many of the Jewish community institutions were in operation. This was the case even though the Nazis had murdered close to 350,000 Romanian Jews during the war. However, he soon discovered that it would be impossible to travel south to the Romanian coast and go on from there to Palestine. Nothing could stop him now, so he returned to Cluj determined to reach Budapest in Hungary. "I was advised by the Jewish partisans in Cluj that the only way to reach Hungary was by train. The problem was - no way I could purchase a ticket since I had no identity card." 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, you must go down the side of the car and only climb back to the roof as the train starts to move." "Lastly," Levin stresses, " you must never assume that you are secure - any other persons on the roof can rob and kill you. No, it was not easy, but I made it." From Hungary, it was not too difficult to cross into Austria. Secretly making his way to a known crossing point from Austria into Italy, he finally arrived in the country which would be his point of embarkation for Eretz Yisrael. In Taravisio, Italy, he was warmly received by members of the Jewish Brigade. They registered him as a potential oleh (immigrant) and explained what the process would be to smuggle him in under British surveillance. Levin's first act was to pen a letter for the Hashomer Hatzair newspaper, Al Hamishmar, about what had happened in the Kovno Ghetto. Now in a secure locale - Italy - in June 1945 he moved around from city to city waiting for word that a ship was available. "Finally I was notified. During the first week of October 1945 I went to Dror, appropriately titled freedom, the secret camp operated by the Hagana near the Italian port of Bari." Levin details what the regimen was. "Under the strictest military regime the 180 Jews with me prepared for our voyage as Ma'apilim (illegal immigrants). We had Hebrew classes. We had weaponry training. We were given lectures in Zionist ideology." On October 15, the group boarded the ship Peter II (Petra Shetayim) for the trip across the Mediterranean. "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. Looking back now over six decades ago, I feel so strongly that our motivation was complete - Ma'apilim on the way home." On October 20 1945, aboard ship, he wrote these words of vision 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. The officers in charge waited until two lights were flashed from shore, the signal for debarkation. In small boats of ten, they rowed to within fifty feet of the shore, where they 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 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 that of so many others to Eretz Yisrael, had been completed. In his diary kept throughout 1948, Levin recalls how he felt at Mt. Scopus, guarding the University and Hadassah Hospital on May 14, 1948. "An historical day or 'the historical day' for which our entire era is especially organized. At 4 o'clock, the state is proclaimed.... "We are cut off from transportation and the telephone. Yet, here we do feel the pangs of the birth of the state. I have merited to see and be witness to this event even from afar. The tedious day to day activities continue - guarding, laundry, ironing, afternoon rest, standing at our post so we do not feel this great moment as much as we should. "Boats with olim from Cyprus landing. They are not checked but immediately join in the fighting. "Tonight we plan to capture Sheik Jerrach. Suddenly shooting from the Jordanian legion disturbs my rest. I return to my post - the fantasy concludes." In Israel, Levin married Bilha Deutsch of Petah Tikva. A noted sculptress, her bust of Yitzhak Navon is in the garden at Beit Hanassi, the presidential residence, in Jerusalem. They have three children and four grandchildren. The noted historian, Prof. Martin Gilbert, drew a map of Levin's trip and included it in his Atlas of the Holocaust. Towards the end of that volume, there is a most accurately entitled map "One Man's Journey." Having completed a career of several decades as a professor of Baltic Jewish history in the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, Levin is the author of over 700 articles, monographs and books in ten languages, specializing in his particular field of expertise. Yad Vashem has just created a Web site containing four volumes of his writings. The Central Archives of the Jewish People has been given his extensive archival collection. "Professor Levin's collection will be a source through which future historians will better understand that era in Baltic Jewish history from World War one through the 1950s," says Hadassah Assouline, director of the archives. In the early days of his research and writing, he was awarded the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize in military history. He has spoken (in Hebrew) at Lithuanian universities and even addressed the Lithuanian parliament. Levin wrote to his great uncle and aunt in the US, Rabbi and Mrs. Tobias Geffen of Atlanta, Georgia in January 1946, describing the tragedy of their Kovno family. He sensed that the potential of aliya from Geffen's descendants in America existed. As a result, he encouraged and then mentored seven Geffen grandchildren and their families, from 1968 to the present, as they moved to Israel. One became the president of Israel's National Labor Court (Steve Adler), and another is the author of this article.