The Adventures of Gidon Lev: A post-Holocaust mosaic of life

“The Holocaust has not defined Gidon’s life – he has not allowed it to – yet he found himself feeling responsible for conveying his experiences at the hands of the Nazis."

GIDON LEV and Julie Gray  (photo credit: Courtesy)
GIDON LEV and Julie Gray
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I have read countless Holocaust-related biographies and autobiographies, but I cannot recall ever reading another book quite like this one.
The True Adventures of Gidon Lev, named one of the books of the year by Kirkus Reviews, is singularly compelling for the way the story is told from the viewpoints of the survivor and his late-life love; for its encompassing sweep that manages in just 300-odd pages to convey the story of a man within the vast context of Jewish and Israeli history; and for its gentle insights into all of the above.
Gidon Lev (born Peter Löw) was an only child born in Czechoslovakia in 1935. At the age of six, he and his parents were imprisoned in the Térézin (Theresienstadt) Nazi concentration camp. He was 10 when he and his mother were liberated; he was one of just 92 of approximately 15,000 children who passed through Térézin and survived. His father was killed in Auschwitz.
Formative as that indescribably traumatic experience was, it is just one large piece in the mosaic of Gidon Lev.
“The Holocaust has not defined Gidon’s life – he has not allowed it to – yet he found himself feeling responsible for conveying his experiences at the hands of the Nazis. Even so, he didn’t want that terrible experience to be the focal point of his life story. For me, this was sometimes tricky to navigate,” relates editor Julie Gray.
She is a Los Angeles expat who came to Israel in 2012 intending to write her own life story but ended up writing Lev’s instead, after unexpectedly falling in love with this “complex, flawed, sometimes hilarious, opinionated” man 29 years her senior.
Actually, she agreed to edit the autobiographical manuscript he’d already penned. But the finished product turned out to be an amalgam of his and her writing, guided thoughtfully by Gray and the fresh eyes she brought to his story. He allowed her “to root around in and interrogate his memories.”
“Gidon Lev did something extraordinarily courageous; he allowed his most deeply held narratives and beliefs to be challenged by viewing his life events with the benefit of time and a different perspective. All of us should be so brave,” Gray writes.
BRAVERY IS not a quality Lev lacks. After an 11-year detour in the United States and Canada after the war, he arrived in Israel in 1959 as an impassioned Zionist socialist kibbutznik. He fought in the Six Day War (one “true adventure” was losing his pants as he crossed the Jordan River with his rifle held above the water).
He later fought difficult battles over child custody – his first wife absconded to California with their two- and five-year-old children – and against two bouts of cancer.
Nor does this father of six lack chutzpah. Gray relates that Lev crept out of the house at 3 a.m. during one of last year’s pre-election periods, wearing a Batman hoodie and wielding a can of spray paint, to vandalize a pro-Netanyahu billboard.
He adores Israeli dancing and has serious unresolved mother issues. He is thrifty, hardworking and loyal. He goes on half-cocked wild goose chases and doesn’t always respect personal space.
He tells Gray proudly that he “was prepared to defend and die for… this piece of land,” yet he is naively optimistic that disengaging from the West Bank would “allow us and the Palestinians to have separate, independent democratic countries, living in peace, side by side!”
None of the above snippets alone quite capture the man. The whole is much more than the sum of its parts.
Gray totally gets that. Accordingly, she conveys Lev’s story from his-and-her perspectives tempered by self-reflection, empathy and open-mindedness.
She even shares those parts of the manuscript that Lev changed or that they tussled over. This gives the book a rare honest quality that the reader will appreciate.
For example, in writing about Lev’s affinity for reciting Anthony’s speech from Julius Caesar, she observes, “I realized… that there was a performative aspect to Gidon. He’s a ham. That’s why he liked the speech and why he likes it still. He loved attention. Gidon amended this sentence: ‘He loved attention and also to be different!’”
The focus could have gotten too narrow if not for the frequent big-picture passages on Israeli history, language and culture that help set the scene. An American transplant and a Jew by choice, Gray presents these complex, controversial topics with a surprisingly fair degree of accuracy.
The net effect is a nuanced story that is not only about a Holocaust survivor who grew into a very Israeli octogenarian. The joint literary effort opens a window on the evolution of a man’s life and relationships, on the effects of time and life experience as the years go by.