This article is part of a special series highlighting the Jewish experience in West Virginia. It's a companion to the television series The Story of the Jews, airing March 25 and April 1 at 8 pm on West Virginia PBS.
We continue our ongoing series exploring the Jewish community in the state as we introduce you to Dr. Edith Levy, a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated years of her life to educating young West Virginians about the holocaust.
A Lost Childhood
She was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1930. She says her childhood ended eight years later.
Dr. Edith Levy remembers fleeing one moonless night through farm and field, mud and manure with other families also trying to escape. A rusty nail ripping her father’s coat, getting tangled in barbed wire, heightened danger created by a crying baby—these are recollections that spike her memory of escaping Austria.
“Eventually, they kept having places where they gathered people they were smuggling," she remembers. "And they kept asking for more money. And when they ran out of money they put us all on a bus. Life was upside-down.”
The next several years were full of hiding and fleeing, being caught and deported, dodging bombs, scavenging, illness, ridicule, betrayal, and occasional life-saving kindnesses. She and her family ended up in Brussels leading a relatively normal life for a time in 1942. That’s when she lost her father.
Finding Humanity in the Hills
Levy eventually married an American and made her way to the United States. She and her new family lived for a while in New York—but she found the culture there unfriendly and alienating. So her husband Marc got a job transfer and they wound up moving to Morgantown.
Levy still smiles thinking back on that first trip into the small WV town. Traveling on the old route 119, she and her husband landed their car in a ditch at a sharp bend:
“Within a matter of seconds, there were two cars and a truck that stopped. The one car pulled out a chain and pulled us out. And Mark says, ‘There goes a Twenty.’ We’re talking 1956 or 57, twenty dollars was money. But New York mentality, right? He tried to give the guy twenty dollars and you have never seen anyone more offended. ‘That is a neighborly thing to do!’ he says. ‘We don’t take money for that.’ So that’s how we stayed in Morgantown.”
Hate in the Hollows
It was several years later when, she says, she heard hate in the hollows. People were trying to deny the Holocaust happened. That’s when Edith Levy stood up.
“Hey. I know it happened. I was there,” she says.
Levy began writing. Her writings appear in in the book “Flares of Memory” and she is the author of a textbook and curriculum entitled “The Holocaust in Perspective.”
"And there was nothing in the schools. The history book had one paragraph on WWII history that mentioned the Holocaust. It wasn’t enough. Who was it that said, 'If you don’t learn from history you’re bound to repeat it?'"
Levy says one of her proudest accomplishments was finding the courage to stand before the WV Legislature to make a case for the creation of the WV Holocaust Education Commission. She was 68 and still terrified of authority. Then-Gov. Cecil Underwood established the commission by executive order in 1998 and Levy set to work educating middle school students throughout West Virginia.
“I figured, if I survived the Holocaust, and I survived the illnesses, then the Good Lord had a mission for me,” Levy says.