Alex Levin, interviewed by the CBC's Linden MacIntyre:
Linden MacIntyre: When did the Nazis first show up in your village?
Alex Levin: The Nazis, in the beginning, there were no Nazis, they were Nazi collaborators, they organized a pogrom, because on the 22nd of June the war started. Exactly I don’t remember, but the first bomb fell down on our railway station at the beginning of the war. And then there was a vacuum. The Russians retreated, and the Nazi collaborators start robbing houses and approached, right at the beginning of July, the Nazis arrived and they organized a police.
MacIntyre: Now before that, life was fairly…
Levin: ...Life was normal, it was a community, the majority of them Poles, Ukranians, Russians... gypsies are coming and going. And the Jewish community, about 1,680, where we had two synagogues, we had a Jewish school, and life was normal. And the way I said always, you know, we had a soccer team playing. The Jews were playing against the Poles. So we had a fist fight. This is... as a child, I am analyzing now, this is what happened when we were living there. And in general, I would call this a peaceful relationship between the different communities.
MacIntyre: And how long before that changed when the Nazis showed up?
Levin: When the Nazis showed up... first, the Russians showed up. So, actually, the Poles, Ukranians, the Jews - the schools, the Polish schools were closed. The Jewish schools were also... the synagogues, the churches, everything was closed up. The children were forced to study Russian and Ukranian. So-called "capitalists" - so-called - who had a little store, some of them were arrested and sent to Siberia. But life was not killings, but life was going on. Only when the second world war actually continued, and Nazi collaborators started joining the Nazis, then a change came, because they organized a Judenrat and the police, and they were starting, in the Judenrat, to give the orders. And the first order was to organize a ghetto.
MacIntyre: So you were a little boy at the time?
Levin: I was a little boy, yeah.
MacIntyre: And what was the impression on the little boy, of all this going on?
Levin: I remember when the Nazis arrived, when the police arrived. And I remember we were closed in the houses, because the Nazi collaborators are the people, some meeting the Nazis with bread and salt.
MacIntyre: Now these were neighbours?
Levin: Neighbours from a different part of town… they were meeting the Nazis with bread and salt. The Jews did not go out. The Jews met when the Russisans came, they met them not with bread, but some of them were happy that they came, so-called "liberated." As a child, I remember when the Russians came and we were…I remember the huge horses with a special hat, with a red star. And we as children start begging for candies, some of them for cigarettes, that’s what I remember. When the Nazis came we did not beg, not for candies, not for cigarettes. But when the ghetto was organized, then life completely changed.
MacIntyre: Now what was it about the Nazis that made you nervous right now? You didn’t ask them for candies, you didn’t ask them for cigarettes.
Levin: No, we…because the way I analyze now, because some of them who run away from the Nazis from… Poland, they told us stories what’s happened, what the Nazis are doing. This is why we already knew some bad information, bad news what’s going on. Some of them did not believe, the elderly people did not believe that this could happen. They remember the first world war, the same like my brother before he retreated together with the Russians, he came with a horse, with food and said to my father, let’s retreat. My father said, "[for] so many generations we are here. And he remembered the first world war, he ignored the proposal of my brother. My brother didn’t listen to him.. with some cousins and friends they retreated. And we remained in our town.
MacIntyre: Because you didn’t think the Germans really were going to be that bad?
Levin: No, no no.
MacIntyre: When did the family realize that things were not just changed, but dangerous?
Levin: When we were forced to be in a ghetto, we were loaded in each house, four, five families from different streets, from different villages. And restrictions [were imposed] to get out, to wear a Star of David, to put the Star of David. And each day, [there were] orders to go to work; the elderly people did a heavy job on the railway, on the road; the children went to the glass factory to do some work and, at the end of the work, was getting a hundred gram of bread. But during this time we still accommodated from our garden, we have a garden, we had a cow, we had chicken, geese, but slowly through the Judenrat, we had orders... the Nazis gave orders, they took away the horses, they took away the cows, they took away the gold, the jewelry, and each day, [there were] orders all the time. So life became already impossible, food was less, people started getting sick in the ghetto, people started dying. And during the time, in our town, we had two orders: to come to the market place, to be checked [to see] if [anybody] ran away from the ghetto. During these two times, they didn’t force the elderly people, the sick people and the young people to go to the market place, and they let [them go] back home. And this is not one day, during the time, there was a break, second time - let us back. And the final solution was only happened to be on the 26th of August, 1942.
MacIntyre: What did they do that day?
Levin: At this day on the 25th, they gave the order - the same order - for us to come to be checked on the market place.
MacIntyre: Kids, old people?
Levin: Yeah. This is the difference. Now I’m analyzing. But two times they let us back. Now I understand why, because they will call us up, they will check us, they will send us back. But this time they forced everybody. And I remember my last supper, we had three cold potatoes and my mother cut pieces of cold potatoes, we eat our last supper and then we came on the market place. And here we came exactly the market place, and I remember now the commandant, half Pole, half German, Sokolowski, he came on the market place on a stand, on a wooden stand. He has a bandage on his hand. Had a gun with a list and start checking the same like he did prior to this. When he finished checking, he gave [the] order "women and small children on one side, men and boys on the other side." At this particular time one lady, we call her in Ukranian "Kosachka", a strong lady, she saw the police surrounding us. The reason for surrounding is not to kill us on the market place [but] to load us on railway tracks and deliver to Sarno, near Sarno, where three pits were prepared where we were supposed to be killed. We didn’t know at this particular time, but the train was prepared.
When she started screaming, "you run, they are going to kill us", there was a panic. Everybody starts looking where’s my mother, where’s my father, where’s my son, start running, when they start running, they start shooting. People were killed on the spot. At this particular time, my brother grabbed me by hand and started running towards the building where he was working for ... a German shoe company.
Later on he told me that their officer by the name Lemel told him, "if something happens to the community come to us - to me - and you will be saved." And we start running into the building... it was not far from the railway station. We forced ourselves into this building. We saw from the other room, they are shooting towards the marketplace. Immediately, he knew the place very well, underneath of the railway cars to the bushes. And we start running away. I was bleeding at the time, because I was scratched with a wire somewhere.
MacIntyre: And you could hear shooting?
Levin: The shooting was all the time, screaming, shooting, still the noise is in my ears. And we start running. But we were children, we didn’t know what to do. So we met some other people who ran away. And [the] adults, we start asking them, what we should do. And first what they said not to get with a big crowd. And they named two villages, where the majority of the population of these villages were Poles, some religious sect were in these villages. And they told us not to go into the middle of the villages, most of the time to be near the forest. And this we start wandering with my brother.
MacIntyre: Your brother was how old?
Levin: He was 17 years old.
MacIntyre: And you were?
Levin: I was about 10, 11 years old.
MacIntyre: So you just started wandering off towards..?
Levin: We start wandering from one village to another village, from one hamlet to another hamlet, sleeping in the barns, sleeping in the hay, begging for food, stealing the food. I’m telling you, it's a long story, it’s not one day. By wandering from one place, but still at the time, the end of fall, September, still we could find some food in the field. And people - some of them helped us.
Then finally we came to a village. I would never forget this village. We slept with my brother in the hay, I still feel the smell of the hay and the wetness, early in the morning. We came to the farmer, we start begging for food. And the farmer told us you’d better run away from here, yesterday five kids your age were killed by an axe, we got scared...
MacIntyre: Who killed the children?
Levin: The villagers….the Ukranian….
MacIntyre: You were hiding in the farm, and the farmer said you’d better run because yesterday five children were killed?
Levin: Five children were killed.
MacIntyre: By people with axes…Villagers?
MacIntyre: So you left?
Levin: We left, we run away, and we ran away to next village, next hamlet. Some begging food, stealing, food, day by day, we start wandering from one place to another. Finally it was quiet. My brother said, let’s get back to our town. We start walking back to our town. At this particular time we saw some farmers with horses, with some roped Jewish houses, with some leftover stuff, they were coming back. They saw that we are in the bushes, two young boys. So they ask in Ukranian, "where you are going?" We said we are going to our town. They said "if you come to your town, you will be killed. The Germans, the Nazis are killing the Jews."
Then we turned back and we remembered the two villages what we were told by the elderly people, we start searching, to find these two villages. And it’s not one day, it’s not one night, we were wandering. Finally we came to the village of Kope. A house on a skirt of this village, in the middle of the village was a Catholic church, we knocked on the door.
MacIntyre: Were you afraid knocking on the door of a Catholic church?
Levin: Always afraid, always afraid. But we knocked on the door, we want to eat. The door opened by a man who had the collar. As children we remember the Catholic priests, they are wearing a collar. He let us in the house, and another lady was in the house. We didn’t know who they are actually. When they let us in, at this particular day, was posted in the village written in German and in Ukranian, who will report a runaway Jew will get one kilogram of salt.
These people, they knew…that this was posted. They took us into a closet and they hide us into the closet. And this particular time a police came in. To our luck, he didn’t search, he asked if you have runaway Jews, they did not report it. And he left. Afterwards they gave us some food, they gave us some clothes and they told us which direction we should go in the forest.
Prior to this when we were wandering, me and my brother were working on a farm. I was a shepherd, I had 11 cows. My brother was working in the field. But for a short period of time because the farmer was afraid in our area became a lot of partisans, some of them Polish partisans, army of Kryova [sp?], there is Russian partisans, there is Ukranian partisans, there is some murders… there is… Jewish partisans there. And the farmer was afraid they will take away the cows and he told us, because most of the time I was taking the cows early four o’clock in the morning and taking them to the forest. And I had to beg with some food, piece of bread, and a piece of kosher pork, except that I have not to use right away. I make a fire, and I make the pork to drop on the bread and this is the food what I had. And I learned how to milk a cow there. I was milking a cow…and this is what….
MacIntyre: This is what kept you alive?
Levin: Kept us alive. And eventually he said I cannot hold you anymore. He was afraid from the police, he was afraid from the partisans. And we went to the place where these righteous people…
MacIntyre: The priests?
Levin: The priest and it happened, the lady was a Polish teacher. They gave us some food and we went into the forest where we found another 8 people. The youngest one was 3 years old. She is alive, she lives here in Toronto. And two boys 7 years old. One is still alive, he lives in Haifa in Israel. One lives here in Toronto, he was a teacher, an English teacher Larry Gamouka…and some mothers, Larry with his mother, the other one, for three years she was with her sister and mother, and me and my brother, totally we had ten people.
During the life in the forest, it’s another chapter, to describe the life in the forest, how to survive in the forest.
MacIntyre: So let’s just keep the chapter fairly tight and short. Because now you are a family?
Levin: Now we are a family yeah.
MacIntyre: You are ten people in a family, what did you use for shelter?
Levin: We made a cave, a cave. And in the middle of the cave we put a fire. And we had places where we were to sleep. And the top was open. And in this cave we lived for 18 months.
MacIntyre: 18 months?
Levin: 18 months, two winters.
MacIntyre: And nobody came near it, no partisans, no Nazis?
MacIntyre: It was like you were the last people….
Levin: Like isolated…no radio.
MacIntyre: You were the last people in the world?
Levin: Well the last, I call in my book, forest Jews. We lived over there, but time to time we would have to eat. How what we should eat. Nobody taught us how to survive in the forests. There is a lot of stories, the chapter if you want I can tell you…
MacIntyre: Okay but in short hand, roughly where would you find the food?
Levin: Yeah mushrooms. I’m going now to north of Barrie picking up wild mushrooms, I know them. We had mushrooms, we had berries. We had honey, wild honey, my brother was beaten by the bees. We had instead of maple syrop, over there we had birch syrop. All we learned how to do it.
MacIntyre: No meat?
Levin: No meat. No arms…we didn’t have arms. If we would have arms, we could get a lot of food. We didn’t have this….
MacIntyre: No weapons?
Levin: No weapons
MacIntyre: And of course no fish, vegetables?
Levin: Vegetables from what we can…when we were going to the farmer to beg for food, first of all some of them were afraid to give us. And learned from a wild pig how to steal the potatoes from farm, that they will not recognize that a human is stealing. So we have to walk on the floor by taking the potatoes.
MacIntyre: So that they think the pigs stole..?
Levin: The pigs stole the potatoes. They knew that wild pigs they’re very dangerous, but we learned from them.
MacIntyre: Now this priest, you have a special place in your memory for the priest?
Levin: A thirty minute story
MacIntyre: Like that was just one meeting, one moment…and years of suffering, why was it so important?
Levin: It’s so important because you know we were building our life, rebuilding. And this moment I am repeating it’s a 30 minute episode was, if not they we wouldn’t even be alive. They could report it. They could get 2 kilograms of salt. They did not report it. And this was all the time in our mind, who are these people, we didn’t know. And only in 1995, by being in Canada, me and my brother we decided, and 30 people from Israel, we went back to our town. And this we start searching, what’s happened, who are these people.
And eventually in the same village, we start asking questions, who are these people. And they told us that the son of the Polish teacher, was alive, lives in Poland in Warsaw. And through the Catholic Church, we start searching. And I got the books in Polish how these two righteous people were murdered by the Nazi collaborators.
MacIntyre: They were murdered after…?
Levin: They were murdered. And this is where we found it. Before we applied, it took us about two and a half years. They don’t accept any…we had to prove it, that we didn’t pay and they are real righteous people.
MacIntyre: You and your brother were obviously not the first Jews that they had?
MacIntyre: And you obviously weren’t the last…
Levin: Not the last.
MacIntyre: Because they got caught at some point?
Levin: They got…the Nazi collaborators, in the book, they described in Polish, they described how they were killed. And they helped not only us, they helped some other people as well.
MacIntyre: So this…one moment of kindness, made all the difference for you and your brother?
Levin: Yeah, yeah. And you could not…there’s a lot of bad stories that we can describe. But, this goodness, and I compare all the time, the five kids were killed by hacks and we were saved by these two people who were risking their own lives. You cannot take it out from your mind. This was the faces…and as children we remember them very well.
MacIntyre: Let us jump ahead now. Years and years go by, you have a successful life, people go on. How did you hear about this new priest, Father Desbois, how did you first come to be aware of him?
Levin: I got it from the Holocaust Education, they send me some information about Father Desbois.
MacIntyre: Okay so how did it come about. You get some information in the mail one day and you read about it in another paper?
Levin: I got a detailed description, what this Catholic priest, French Catholic priest was doing in the same area where I was, when I was talking to Father Desbois in Montreal, he knows Sarno, he knows Rokitno, he knows these areas. And because most of the time, when you talk to Canadians, to schools, they know where Auschwitz, all the concentration camps, it’s like a standard factory already designed, killing factories designed, and it’s already known to majority of the people.
But plus to these small little towns, little shtettler, little villages, where we were planned to be killed and some of them are killed, not all of them are discovered. And when I saw what Father Desbois is doing. To me it is again proven what a lot of, some deniers are trying to convince some people that there was never…that this never happened. And this is in my opinion, a very important task, what he took on himself.
MacIntyre: So over the years, generally speaking, except for a few people like you who went through it, the rest of the world really didn’t know very much about what happened in West Ukraine?
Levin: No, because when the Russians were there, it was all concealed. When I was in Russian and I was in the cadet school, in the beginning in 1945, I still knew certain things. Later on, no way.
MacIntyre: You knew what happened in your village, when you were a little boy, when you were hiding in the woods, how long before you realized that what was happening in your little village was happening in hundreds and hundreds of little villages?
Levin: In the beginning I knew when I…because when I joined the Russian army as a messenger boy, I went from Rokitne to Sarno, from Sarno to Rogne, from Rogne, to Ravaruskia. Why I’m saying Ravaruskia, because Father Desbois started from Ravaruskia. And I was there.
But I was already in north Alzer, as a military man, as a messenger boy. And I was sneaking everywhere, and I knew what was happening in Dugne, in Brodie, in Ravaruskia, all these Ukranian towns. And then I came to Poland, Jesu.
A town of Jesu, I saw the concentration already. And I saw the people who were survived, and they are going there. I knew this story.
MacIntyre: So you saw this…this swathe of murder?
Levin: Everywhere, everywhere. Plus to this, the smell of war I knew what it is.
MacIntyre: But after the war, not everybody knew this. You knew it, because you went through it all.
Levin: I went through it, I saw it.
MacIntyre: But how did it., what was it like? I mean, after the war, you hear about Auschwitz, and it took a long time for people to talk about that. But nobody talks about what happened in West Ukraine, nobody talks about what happens in East Poland.
Levin: You’re asking me in Ukraine, in the Soviet Union, or are you asking me in Canada, in America.
MacIntyre: Well generally speaking, people seem to think the Holocaust was limited to you know trains taking people to concentration camps and gassing. But the Holocaust we now know was quite different.
Levin: Absolutely, absolutely, yeah, yeah. First of all, the way now I already have some education and I read a lot and I’ve seen the concentration camps, it’s so organized in a German way. If you know one concentration camp, you know the second one as well. The small towns in our area, they didn’t have opportunity to do it, what they were planning to do.
Because no railway trucks were available, because they were already retreating, the Nazis were retreating. They didn’t have the opportunity. So what they were doing, on the spot they were killing places. In a village, in a small town, they were doing the killing. They did not record it the same way like they record in a concentration camp.
Even in a concentration camp, they Hungarian Jews in 1944, the Germans were already retreating. And they came to the concentration camps, they didn’t have time to put the numbers, they were killing on the spot. So this information is still a weak place. This is why I’m saying what Father Desbois is doing, it’s a great proof that a lot of things, sure people did not know what’s going on.
MacIntyre: What went on in Ravruskia, what happened there?
Levin: In Ravaruskia, I was only as a messenger boy with the unit with whom I was there. I knew they start to protect the soldiers, and the officers, they start to protect me. They didn’t let me to being out, and I didn’t have a plan to do this. So I heard about was killed, people were killed there, details I don’t know, I didn’t do a study of this. But I know there is a lot of Jews were killed in Ravaruskia.
MacIntyre: Because the significance is, that’s where Father Desbois’s grandfather was…
Levin: I know…I know…
MacIntyre: And he learns later in life that some of the non Jewish prisoners had to dig graves. Have you discussed this with him?
Levin: We didn’t have too much time, we didn’t have some time. I only informed him that I was in this town, and not only there is a very famous town Dubovne [sp?] its’ a very…[inaudiblee] was written, books, stories, there is [inaudible] there.. All these small towns where I went through was a similar story. I have one boy who was in Brodie [sp?] …and he was the same like me, he was liberated and he was adopted by two doctors in a military unit and I made contact with him even now.
MacIntyre: What…let me ask you a question, a different generation might ask. Why is it so important to remember and document and record and memorialize such evil?
Levin: Evil…the generations, our generations, you have information, they are going away very quickly. It comes to a certain age that they are going away. If we will not be speaking, we will not be telling our story to the young generation. Books, TV, it’s one story. But when you talk to the kids straight face to face without a piece of paper, it’s very important because in my opinion, humans, they are capable to forget very easy what has happened. And if you don’t remind them they will forget. And this could repeat the story again and again and again.
And I don’t want that this story could be repeated. And should young generation forget about what we went through. It’s not easy even when talking to you now. When I speak to the kids, it’s very hard. But I finished my book. My younger brother, five years was killed, my mother was killed, my father was killed, my uncles were killed. 6 million and more were killed. They cannot speak. They cannot say anything. And I must do it until I am capable to do it.
MacIntyre: That’s a good reason.
MacIntyre: Yeah the three pits that you found out about later.
MacIntyre: Because when the children started in the village square, nobody knew about the pits. It was just one very shrewd Jewish mother said, "there’s bad things going down here, run"
MacIntyre: Run, if you can ,and that one woman saved you.
Levin: Actually she saved not only me, she other people who were saved. I mean the lady who started running saying run because you’re going to be killed.
MacIntyre: How long before you found out exactly what they really had in mind?
Levin: When we came back from the forest it was winter, January. The date I found it in a book, Martin Gilbert. I have this book second world war, where it says that our little shtellte, Rokitne was liberated on the 6th of January. And then we decided because our forest was our savior. We were saved in the forest. And then we came back. Some survivors came out of the forest. We went to a Polish family who we remember as children during the Christmas time, we were picking up candies from the Christmas tree. This, they gave us some food and then we met the liberator. And this is where I for the first time was washed, shaved. I could you the story of how we get rid of the lice. But in my book, you will be able to see it.
MacIntyre: So when you and your brother came back to the village, what did you expect to find?
Levin: It’s not a village, it’s a small town.
MacIntyre: Little town. When you came back to the town, did you expect to find, your family?
Levin: Yeah we were expecting to find what’s happened to our community.
MacIntyre: And what happened to your community?
Levin: Nothing, we could not find nobody…nobody. The house was not existing. Some people came out, who came out of the forest, and that’s it. But immediately when we went to the Polish family ,we slept, we came back and we joined the Russian army.
MacIntyre: Now tell me, you subsequently found out that the people from your town, after the shooting stopped, they were taken and they were…and they were finished off.
MacIntyre: What do you now know happened after you and your brother ran?
Levin: This, what the details we know it’s in 1995, when we went from Canada back to Rokitne and we met all the bosses from Rokitne and we went to the same places where we were wandering. Back to this village of Kopri. We found out that the majority of the Poles were…a lot of Poles were killed as well. The Catholic church was burned, the village was burned.
We start looking for the people where we in the forest ,we buried in the forest a guy who was 7 years old in Haifa, his mother and his sister were buried in the forest, we could not find a trace of them. And this is where we start finding out what happened. And it happened that the train was prepared and they took to Sarno. And we went over there, a group of 35 people, survivors and some families, we went over there and we found the three mountains of sand covered the bones and the people were 18, and it says in memorial over there in Ukranian written. 18 thousand people from surrounding, from our town, from surrounding areas were buried in these three pits.
LM : So after you and your brother left, dead and wounded and alive were gathered up and put on the train and taken to those pits?
Levin: No, this we don’t know. Dead I doubt that they took dead on the train. They took only on the train the people that they put, catch them surrounding and putting them on the train. This was written already in the book.
MacIntyre: You’re a kid, I mean little boys are more flexible,
MacIntyre: Your brother was older, he was always the man. So…
Levin: Yeah he was…he till now, he is giving me orders.
MacIntyre: So just now you know what happened in detail after you and your brother left, what happened. After you and your brother fled and went to hide….oh yes your father, you know specifically what happened to your father. How do you know what happened?
Levin: After, a long time after this, when the book came out, when the person who my father was covering him with the clause…
Yeah in the book, I haven’t seen this, but in the book what he is writing, that he puts the name of my father, my uncles, my aunts, and what my father did, he covered….
MacIntyre: Yes I know but start a little earlier. I mean the nazis told everybody to take their clothes off.
Levin: Yeah this is what happened, what he’s explaining because he jumped out from the truck and he saw what’s going on. People have to get undressed and they killed them through the [inaudible]. And somebody, the clothes has to put on the truck. So my father did this. The clothes he has to put on the truck. When he jumped out from the truck he saw what’s going on.
In my words, whatever I’ve read, my word is what he describes in the book that he saw what happened to the people in this area where the three pits are. They were shooting them in the pits. And then he run away.
The story I am telling you the way he was described in the book, because I was not there.
So he describes in his book that name, my father’s name, my uncles, my aunt. And then he describes that my father was loading clothes on the truck. And he covers me, him, covers him with the clothes.
MacIntyre: That was hiding in the back of the truck, so he threw the clothes on top of him
Levin: And when the truck moved away, he jumped out and from there he saw. Because the area over there, because we went in ’95, we saw the area, there’s wooden area, forest, and some high places. So he saw from this place what happened to the rest of the people.
MacIntyre: And what was that?
Levin: Was killed.
MacIntyre: Loaded into…?
Levin: Loaded yeah….into the pits.
MacIntyre: Father Desbois has that phrase, what do you think of that.. ?
Levin: The way I learned now stories, because they were trying to save a lot of bullets. Sometime they could use…there were stories, that they can use one bullet and kill two three people, okay. Father Desbois understands because it’s a kind of a method how to find the bullet. And I know this because I was two summers sweeping the mines up north, when I was in the Russian army, I was sweeping the mines. And I know there is special equipment that you find where the mines are. So he was using the same instrument to be able to find where are the bullets and where the killing was actually happening.
It is to count one bullet, one person, I would not…I would disagree with this. Because sometimes with one bullet they can kill more people. And I’ve read a book in Rovena, that’s in our area [inaudible] that three days the ground was moving, people were alive, buried.
MacIntyre: So it was a Holocaust by bullets. But I guess the distinction is, I mean it was a Holocaust by gas chambers, big killing factories. And then it was a Holocaust in which one human being killed other human beings face to face.
Levin: Face to face yeah.
MacIntyre: You could see people herding other people into a room, killing them there, and going home afterwards?
Levin: Bury them with fire
MacIntyre: This was person to person…it was a very personal Holocaust. And I guess that’s what Father Desbois is talking about.
Levin: I know
MacIntyre: And you agree…?
Levin: I agree. But it doesn’t mean one bullet, one person.
MacIntyre: How would you characterize that aspect of the Holocaust?
Levin: I would say that this is still a dark place not studied well, how many people were destroyed and killed. Because it was a rush. They were planning…they had a big plan how to destroy the Jewish communities. But this was in a rush, so they killed the way it is.
A bullet is a bullet, can kill one person, can kill many persons. Some of them even not killed wounded, and buried alive. Some of them you can find even survivors, who were wounded and still alive and still survived, could come out even from the hole, from the pits in different places.
MacIntyre: So you tell me a little bit more, I want to hear more about that. Because Father Desbois is going, everywhere he goes he finds more, he finds more, he probably never expected that it would go this far.
Levin: No, no.
MacIntyre: Is there any end possible for this investigation?
Levin: It’s a tough question. How many other people except Father Desbois is doing this. And you see when I met Father Desbois, he said in Ukraine, you and me we can go out with our visa, we can do this search whatever we want to do it. But to go to Russia, he needs a visa. And this is where he got a visa to go there. There’s a lot of places in Russia.
Now it’s more open and there is a lot of work done, there is some religious Jewish communities are open. They start searching, they found survivors, they found elderly people. And not too many like Father Desbois is doing this search to find out, not only where it happened, how it’s happened and how many were destroyed. There is a question, do we need to do this, until we are alive, we have to do it. There will come a time we haven’t done this for…I was not speaking for so many years. I start speaking now. Each time you hear from the Holocaust survivors, this guy’s gone, this guy’s gone. Too many…a couple of years more and we have to use only what we discovered.
MacIntyre: Why do you think so many of the old people, they weren’t Jews, they were Ukranians or whatever, why are they telling this priest from France so much?
Levin: That’s a good question. Because I was listening to Father Desbois and I agreed with him. Because if a Jew comes, when we went to Rokitne, and we start asking questions…
MacIntyre: I mean a lot of people in Ukraine aren’t proud of what happened. Why are so many of these old people, many have been troubled, this has been a secret for decades, why are they now saying so much to this French man who is a priest?
Levin: First of all, first of all he is not Jewish. Some people and I know they were not believers and they became believers. It’s my own interpretation, maybe they felt some kind of a guilt and they want to express this guilt to rehabilitate themselves that we are still human and we disagree what we did and what happened, this is one reason.
MacIntyre: Why is it easier though to talk to him than to talk to you?
Levin: That’s what I’m saying, because to a Jew, they are…in my opinion they are talking to a Catholic priest, to a priest . And they are believers and they want to rehabilitate themselves, that what they are telling the story, they said that we are guilty. And I have to admit, that the first country who admitted they are guilty is the Germans. The Ukranians, only the president not a long time ago started apologizing what’s happened. So this is the way he had the opportunity to investigate it properly, what’s happened.
MacIntyre: Are they afraid that you and the other Jewish survivors will not forgive them but this priest will?
Levin: No I don’t think so. In my opinion they still think that we still cannot forgive. We still cannot agree that only a few saved, and they saved actually their old world. Some more people could save. Therefore I feel they want to rehabilitate themselves first.
MacIntyre: Can you forgive them, these were your neighbours, these were your communities?
Levin: It’s a good question. I have a neighbour, a Polish guy here. He always repeats to me, only he, not the kids, they grow up with us together. And he said the Jews are controlling all the world. He repeats, and I am telling him, you are repeating the same what all these nazis said. And we lived from day one as neighbours. Can I forgive him? No.
I speak to schools, I had questions from kids who are German descent. And I said only I disagree to hate somebody. I am against hating somebody. If you ask me the question when it happened, during the time when this was happened, maybe I would give you a different answer. Now time is gone, new generation. They have to know what happened, and they have to fight against bigotry, against racism, against anti Semitism, they have to fight against not to be quiet. To be quiet will repeat it again and again.