Curt and Edith Levi lived in Wiesbaden, Germany. They came as refugees to St. Louis in 1937 with their one year old son. They describe their experiences in Nazi Germany as well as in St. Louis.
Curt and Edith Levi
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Tape 1 - Side 1
CARGAS: Am I spelling your name right? Is it C U R T?
C. LEVI: C U R T.
CARGAS: Is it Curtis?
C. LEVI: No Curtis – Curt. We have no Curtis in Germany. It was unknown.
CARGAS: Curt, but it was spelled in Germany with a “K.”
C. LEVI: With a “K,” yes, that’s right. But when I came to America I discovered that my father must have been anglicized already 70 years ago because he put in the original German – what do you call it?
CARGAS: Birth record?
C. LEVI: Yes,with a “C.” He put it with a “C.” He had a big problem on the ship in New York. They had to make a big, big thing out of it in New York. They had to make a big, big thing out of Kurt B. Levi, alias Curt B. Levi with a “C.”
CARGAS: Is that right?
C. LEVI: That’s right, that’s how I’m entered America – big trouble, took almost an hour and a half. He had to sign, I would say, half a dozen different kinds of papers. And again, the same when I made my citizenship, the same thing went over again because I changed my name from a “K” to a “C.” (LAUGHTER BY CARGAS) I didn’t know it. I was used to it in school always with a “K.” All the kids spelled their names with a “K.”
CARGAS: Yes, sure.
C. LEVI: I didn’t know it. We didn’t have to say so much in our parents’ house – the kids were not like here, you know. It’s a little bit different.
CARGAS: (LAUGHTER) It’s a lot different.
C. LEVI: Yeah – well.
CARGAS: I want to begin by asking you, probably, the deepest question of all. What has it meant to you to be a survivor?
C. LEVI: Well, this is a big question. I mean, to save your life is all a human being expects, you know. I mean, we know it looked bad but truthfully, we didn’t know that they would kill the people. But I know later it was completely destroyed and we had a business which was almost a hundred years old.
CARGAS: What was that?
C. LEVI: In Weisbaden, Germany.
CARGAS: No, what was it?
C. LEVI: Oh, textile. We had –
E. LEVI: Good morning.
CARGAS: Good morning.
E. LEVI: Edith Levi.
CARGAS: Glad to see you. Thank you for letting me come.
E. LEVI: You’re quite welcome.
C. LEVI: A kaufhaus, or little department store, you know – clothes, no furniture or anything like that. The main thing was piece goods and we had a department of tailor made suits and tailor made shirts. It was different but all comes in the one group.
CARGAS: May I ask, do you do similar work now?
C. LEVI: What I do now?
C. LEVI: Now I’m retired, but I did quite some work here in St. Louis. I worked for 14 years for a shoe factory and became a buyer in that factory. And then next I had my own factory, after they closed. And I ended in south St. Louis with a button and bow factory, trimmings for shoes, with 75 people which I liquidated around three and one half years ago – three years ago, yeah.
CARGAS: Let me go back to my original question. What I really wanted to know was what effect you feel being a survivor has on the meaning of your life.
C. LEVI: Well, the first place, obviously my whole family are always thankful that we are here. And that we think that God must have helped us to survive because I had two brothers in Holland which lost their life, which spoke perfect English, French, and Hollandisch, and were killed by the Nazis.
E. LEVI: And your parents.
C. LEVI: And my parents, naturally, too. While we came out, like, God gave us that little hint not to go to Holland where my brother was a big man there. I went to America, and it was very hard. I wasn’t – was never worried to work because I was a worker all my life. I worked for 57 years until I quit. But, one thing the German Nazis stole from me, one little thing – and the most important thing what most people don’t realize. But you know what it is, what they stole from me? Not the money and what we had – my language they stole.
CARGAS: Why do you say that?
C. LEVI: The English language they stoled! (VEHEMENTLY) Because when I came here, I was suddenly a dummy. I was nothing! I was a businessman, skilled, but I was nothing. Working in a shoe factory, dumb and the lowest job I could get – 15 dollars a week because I couldn’t speak English. Even I had two year English 30 years past, but that was forgotten, you know. That was the biggest thing. Now, my wife was more fortunate. She had five years English in Germany and when she came she could understand, even not too well, but she could speak.
E. LEVI: I had to get used to the sounds because we were taught the English language, you know.
CARGAS: Oh yes, yes.
E. LEVI: It was a little bit different in pronounciation and I felt kind of ridiculous and people looked at me. (LAUGHTER) I asked for “tomahtoes.”
CARGAS: (LAUGHTER) Yes, yes.
E. LEVI: But it was easy for me. I could answer the telephone which he could not. And I could write letters. But we had a little child, one and one half years old. I couldn’t go to work because I had to stay home watching him. Paying a babysitter would not have helped us because we couldn’t make enough.
CARGAS: Yes, yes. What year did you come here?
C. LEVI: 1937. I worked two and a half week to pay my rent because we wanted to live decent.
E. LEVI: We brought our furniture, our whole house of furniture.
C. LEVI: We brought our furniture over because we couldn’t pay that in Germany.
E. LEVI: With German money.
C. LEVI: It came in one big box, you know, in lift vans they call it here. So, we looked for a half decent. We had to pay 35 dollar rent because we didn’t want to buy an icebox and washing machine and all that stuff. So we went into the cheapest apartment we could find. It was on Etzel Avenue. And I made only 15 dollar a week. This was a fate. I mean, I was no privileged man when I came to live. And I worked twice as fast as everybody else because I wanted to be seen again, to be going places, which with my hard work, and long work, I slowly made it too. That’s the truth!
CARGAS: Well, tell me then – a question that I would have asked later, but it seems appropriate now – what has America meant to you?
C. LEVI: Well, America is a dream of all –
E. LEVI: Freedom!
C. LEVI: Freedom – all men.
E. LEVI: Freedom, freedom. We looked around when we left Germany. Even when we came to New York, before we opened our mouths, if someone was behind us, listening. Nobody who hasn’t lived there and gone through it these last years can even imagine such a thing because anyone who picked something up and knew you could report you, whether it was true or not. They would believe the reporter, not us Jews. So, freedom – that was our main goal for any price. We knew we had to give up a lot of things we were accustomed to. But it was worth it.
CARGAS: Now, why didn’t others see what you saw?
E. LEVI: Because many people who had a lot of money hung on their money. Also, the belief was, “Give him a short time and he will be out of office, Hitler.” They fervently wanted to believe it didn’t last, it wouldn’t last. And they were wrong.
C. LEVI: And our education, we were Jews. There is no doubt about it. When the German schools – my friends were Germans – there was no difference between Jews and Gentile before Hitler. Unknown, to us at least.
E. LEVI: Not to everyone, though.
C. LEVI: Not to everybody. There are always some people who suffer under the smallest things, but antisemitism – it seemed like some Catholics in my town – there were only seven or eight families – they felt like they were sometimes pushed back. I didn’t have that feeling. I didn’t have that feeling when I came to America against the Negro because to me it didn’t mean nothing. I didn’t know nothing from race. They only tell us at first when (UNCLEAR). And we had the nicest business, the oldest business, very much respected. And “spater,” later life, I was a big sport, a bicycle racer and had a great name, “champion.” And I had nothing to suffer until our business completely was destroyed. It took – it took two, three years until we had SR troops in front and in the back. They wouldn’t let the people in anymore. They didn’t say nothing to them. But they wrote their name and then they start their work. That’s how it was done. On top of that, we lived on the marketplace and they watched our business day and night because people came when it got dark, they came, instead of in our business, but not in daytime. We had weeks where not one customer came in anymore, in 1937, ’36. Not a person came in our store who was there for over 50 years, more than 50 years. Unbelievable!
CARGAS: Tell me about –
C. LEVI: Well, ask me all the questions you want.
CARGAS: I am a Christian.
C. LEVI: I know.
CARGAS: And I’m writing this book from a Christian point of view.
C. LEVI: Yes, yes.
CARGAS: But the Christians have to – we all have to come to a certain realization.
C. LEVI: Yes, yes.
CARGAS: What is your attitude about Christianity?
C. LEVI: Well, I know Christianity very well because I lived in the shadow of the Lutheran church, just across the street. Less than 25 years. I knew everybody in that town and we always made a joke when the bell rung on Sunday at 10 o’clock, and the people came, my mother always knew who wasn’t in the church. (LAUGHTER BY CARGAS) This is the truth. The whole town was only 4,000 people but we belonged to Wiesbaden which is a very modern health resort town. This was like Clayton/St. Louis, but it was completely separate.
E. LEVI: Curt, that has nothing to do with –
C. LEVI: No, I mean only for security –
E. LEVI: You had all Christian friends and so did I. Because we went to school together and we played together and we worked together.
CARGAS: But they didn’t come to the store.
C. LEVI: Not anymore, they were scared.
E. LEVI: After Hitler.
C. LEVI: After Hitler.
E. LEVI: Not before the war, there wasn’t anything like that. Later on they prohibited. And I had a very, very close friend, a girl – we were so close together that by the time Hitler was already very power – it was in ’36 – that my mother even said to this young lady, “Aren’t you afraid they will do something to your father that you still come to our house?” She said, “What can they do to him?” Well, we knew more and it took only one more month and they threatened the father to take away his work from him and public offices. He was a decorator. And she, under tears, she came and she said, “Why should I suffer for it?” And we told her was it her father’s livelihood, and she just couldn’t do it.
And they even found out she wrote letters to me. And this was a small place where we lived, Blumenthal near Bremen. And she didn’t post her letters in Blumenthal to be because people would see who she addresses it to. She went to Bremen with it and mailed the letters from there. And then I answered her and never had a sender on it and it didn’t come from Wiesbaden Erbenheim. I made it my business from somewhere else. And they found out. They had a mailman living upstairs in their house and they must have found out, opened it or steamed it open, that she was still corresponding with me. That’s how thorough they were. This was in the end of – was it at the beginning of ’36?
C. LEVI: It was ’36, the end of ’36, probably.
E. LEVI: Or was it ’35?
C. LEVI: Well, the mid ’30s –
E. LEVI: Was in the beginning after we –
C. LEVI: They were so organized. Every street had so many “wardens,” they called it.
E. LEVI: Yeah.
C. LEVI: Nobody – if somebody had a new tie, they knew it, or a new suit.
E. LEVI: But we were very close with our Christian friends because where I lived there were very few Jewish families and to us we were raised together, you know. We went to school together. There was – we only felt that the religion was different and on every Christmas Eve – you know, night – we went to church with them because it was so beautiful. Our parents didn’t go but they didn’t forbid us to go.
CARGAS: Well, Germany was called a Christian nation.
E. LEVI: Yes, right.
CARGAS: Hitler was a Catholic.
E. LEVI: Yah, yah.
CARGAS: He was never excommunicated by the Catholic Church.
E. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: And yet, you seem to have no bitterness toward the failure of Christianity to –
E. LEVI: No.
C. LEVI: No.
CARGAS: – to stop him.
C. LEVI: No, no, never, because we knew that not all Germans were Hitler.
E. LEVI: But I knew that they had methods to make him prevent coming to us. You saw what they could do. Only those whom they couldn’t do anything. My – his sister had a very close friend. She’s – she was a social worker. And they came to her house.
C. LEVI: She was the daughter from the –
E. LEVI: From the pastor.
C. LEVI: From the pastor.
CARGAS: Uh huh.
E. LEVI: They came to her house and said if she wouldn’t stop –
C. LEVI: She had a “doctor” title.
E. LEVI: Yeah.
C. LEVI: Very, highly –
E. LEVI: And she should join the –
C. LEVI: Nazi party –
E. LEVI: The –
C. LEVI: And she would not do it.
E. LEVI: And she refused. And so while, “We might prevent you from having, you know, being a social worker.” Well, you have to do what you have to do. She did not quit. They couldn’t do it to her. She was a professional.
C. LEVI: Next door lives very good friend of ours, also from Blumenthal, Gertrude Gildenblum. She was twice in our house from Germany. She is a Lutheran. Remember when she wrote how we feel – she don’t want to insult us, but we know she was no Nazi and was – loved us like we were grown up from baby on together. Next, it was next door, a doctor.
CARGAS: She asked if she could come visit you because she didn’t know how you’d feel?
C. LEVI: Yeah. A highly intellectual girl, very smart. And so we met them. We were in Switzerland. They came both, the two two sisters came to Switzerland from Germany to see us again. It was a – but there were many, many good people. But we have to be honest. I mean, I see this thing much more straight and I’m not a fanatic. What could a man do? My very best friend couldn’t come in our house any more because they called him and told him, “If you go to the Jew once more, you lose your job.” He was (UNCLEAR) He was a worker. What does he call here – former – he made little iron pots. Smelting.
CARGAS: Oh yeah.
C. LEVI: And very – he was a “real” German. He was in my school the first two years. I went later to Wiesbaden a higher school. The middle class people, they went to what they called a “gymnasium” or middle school. And we all five kids went there by train, we went. We were not so spoiled. I mean, we had to walk, not like kids that they come by car. (LAUGHTER BY CARGAS) There was no car, and there were many. I mean, they just – I must still today feel they must have come through a terrible time to be ashamed when they looked in the mirror, what they did to me, to my family, to my parents.
CARGAS: Did your parents stay in Germany?
C. LEVI: They were killed, in Holland.
CARGAS: Oh, they went to Holland also.
C. LEVI: They went to Holland, to my brother who was called the “Craft King of Holland.” He sold imported from Germany and Czechoslovakia, more crafts to Holland and England and to the colonies than anybody else all combined together. He was a very big man. He lost his life. He didn’t go to England where he stayed six months a year because of the parents. I could have brought the parents over. It would have been difficult because I brought several people over. But he took them to Holland. Nobody thought that Holland would be overrun. It was neutral in the First World War, but he was wrong. And I told him so. I wrote him, “I think it’s wrong what you’re doing.” “I know what you’re doing with your 15 dollar a week,” he teased me. “I have America in Amsterdam.”
C. LEVI: Now you have to understand, many people could have – maybe saved their lives if they could have taken their fortune with them. But there were generations living in house – grandparents, great-grandparents and they had a good business. And suddenly a man comes and suddenly they were no good anymore. They didn’t want to leave this over. That’s when they caught them, especially the very wealthy ones, or the ones who had no relations. But the ones who had no good business were already on the end after two years of barely making or spent all of what they had. They were happy to get every day but it wasn’t easy to go to America. But you know about that.
CARGAS: Yes, yes.
C. LEVI: They had to be very wealthy people.
C. LEVI: I was very fortunate. I had people that were too wealthy. Would you believe that? I had one – do you know St. Louis well?
CARGAS: Not so well.
C. LEVI: Oh, you don’t know it well. Well, one of our third cousins, second cousins was a Stix, a president from Rice-Stix. There were 18 factories. One of the richest and oldest Jewish families in town who lived here for a hundred and so many years, one of the early ones. And so all the others related from them, they made an insuring and there come around 25 or 30 people, the numbers I don’t know exactly. Some were not related to me, but they were related through the men somehow. So the mill where I worked at – I told you, I got that 15 dollar job – they couldn’t even pay me 16 dollars because it was union and they didn’t want to have no trouble. So I had to work with a wife and a son for 15 dollar. And after a year, I got a little bit better job. I could speak English. I learned it fast. I went four time a week to school, night school – Soldan night school. And in a year’s time I could speak again. I was suddenly a mensch again. You know what a mensch is?
C. LEVI: You speak German?
CARGAS: No, but I know what a mensch is.
C. LEVI: Well, that is the most important thing they stole is the language. Do you realize, they send you tomorrow in another country and suddenly you’re a dummy? You see it, but it’s not here, it’s not in your tongue. You can’t speak anymore, and especially for people who like to speak.
CARGAS: Tell me what Israel means to you.
C. LEVI: Well, Israel – for all the people who didn’t know where to go, who had no relations, who had no America, Israel was a big thing, but although there they couldn’t go. There wasn’t English stuff and the Arab stuff. I was twice in Israel. It’s a nice little country. It’s a hard country. They have to work awful hard to make a living, especially now since the last two years it became very tough from what I can see, what I heard. Of course, it was very cheap living there, and they lived not like we here in America with milk and honey. They’re not having steaks like we eat here. In Israel was a wealthy man in Germany (UNCLEAR) Jew. He took me here to A & P that time and I ordered three sirloin steaks, and he said, “Are you crazy? You buy steaks that are as big as an klosettbrille.” Do you know what that is? A toilet seat. (LAUGHTER BY CARGAS) He said I am crazy. He said, “We live a month on one piece of that meat, we two,” he said – he and his wife, which is the truth.
But I think it was necessity that they have it. Where would they go? I’m not talking now from the German Jews. They had paradise in Germany. Anybody who wanted to work would get a job or did have a job or a little business or whatever they did. But when you talk from Poland and Galitzia and Russia, it is not so good because the other people suffered but they suffered more. They were very poor, many of them. And still they didn’t leave because going to another country is a very scary thing. Israel, naturally for the Orthodox Jew, which we were not – we were not Orthodox – my mother was Orthodox. But we kids, we had to learn so much in our school that we forgot about Hebrew, so I still have a heck of a time reading Hebrew. I know a little bit about what my eight years of going to Sunday, what they call Sunday school. You don’t learn much from that. On top of it, we had no synagogue in our place at Erbvenheim. We had to go to Wiesbaden or Bierstadt to go there.
But my mother was a very deeply learned religious woman because she came out of a small town where a hundred Jewish families lived and they didn’t know nothing but praying and working. I don’t think my mother ever ate a piece of bread if she didn’t say a prayer before. She was a good woman. But we kids have to admit we are not very religious, but we’re Jewish. We don’t deny it and we believe it. I didn’t change my name like so many did. I am still Levi, and they know it’s Jewish. You know that from the Bible.
CARGAS: Sure. Well –
C. LEVI: You ask me more – what you want to know.
CARGAS: But yet you said earlier that you thought that there was some – almost God’s plan – that helped you to –
C. LEVI: I think so. Fate is – of course, we did not do anything wrong. I would not know what I have done wrong. I didn’t steal, I didn’t cheat. We had the finest name in that town, even today, they – they couldn’t understand that I didn’t come back, the older people –
C. LEVI: – and open our business again. I didn’t want to go back. But my parents were good people. Why did I go to America? I didn’t want to go to Holland. It was laid open. My brother wanted to help me in business and had everything set up. I said, “No, I go to America.” I knew I had to start a new language. I knew that, and it was tough. But it was my dream.
CARGAS: Are you optimistic about the world now?
C. LEVI: Oh, the world?
CARGAS: The future?
C. LEVI: I personally believe it doesn’t get better. As we go on and on, there’ll be always changes. I’m afraid for Communism, very much so, more than anything else. And even then, if they let you live, you have to be satisfied. I hate Communism as much as I hate that national right side Hitlerism or whatever they call it.
E. LEVI: But antisemitism is really strong right now again. Whenever the economy goes in a bad shape, then they look for somebody to blame, and the Jews always worked. It was always easy. And there’s a lotta, lotta antisemitism right now.
C. LEVI: Hitler would have never won if they only would have understood to keep up the prison that don’t want to give the people work, only work. But 30-40% of the Germans didn’t work no more. They were going everywhere to the –
E. LEVI: Work meant welfare.
C. LEVI: – their money, and that made the Germans Nazis.
E. LEVI: And that’s what I’m afraid here too. If people don’t get work, the antisemitism will get worse.
CARGAS: You saw that the Nazi party is trying to have a demonstration in Florissant?
E. LEVI: Yes.
C. LEVI: Yeah.
E. LEVI: And look in Skokie was pretty bad.
CARGAS: Yes ma’am. Do you read much about the Holocaust?
C. LEVI: Yes, yes.
E. LEVI: Don’t have to read so much.
C. LEVI: We lived through the most of it.
E. LEVI: Experienced it all.
C. LEVI: Naturally, her mother who came a little bit later to America died. She went through it – was a war widow, by the way. Her father was killed as a German soldier.
E. LEVI: First World War.
C. LEVI: She went through much more – the Crystal Night when they destroyed the business they had. It was bad. And then my parents – I brought you this paper that you can see them, my father, my mother, the two brothers, Max and Erich. And Erich was married. They all were killed.
CARGAS: Is the world forgetting?
C. LEVI: Yes. Don’t you know that people easily forget, and especially the Americans?
CARGAS: Why especially the Americans?
C. LEVI: They are the most carefree people. They are so fanatic if something new comes, they want all the new thing and then, if the Cardinals win no more, they don’t go there anymore. If they win, they all want to go there. This is America.
E. LEVI: There, there was nothing.
C. LEVI: No, I bring only – you understand what I’m talking about.
C. LEVI: In Germany it’s a little bit different. The people, we are more one kind and we are more trained conservative. And it took Hitler a long time, four, five years, until they stopped the people going to the Jewish business. They came at night still. They could not be just – but the force to take their profession away, to harm somehow; that made it. Signs on every house, “Jews not wanted.” They made things as unbelievable.
CARGAS: What amazes me is you don’t seem bitter.
C. LEVI: Well, no. What would it help if I would be fanatic bitter? I never was fanatic. I know it was only a certain amount of people who did these things. I’m no fool. I know in any religion also are fanatics, you know. And there is a big mass who are not. I could never understand when a black man did something that they say, “All the Negroes are no good.” It is not true. There are some very fine people. I worked with some in the factories. They were some nice people, as much as I knew them, you know. And who do I know killed my parents in those camps? It was done like in a big factory, is how they killed them. And then, look, it’s a long time, as I told you. Slowly, like when you lose a beloved one, first it hurts and it hurts and it hurts, and slowly it becomes less. But I did not go back to my former town to visit, like some. That I could not do. I did never do that.
CARGAS: Many could not, huh?
Tape 1 - Side 2
C. LEVI: Many could not. Many did it on a personal – to get something out or have some stuff by friends or something. But I, personally, could not go back to my town and see my friends, I do not know.
E. LEVI: Besides, antisemitism is very much alive again in Germany, right now –
C. LEVI: Which one were good to me –
E. LEVI: – very much.
C. LEVI: – and very good to me, and which were not. You cannot look in a man’s soul. That’s why I didn’t go. And I have known people that got so excited that they died there, including one cousin of mine.
CARGAS: He went back?
C. LEVI: He went back and the citizens received him very well. And he got so excited and got a heart attack. Maybe he would have got the heart attack here too. Falk, that was one of my favorite cousins. Was a cattle dealer, and a big one too. But I have no desire.
I didn’t get no money like the others – restitution. Everything went wrong with me. I was something between – my father had a business. It was promised to me and I worked and slaved for him for 16 years. I didn’t get nothing for it. I was promised I’d get the business when he gives it up, which would have been – I just was married for a short time, and so the business was not mine.
Everything went wrong with me with restitution. Even my, my, what many get, a good thing Germany which they paid insuring like your social security. I did not work long for strange people only. Only I worked three years as apprentice and one year as a window teller in Wiesbaden, in a big business. I missed around six, seven months, and I would have gotten at least, I would say, around seven to eight hundred dollar every two months or three months then. Something like that, I don’t know exactly. Anyway, I lost my case, so they reported. And so, I don’t get nothing from Germany. Like, my brother-in-law gets, I think 200 dollar a month, something like that. But, thanks God, I didn’t need it. I did very well in America.
CARGAS: How old were you when you came here?
C. LEVI: I was 35 years old.
CARGAS: And you had to start all over.
C. LEVI: 100 percent. Worked for Miller Shoe Company and got 15 dollar a week with wife and child. But I never complained, I only looked up and work harder. And I ended with that factory, very successful, I would say, with a good name in the shoe industry.
CARGAS: Because of something you said – do you know John McGuire from the Post Dispatch?
C. LEVI: No.
CARGAS: Because he was the writer who told me about a bicycling champion that he knew.
C. LEVI: That’s me!
CARGAS: That’s why I’m wondering if you knew him. He used to live on Flora Court. You didn’t live over there.
C. LEVI: Well, you see, as I told you, in 1937 – and I even brought two bicycles over with my furniture.
CARGAS: Oh yeah?
C. LEVI: My racer, I brought over.
C. LEVI: But then I heard, after I learned to speak English, that there is a bicycle club, but they did not do what we did, like in almost every town in Germany, there is a bicycle club. And they usually do drive out on one wheel and – which I did. I have the pictures I can show you. I have the medals, more medals than your greatest general almost – bicycle medals for races and bicycle ball and things which are probably unknown. I drove in a very famous team on one wheel. You know, up – sitting on the handlebar. The bicycle up – six guys, we did things you wouldn’t –
C. LEVI: Like in a circus, yeah. Oh yeah. I was quite known. I mean, they liked me in that town. There is no doubt. They drove me through the town when I brought a first prize home. It was a band of 10, 12, 20 men, music.
C. LEVI: More than one time. And my mother hollered, “You should do and go in your business, that foolish stuff there!” It would have been, “My God, I have a son like that!” They didn’t do things like that in Germany. Business! Work! Good Eat! That’s the way it was, if you had enough to eat, but not too many foolish things.
CARGAS: I see.
C. LEVI: That’s what they called “foolish things.”
CARGAS: What are these papers that you have here?
C. LEVI: This, ah – I got that through the – you probably got my address a dozen people who passed on, see.
CARGAS: Let’s see. I’ll just read it. It’s Wiesbaden, W I E S B A D E N.
C. LEVI: That is the town, yes. That is an old town.
CARGAS: E R B E N H E I M.
C. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: Mrs. Levi, may I ask you? What does Israel mean to you?
E. LEVI: Israel means that finally we have a land to go to if nobody wants us anymore. And that was before. And I think the Jews gained status since we have the state. We are not just living in – only as guests in a foreign country because even if you’re a citizen, the Germans have proven it fully, that we were no citizens when they chased us out and murdered the rest of us. Because we did our best and considered ourselves Germans with Jewish religion until we were told differently.
C. LEVI: Your dad and your mother, were killed there.
E. LEVI: Well what –
C. LEVI: She was three years a war widow, was an outsider.
E. LEVI: (UNCLEAR)…sent away, she had to. She would have been killed in the concentration camp. We had someone living here who is married to a distant relative of Curt. She survived the concentration camp as a young girl. She has a number.
C. LEVI: Oh yeah. And she will be here too. She will talk to you. Her name is Lilli Levi. She has her numbers on her still.
E. LEVI: She has her numbers still engraved on her arm.
C. LEVI: That’s right.
CARGAS: Lilli L E V I also?
E. LEVI: L E V I, yeah. To a distant relative of Hans she’s married. They came with the transport finally to Sweden. She met her husband there and they got married there. I don’t think you’ll reach her now.
C. LEVI: If not now, I’ll give you her telephone number.
CARGAS: I’d appreciate that. Her last name is now what?
E. LEVI: Levi, the same spelled like this.
C. LEVI: Lilli, L I L L I, Lilli. Lilli Levi. Her husband is Swedish, but you have to talk to her. We’ll give you the telephone number, (RECITES NUMBER). You tell her, Curt Levi, you talked to me. That’s all you have to say.
CARGAS: Thank you very much. Yes, I will call her.
C. LEVI: That would be important because she lived in the camps.
E. LEVI: She was very young then.
C. LEVI: Very young, yeah.
CARGAS: I have talked now to about 10 people who have been in the camps.
E. LEVI: Yeah.
C. LEVI: Oh, in the camps?
CARGAS: Yes. And I’ve done much work with those people. I think those things I sent you will show you some work I’ve done in the area. And I hope a very important book will come from this because –
C. LEVI: I hope so too.
CARGAS: – a number of Jews have done something like this. It’s very important, I think, that the Christians –
E. LEVI: It’s very important, I agree, because it should not be swept under the rug.
CARGAS: Absolutely not.
E. LEVI: Because there are still – you might have heard this – a professor, I think. He said, “That’s all invention.”
CARGAS: Yes, oh yes.
E. LEVI: Now, isn’t that ridiculous? How could he say that when there is proof?
C. LEVI: That would be the same if I would say, “All the Germans are Nazis.”
E. LEVI: They were not. They were definitely not.
C. LEVI: We knew that they were not, we knew it. That’s why I’m not a fanatic.
E. LEVI: But they had – you know, there is something you can put power and pressure if you want to. They used to tell me, “It can’t happen here.” Don’t ever say that. It could happen here. When we came here, they always said, “It couldn’t happen here.”
C. LEVI: Yeah. All the people said that.
E. LEVI: If things economically go bad and more and more people are out of work, people will vote for anyone who promises. So what can they lose?
C. LEVI: And would do anything.
E. LEVI: Yes! Whether they come through with it –
C. LEVI: Do you think they are all criminals, what they did in those big cities? The mob. Do you know the name M O B, mob? Did you ever see mob? You know what mob is? Crowds?
CARGAS: Oh yes.
E. LEVI: You know, when they start looting –
CARGAS: Oh, I see what you mean.
E. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: Like with the blackout in New York?
E. LEVI: Yeah, yeah.
C. LEVI: In Germany where such things happened, there were sons from good families. They were sorry though that they did it, 24 hours later.
CARGAS: But they did it.
C. LEVI: But they did it!
E. LEVI: Yes.
C. LEVI: Didn’t you see on baseball plays and other games, they throw beer bottles?
E. LEVI: Fanatics.
C. LEVI: And maybe an hour later they would have been sorry what they did, the fanatics? And the mob. There’s nothing else which gets you out more. I saw things already in my life, bad things.
CARGAS: You were there for Kristallnacht?
C. LEVI: No, we were gone. We had left.
E. LEVI: My mother was there.
C. LEVI: I was there when they wanted to make the Rhineland suddenly French. The French had hired people from Alsace Lorraine and people from the “Fauts,” they call that who came in and made unofficial revolutions there and wanted to put the people up. And it did not work because the people loved their country too much, even if they had suffered. It was just the opposite. What I saw, like in her town, industrial town, and it’s always done mostly from people from other towns where they are not known. And then they make a mob like they make here the lynching. The old western lynching. Do you think all these people were bad? They were not all bad, but they were – drinks, alcohol, and a little bit talkers, and suddenly they were ready to do murder even on a man who hadn’t done nothing. Do you know the western stories, what they did here?
CARGAS: Uh huh.
C. LEVI: I did read them. Unbelievable! That’s the same thing what they did in Germany, only Germany was organized, disciplined and organized to the last houses. Almost unbelievable, what they did. And it got worse when we were gone, in ’37, ’38, ’39 – it got worse until when they took Paris and they started this – only after they took – they were sure they win the war. When they took Paris, they thought they could lose no more. That’s when they start killing the people by the thousands or the 10 thousands.
CARGAS: And not too many people said much. The Pope didn’t say anything.
C. LEVI: That is a most funny thing that the Pope did not say anything. But still, they knew exactly what was going on. We did not know. See, I didn’t know that my parents were dead. I lived here in America already until this thing broke out, you know, when the war was over. It’s almost unbelievable how they kept that secret, but there were thousands of people who knew. They didn’t hear nothing from the people that they were killed. Where were they? They cleaned out whole cities with thousands of people. One transport after another. Every night they were put away – never in daytime, always at night. They knew. But the guys who did it, they didn’t talk. Does the mafia talk?
CARGAS: It’s amazing because there were so many.
C. LEVI: Unbelievable how they could keep it a secret and still might possible, so many Germans saying, “We didn’t know it. We know it wasn’t good for the Jews…” But they didn’t know it.
CARGAS: I read about, for example, the architects. There were many architects who designed the death camps.
C. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: In fact, there were not only architects –
C. LEVI: And architects were professionals.
CARGAS: That’s right. Not only that, but they had competitive bidding.
C. LEVI: I know.
CARGAS: And maybe, they think, some people bribed other people to get the jobs, you know.
C. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: Like we just had in Missouri here.
C. LEVI: Oh.
CARGAS: You know, to pay money to the politicians to get the job, to be able to produce the ovens to kill the people. You know, and there are so many things like that. Who drove the trains?
C. LEVI: They were railroad people.
CARGAS: Sure. In other words, they were –
C. LEVI: People knew and they must have talked about it.
CARGAS: Last thing I need to ask is, may I use your name in the book?
C. LEVI: Absolutely.
CARGAS: I appreciate that.
C. LEVI: What I said is every word is truth and I’m not a liar. I did not make more because I could tell you so much more, but I don’t. Only what my eyes saw that I like to tell you.
CARGAS: I appreciate that.
C. LEVI: What I told you, you can depend on it 100 percent.
CARGAS: I do.
C. LEVI: I have that name for it and I am very outspoken truthful, believe me.
CARGAS: That comes across, and I appreciate it.
C. LEVI: Just to my daughter-in-law, I said – my son married, not long ago, and I told her, “I had a successful factory. Never a lawyer went to me to court with all that business I did for 25 years, for 75 people on the end, and I never sued anybody. And somebody owed me some money or other, but it was to me not worth to go to court.
CARGAS: But in this day and age, you never went to court?
C. LEVI: Never had nobody. I paid a lawyer for 12 years what they call a retainer, and when I needed the guy – he’s still a good friend – when I stopped paying him – you know when that was? They wanted to put a union in my factory and I needed a lawyer, and he said, “Mr. Levi, I’m so ashamed. I have to give you a friend of mine, another lawyer, because I work with my partner…”
CARGAS: (LAUGHTER) For the union?
C. LEVI: For the union. (LAUGHTER BY CARGAS) Can you imagine that? And you can ask him. This is a Jew. I never – I went once here in the city to the alderman and had a lawyer with me. That lawyer, that guy, retainer man, and who did the talking? I did the talking. You know what that president at that time when the alderman did, the highest, the top man, he said, “I want to tell you something, Mr. Levi. You don’t need no lawyer. (LAUGHTER) You are a lawyer yourself.” (LAUGHTER BY ALL)
When I said, “You think I didn’t do no good here. I start a factory where I lived near Etzel Avenue. It was my main hit,” I said, “You’d be wrong, you gentlemen.” The alderman was of the city of St. Louis. “You widows stand up!” Those are old ladies I gave a job are living again in my factory. “Ask them what we doing.” Was a guy bought a house there and said we want to take over Etzel. We want to make too much noise. Nobody ever heard our factory. It was all small sewing machines. He want to throw us out. That’s not an industrial street. We wanted – and I said, “Stand up, you widows.” And 13 women stand up and they asked several of them. And I said, “These women had a new life. They had no more jobs. They didn’t know what to do. But I gave them a decent job with decent wages, and you know why I gave it to them? Because they were good people, lived in that neighborhood and they were better than the young ones.” And I won my thing and I got what the police – zoning, they call it special zoning, just –
CARGAS: Oh yeah, right.
C. LEVI: – on a corner. All empty stores! Five empty stores we had there. I bought the building later.
CARGAS: Those women were from the neighborhood itself?
C. LEVI: All from the neighborhood. That made my winning.
C. LEVI: And that one was a (NAME). It was S.B. You know what S.B. is?
CARGAS: (LAUGHTER) Yes.
C. LEVI: Was a big one, too, and made a lotta trouble there. And he had a rooming house – against the ordinance, he had a rooming house. He started the real thing, but he wanted to get us out.
CARGAS: Well, if he had a rooming house –
C. LEVI: He had rented out to us a guy. He couldn’t hold that thing long. It was a house. That’s what I heard – I had nothing to do with the guy. I didn’t even know him. Things like that happen, but America was very good to us. They all can say what they want if they’re not happy with it. I am.
CARGAS: Well, it sounds like you were very good for America too.
C. LEVI: I was.
CARGAS: Okay. That’s important.
C. LEVI: I was.
CARGAS: Because that’s what America is.
C. LEVI: There were a lot of people work which I never did expect that I ever could do that well, at least when I had my 15 dollar job. But I did much better than my own relations, although there, I have to be honest, they offered me money, a loan which I could pay back whenever I want to. They didn’t want to insult me. Never took a penny. But I made more money later. I mean, I got promoted and ended as a buyer and learned enough to start that factory. It’s some wonders here, some wonders. I think that people were very successful from the German refugees but they did work very hard, harder than the average American.
CARGAS: Well, they had reason, huh?
C. LEVI: They had reason. See, that was what we all think of that Germany was a handicap. You know what a handicap is? A handicap is like when, when a horse is not winning, and they give him a lighter rider and then they give more weight, you know.
C. LEVI: We got less weight, so we work much harder. That was our handicap. We worked harder to get places again. And many times I start sleeping in the Soldan night school. I was so tired from working so hard in that jewel factory. But “iron will,” you know. And I did not even bring a Coca Cola the first year because I felt like Edith and my son, they need the money more than I. And she was very good too – very good, my wife. We didn’t go night clubbing or theater or dinners. Remember when I showed you on DeBaliviere, was that time that restaurant. Now it’s closed too. I said, “Look, once I make more money, I take you here for a nice dinner.” That – what was the name of it? Was at that time the finest restaurant on DeBaliviere and there – Lindbergh Theater on Waterman. There is a restaurant there. Was old and famous for their dinners. Was very elegant.
CARGAS: And so you went there.
C. LEVI: No, I showed her from the outside how much the steaks were.
CARGAS: And then you took her.
C. LEVI: And then I showed her. I didn’t take her. She’s too good a cook that I don’t have to go to restaurants.
C. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: May I trouble you for Lilli Levi’s address? I think I’d like to send her a letter first to prepare her for my call so I don’t shock her or something.
C. LEVI: Let me see. Edith (CALLING TO HIS WIFE)
CARGAS: Is this your –
C. LEVI: This is my son, yeah.
C. LEVI: Yeah. My son is a teacher, art teacher.
C. LEVI: In – now he will teach –
E. LEVI: He moved back to St. Louis.
C. LEVI: He came just from California.
E. LEVI: He has a part-time job at the Florissant Community College. He worked full-time at Meramac, but then his wife and child were in Berkeley. They’re divorced now. And she went back to Berkeley, so he lost that job.
C. LEVI: Yeah.
E. LEVI: You can look through it.
C. LEVI: Scrimshaw Press has a nice reputation.
E. LEVI: Yes, yes.
CARGAS: Very good reputation…no, let me take this. I just want to get the address.
C. LEVI: (RECITES LILLI LEVI’S ADDRESS)
CARGAS: All right, thank you. I’ll send her a letter.
E. LEVI: I understand you are connected with Webster.
CARGAS: Yes, Webster College. Look at that photo. What a shot!
C. LEVI: You also a photo man?
CARGAS: No, I’m a literature man. I teach literature.
C. LEVI: Oh, is that right?
CARGAS: But, you know, I’m interested in all of the arts. I think this is a pretty good – oh, he’s great! He’s handsome. He has a beard too.
C. LEVI: Yes. (CARGAS LOOKS AT BOOK; HANS LEVI ENTERS THE ROOM)
E. LEVI: This is our son, Hans Levi.
CARGAS: I was admiring your book.
H. LEVI: Oh, thank you. What is your name?
CARGAS: Harry Cargas. Glad to see you. I was saying this Scrimshaw Press is a very reputable press.
H. LEVI: Yeah, there’s a little article on them somewhere, there’s an article on Scrimshaw. They’re always on the verge of going bankrupt, but they got an “angel” now.
CARGAS: Have they? Good for them. I do a lot of book reviewing and they send me whatever I want.
H. LEVI: Uh huh.
CARGAS: I usually stay with more literary things, you know. Like, I’m a better judge of that. But, as I said, that shot of the girl with the dog in her hand is remarkable.
H. LEVI: Thank you.
CARGAS: Both of their mouths open and this coloring.
H. LEVI: Yeah. The print is much nicer of this. You know, you see a silver print of this one. (DISCUSSION OF PRINT)
CARGAS: Who did the takes?
H. LEVI: Uh, I wrote that –
CARGAS: Oh, you did? Because it says photographs by you and they don’t seem to give you any credit for –
H. LEVI: Well, you know that “Vision by Roberto?” I talked into a tape and I have a literal transcription of it.
CARGAS: What got you going on these topics?
H. LEVI: Well, I had moved to Berkeley and I was just gaga. I’d sold a business and, we didn’t go to Berkeley, we moved to California. I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do. My interest in photography was kind of reawakened and I was going to school – graduate school. I was always up there photographing anything.
CARGAS: Just a naturalist?
H. LEVI: It was just fun for me to be there and I was very involved with those people. I felt myself very much a part of the scene. I was photographing them. Sometimes I think I got so carried away, you know, listening and rapping that I wouldn’t concentrate on my – (LAUGHTER BY CARGAS) I see you’re working with a tape. I feel like it’s a real shortcoming that I was unable to handle that boat. I did a lot of taping. I wish I’d done a lot of interviews and gotten into that. I feel the oral history really missing from my book.
CARGAS: I’m doing a book with survivors of the Holocaust from the Christian point of view which I think is a dimension that’s missing in the whole approach. Your parents were kind enough to talk to me, and even lead me to somebody else. I want to do about 20 of them. I’ve done about 10 now, and then see what I’ve got, you know.
H. LEVI: Oh, did you come through Mayer or did you give a Mayer?
E. LEVI: No.
H. LEVI: Bernard.
E. LEVI: Bernard Mayer.
H. LEVI: Bernard is incredibly interesting. I mean, here’s a boy who was a kid and was wiped out, practically catatonic. Now he’s an attorney. Oh, I thought you had come through Bernard. Now there’s somebody definitely –
C. LEVI: See, he was left in France.
H. LEVI: – affected more than, you know, most.
E. LEVI: We gave him Lilli.
C. LEVI: I give you the address.
CARGAS: Okay. I appreciate that.
H. LEVI: I can give it to him right off my head. The best place to reach him is his office. Bernard Mayer, M A Y E R. (GIVES ADDRESS AND PHONE NUMBER). That’s his office number.
C. LEVI: You can mention my name or Hans’ name.
CARGAS: Okay. I appreciate this.
C. LEVI: This is a good –
H. LEVI: He was separated from his parents.
C. LEVI: Yes, sure. He was sent away before on the childrens’ transport. They left him in France. His parents were killed. So, they couldn’t find him for a long time and when his uncle –
E. LEVI: His aunt raised him.
C. LEVI: – raised him here. He could speak no more German. He always spoke French suddenly. Kids, you know, for kids it’s simple.
CARGAS: In, in the book that I did with Elie Wiesel, he tells a story. He thought that all of his family was killed. Two of his sisters were living, but he didn’t know it. He was in one of those –
C. LEVI: Camps?
CARGAS: Camps in France during the war – after the war. He came from Austria. And a reporter did a story on that childrens’ camp and the photographer took a lot of pictures, but Wiesel’s picture was on the cover of the newspaper, and his sisters in northern France saw it!
C. LEVI: Can you imagine?
CARGAS: And he got a phone call from his “dead” sisters.
C. LEVI: Wow.
H. LEVI: Remember I once thought I saw a picture of Uncle Max somewhere?
E. LEVI: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
H. LEVI: You know, you start looking for those kinds of things.
CARGAS: There’s a new book out called Swastika Poems by an American Jew from Brooklyn. He’s had no connection with Germany except the fact that his father was from Germany and his two uncles – the four had never met – died as German officers. And his father was kind of proud of his brothers and always, as he was growing up, showing pictures of these men in uniforms. And now, this American Jew has written some beautiful but very bitter poems.
E. LEVI: Yes.
CARGAS: Asking always the question – “Nobody did it?” And yet, I go back and I see this, and he went back to Germany, to his uncles’ graves and he wrote poems about that – very moving. He’s a brand new author.
E. LEVI: Yeah.
(ALL DISCUSS ABOVE)
C. LEVI: They’re vanished, you know, they’re orphans.
CARGAS: Yes. The very first interview I had was with a woman from Poland. I said, “Would you like to go back?” She instantly answered, “Never!” She said, “Poland to me is blood!”
E. LEVI: Yeah.
CARGAS: And I think I’m going to use that as the chapter title for the chapter with her because that’s a great form of speech.
E. LEVI: But, as I always said, the only reason that I would ever go back is if our son wanted to see where we used to live and where he was born. It is of interest to show him, but otherwise, no way would I want to go back. It’s too –
CARGAS: I want to tell you that my job for several years used to be teaching English to foreign students. And your pronunciation is outstanding.
E. LEVI: Thank you.
CARGAS: It’s really – you pronounce ever syllable in every letter. You don’t let anything trail at the end of your mouth. You could be a model for a student.
E. LEVI: (LAUGHS HEARTILY)
C. LEVI: What did I tell you? Remember what I told you when we came to America, about my wife? What did I tell you?
CARGAS: That she had five years of English before – yeah, yeah.
C. LEVI: She could speak and I couldn’t.
CARGAS: Even people who speak it don’t always speak it clearly.
C. LEVI: No. Even I don’t speak clearly.
CARGAS: I’m not sure I agree.
H. LEVI: Are you using one tape as a back-up, or what?
CARGAS: Yes, just in case. I’m paranoid about – you can have sometimes a beautiful interview and something went wrong with the tape. And I also keep one at school and one at home so if there’s ever a fire before I’m done, you know.
C. LEVI: Were you satisfied what you –
CARGAS: I’m grateful to you. Yes indeed. I’ve found good material.
C. LEVI: Any time you want to come back more to know something –
CARGAS: Well, I’ll keep you informed also when the book is published.