An unforgettable and multi-faceted Holocaust survivor, Eliezer Lev-Tzion was invited this year to a ceremony in the Martyrs’ forest in Jerusalem, commemorating the victims of the Shoah. He would not miss expressing there his admiration for the Resistance fighters in France and especially for the numerous young Jewish women who volunteered in underground networks.
Eliezer Oskar Lewinsohn, 94, was born in Berlin to assimilated Jewish parents. In 1933, his father, a journalist, was arrested for being a socialist and a Jew. Being taken away, the rest of the family never saw him again and they became refugees. Eliezer and his pregnant mother, Franscheska, fled to France and reached the town of Lyon where they remained hidden from 1933 to 1936. They had no legal existence, and young Eliezer could not go to school until 1936, when Léon Blum, the first Socialist and the first Jewish Prime Minister of France, granted rights to refugees. Lewinsohn’s mother, who had been a doctor in Germany, had to wash clothes in order to make a living for the family – Eliezer and a young baby who was born in France and given the French name of Marcel. “With the granting of rights”, he explained to me, his mother “obtained an identity card and found work. She eventually headed the Social Services bureau located in St. Catherine Street in Lyon.”
However, in 1939, when World War II broke out, as former German Jewish citizens, the small family became potential enemies of the state. Eliezer had to leave school and go into hiding with the rest of the family: “ I was thirteen and already liked reading and studying, and leaving the French system of education was most frustrating for me,” he emphasized sadly. At the age of sixteen, during the winter 1939-1940, he was interned four months in a detention center in the Ardèche region of France: “I was tall and looked much older for my age and was released because they decided I was too young then to be interned.”
Eventually, joining the Jewish scout movement (Eclaireurs Israélites de France [EIF]) helped him develop his personality. He met scout leader Frederic Hammel whose encounter was decisive in his formative years. The French educator instilled in the boys a sense of Jewish identity that still resonates in Lewinsohn’s own words: “He made us aware of our Jewishness and wanted us to be proud of it.” At that time, in the Jewish youth movements, celebrating the Sabbath on Friday night was a way to teach them Judaism. It was also a way to resist the Nazi decision to eradicate Jews and their faith. Eliezer remembered being taught the melodies that conveyed the most well-known Jewish prayers:
“I entered the Jewish world through its liturgy. I was one and a half years at the training school run by the EIF near the town of Lyon, I learned how to be a farmer and also became an observant Jew as well as a Zionist.”
In September 1942, it became more and more difficult to live with the stamp “Jew” on one’s identity card. The leadership of all the Jewish youth groups decided to resort to obtaining forged documents: “Unfortunately, my fake documents were not good enough. I was arrested and served three months in prison. Because I was an avid reader, I went through all the books that my mother brought me weekly.”
Released in early November 1942, Eliezer rejoined his mother and brother in Villeurbanne, a small town near Lyon. He was then 16 years old. Through his mother, he got in touch with a member of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Dika Jefroykin, head of operations for the JDC and one of the leading figures of the Armée juive, a Zionist Resistance movement: “Jefroykin, handed me all the documents necessary for me to start a new life in the underground. An affidavit certified that I was a first aid nurse with the “Compagnons de France.” The “Compagnons de France” was a Vichy paramilitary youth organization created in the summer of 1940 and disbanded in January 1944. It extolled the virtues of authority, faith, and community: “I never took part in any of the meetings of that group”, he said laughingly. He and his mother were both integrated into the Jewish underground groups and performed missions during 1943. Eliezer’s little brother Marcel was hidden in the home of a carpenter who belonged to the French Resistance fighters near the town of Grenoble, which was occupied by Italian troops who were lenient with the Jews. Eliezer described his first mission to me:
“I rode a bicycle, which I had stolen in order to help smuggle out Jewish children from the detention camp of Venissieux, near Lyon. I had to meet a priest. Standing near a hole in the fence, he handed me a six-year-old child together with a piece of paper on which I read a scribbled address. As we rode together, the child gripped the handlebars of my bicycle until we reached the home whose address I had.”
Abbé Alexandre Glasberg was a priest of Jewish origin involved in the Resistance network. Near Grenoble, a town nestled in the Alps, Eliezer related: “I joined a band of Jewish resistance fighters, called a “Maquis.” I was useful to them because I wore the uniform of a “compagnon” which meant that I was expected to obey collaborationists’ orders. I was always afraid that I might be shot by a member of the French Resistance fighters. But, as you can imagine, it made it possible to cross frontiers with relative facility.”
On February 13, 1944, while Eliezer and his mother were visiting little Marcel in his hiding place, members of the Gestapo interrupted the reunion and arrested his mother and brother. Eliezer intimated: “I was lucky to escape but I never saw my mother and brother again. They perished in Auschwitz after being transferred from the French internment camp of Drancy.”
After the Allied landing in Normandy, Eliezer Lewinsohn was entrusted with a mission to spy on German soldiers in the south west of France for two months (SS Division Das Reich), while posing as a carpenter who spoke enough German to be their interpreter. Lewinsohn was recalled to Grenoble and participated in the liberation of the town on August 22, 1944.
From 1944 to 1945, Eliezer worked in children’s homes to rehabilitate children in hiding, most of whom had become orphans during the war. His new mission was to teach them to trust people again and to smile again. Lewinsohn worked in the OPEJ homes of Boulogne and in the castle of “La Malmaison” near Paris. “A number of children who had been in the OPEJ homes would later make aliya”, he pointed out. “My next activity after the war ended, was to help the Allies gather information on the war criminals they were interrogating. My native German made me indispensable!”, he added, with a sad smile.
In the spring of 1946, Eliezer was eager to leave a cruel Europe where his family was murdered, and could finally board (illegally) the Champollion, a boat that carried 3,000 official immigrants and 210 illegal passengers. Thanks to new forged papers, he was released from the transit camp in Haifa. He then rejoined resistance fighters from Grenoble who had settled in the religious kibbutz Sde Eliyahu. A few months later, he left the kibbutz which was too religious for him, and joined Kibbutz Degania, where he met numerous young people from France. There, he received additional training in agriculture and in social sciences, as well as instructions on how to use weapons.
Answering my question about the creation of Neve Ilan, he told me a little more: “Then, with a group of people who had survived the war years, including veterans of the anti-Nazi Maquis resistance movement from France –fourteen girls and seventeen boys—we founded a kibbutz outpost in October 1946 at the top of a hill on the road to Jerusalem.”
Since he had reached Israel, Eliezer (now Lev-Tzion) was privileged to fight in the War of Independence. He participated in many of the wars of Israel and performed reserve duty for forty years. He also volunteered afterwards. Eliezer would often apologize when he had to end our meetings: “I am sorry to leave, but my young friends who have mental disabilities are waiting for me to play ping pong.”
I was also struck by his love of the soil he cultivated. He still cherishes the smell of the land after it has been worked and the chirping of the birds —these elements that renewed and rebuilt the wounded human being in him. Eliezer and the family he rebuilt stayed for ten years in Neve Ilan, from 1946 to 1956. As a former member of the IDF, his opinion is that the Israeli army provides a unique process of integration and identification. His three children and seven grandchildren are continually inspired by him. His fascinating autobiography, published in Hebrew and in French explains what his rich life has been. Even at his age, he continues to have an impact on society, relentlessly voicing the significance of the Jewish efforts to save even one life.
The writer is Senior Research Associate at the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University. Her latest book is titled: ‘How Young Holocaust Survivors Rebuilt Their Lives: France, The United States, and Israel’ (Bloomington, Indiana Uni¬versity Press, 2018), Studies in Antisemitism