By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Reporter
KANSAS CITY — Imagine you are 5 years old, walking down the street near your school. Then, picture that same little you, force-marched between two members of the Belgian Gestapo who have just arrested you for the simple reason that you are Jewish.
Roland Levi doesn’t imagine that scene, he lived it.
He recounted the terrifying events of his childhood during World War II in Belgium for the students at Notre Dame de Sion High School, the focal point of their annual Holocaust Memorial. His visit was a homecoming of sorts for Levi. He attended and was hidden at the preschool of the Institute de Notre Dame de Sion in Antwerp, before his arrest.
Levi, who now lives in St. Louis, was born in Antwerp in 1939, the son of Giacobbe Levi and his wife.
Giacobbe’s father had been born in Bulgaria in the latter half of the 19th century. As a young man, pogroms and demonstrations against Jews convinced him to go to Italy. He returned to Bulgaria with an Italian passport. Giacobbe grew up in Bulgaria and, in 1928, married. Daughter Nadya was born in 1929.
Giacobbe, his wife and daughter moved to Antwerp in 1933, and soon after changed their last name to Leri. Both parents cautioned Nadya and later Roland, “Don’t tell anyone you are Jewish!”
Nadya was enrolled at the Institute de Notre Dame de Sion, and in 1943, Roland started in its preschool. The Sisters accepted the responsibility of hiding the children from the Nazis at the Institute. The congregation had strong ties to the Jewish faith. Theodore Ratisbonne, who was of Jewish heritage, converted to Catholicism and was later ordained a priest. He founded the congregation of Notre Dame de Sion in 1850. The Sisters of Sion’s “threefold” commitment: to the Church, to the Jewish people, and to a world of justice, peace and love…” has guided Sion ever since. Today the congregation promotes improved Jewish-Christian relations.
Anti-Semitism was rampant throughout much of the world. Even in the United States, there were Nazi party members and supporters. Levi said Henry Ford, founder of Ford Motor Company, refused to sell to Jews. He worked tirelessly to cultivate a like-minded anti-Semitic group. These men were a major force in the evolution of American anti-Semitism, and included a large number of pro-fascist figures. Ford supported, ideologically and/or financially, many anti-Semitic leaders, writers and businessmen.
World War II was raging in Europe. Germany had engulfed Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, France and Belgium, and was threatening Great Britain and Russia. Nazi troops seemed to be everywhere in the occupied countries, marching, arresting and deporting Jews, and other “undesirables,” including gypsies. Giacobbe, who owned a printing company, was a member of the resistance. To help protect fellow Jews, he printed fake IDs and other papers. The children wore “holy crosses” on their clothes, to keep them unnoticed. Other than dealing with air raid warnings, food and clothing shortages and the fear of being discovered, the family was getting along as well as they could. Then in 1944, somebody denounced them.
It was about three months before the Americans landed in Belgium, Levi recalled. His mother and father were arrested and taken to the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen, an assembly point for Jews. The Barracks, a complex of 18th century courtyards and buildings, were connected to the railroad system through both Antwerp and Brussels direct to Auschwitz in southern Poland. Typically, those detained at Dossin Barracks stayed two to three months before they were transferred to Auschwitz. The trip, in over-crowded furniture vans, took more than 10 hours. Once in Auschwitz, only five percent of the Jewish prisoners survived.
Frightened by her parents’ arrest, but determined to keep her brother safe, 15-year-old Nadya took charge of Roland. Shortly after, however, two members of the Belgian Gestapo arrived at the Institute Notre Dame de Sion and removed Nadya and Roland from their classroom.
More than 50 years later, their teacher wrote: “I, Sister Marie Therese de Pontcharra, certify that Roland Levi was hidden with his sister Nadya Levi at the Institute Notre Dame de Sion, 27 Ave. Arthur Goemare, Antwerp. I was the witness of the arrival of two members of the Gestapo in April 1944. I was giving a class and they came into my classroom and removed Nadya and her little brother, whom I named Bobby Leri. Through the denunciation all the family was arrested.”
Those must have been terrifying mind-boggling events to have lived through, especially at the age of 5. Levi said most of his memories are flashes — the Gestapo looming in the classroom door; his father, a political prisoner, in chains; the dehumanizing yellow star his whole family was forced to wear, the miracle that saved his life.
“Nadya and I were sent to the Wezembeek Orphanage, and were designated to go to Auschwitz,” Levi said.
When the guards escorted them to the train station, they learned that the train was running very late as people tried to escape and had to be rounded up before the train could leave. As a result, Marie Blum Albert, a well-read and informed woman, was able to confront the guards and inform them of an agreement between the Nazis, the queen mother Isabella and Cardinal Jozef-Ernest van Roey, stating that Belgian Jewish children under the age of 16 were not to be sent to Auschwitz. She negotiated with guards and obtained the release of numerous Jewish children from the Wezembeek orphanage, including Nadya and Roland. The children were returned to the orphanage. Three months later, in September 1944, U.S. and Allied troops entered Belgium and liberation of Brussels, Tournai, Antwerp and other cities and the Meuse River followed in quick succession. By Feb. 1945, Belgium was reported free of German forces.
Levi’s parents survived the war — numbered in the 5 percent of Auschwitz survivors from Dossin Barracks. Levi remembers his father finding him in 1946, and eating macaroni and cheese with him.
Unfortunately, Levi said, the time in Auschwitz had destroyed his parents’ health — they were traumatized, starved, and forced to work under awful conditions — and by the late 1940s they both died. Again Nadya took their mother’s place for Roland. She kept him clothed, warm and fed, she helped him celebrate his bar mitzvah when he turned 13, she oversaw his education and she gave him love. But, she had a life to live also. Levi found himself in an orphanage again for a short time.
When he was 15, Levi went to the Italian consulate in Antwerp to obtain an Italian passport. “I remember the consul looking at me across his desk when I gave my name. He told me, ‘You know kid, your father was a hero!’”
Levi decided to learn how to cook, and received his training at the Ecole Culinaire des Arts et Metiers in Brussels, then brought his talents and skills to the United States. He landed in Birmingham Ala., in the early 1960s, amid the growing civil rights movement and unrest.
“I fell in love with the United States in Birmingham,” Levi said. “I opened my first restaurant in Birmingham, and my first employees — servers and chefs were all blacks. They really helped the restaurant grow and succeed! When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it was terrible!”
Levi fell in love with Gail and they were married. They lived and worked as personal chefs in New York for about 15 years, serving Lee Iacocca, Tip O’Neill, Margaret Thatcher, Princess Diana, and several former presidents. They then worked in the home of John Clay of Clay Finlay Investment Banking. Clay, who suffered from Multiple Sclerosis, dreamed of converting one floor of his home into a private dining room where he could receive guests and clients and serve them a 6-course meal. It was then that the Levis first formed the idea to someday open an intimate six-course dinner restaurant.
Six Tables opened in Dunedin, Fla., a few years later and caught on so quickly that within a year, they had opened another location in Tampa. Although the Levis are now retired, there are still three Six Tables restaurants in operation in Florida. Gail Levi travels the country with her husband, helping him with his presentations.
At the close of his presentation, hands went up all over the gym as students wanted to ask Levi questions. One answer was surprising. The persecution and terror for the Jews did not end with the war. It was scariest after the war, Levi said.
King Leopold III, who had surrendered to the Germans in 1940, was released in 1945, but there were questions as to whether he had betrayed Belgium by surrendering and had he collaborated with the Nazis. Due to the political situation, Leopold was kept in exile in Switzerland until 1950. He abdicated in favor of his son, Baudouin in 1951.But apparently there were many Belgians, and other Europeans who agreed with the Nazis and who had collaborated with them to “get rid of the Jews,” Levi said. “To be a Jew in Europe in the late 1940s was really terrible!
“I still today don’t understand why the Holocaust happened. Is it because we were different? I believe we should love, love our friends, love our enemies. Love is very positive and hate is negative. Get the word ‘hate’ out of your vocabulary!”
Levi’s sister, Nadya, remained in Belgium, teaching. She has three children and nine grandchildren. “She was a great help to me, Levi said. She is a beautiful person.”
“The war was traumatic, but life is beautiful,” he added. “We have so many freedoms here in the United States — freedom of speech, the press, freedom of religion — we sometimes take them for granted. I remember the Holocaust, the Shoah, which means death by fire. For that reason, the Holocaust and its memories belong to the Jews.”
For those who want to learn more about Levi, he has launched a Facebook page, “Hidden Child” (https://www.facebook.).