This interview for the Columbus Jewish Historical Society is being recorded on April 29, 2008, as part of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project. The interview is being recorded at the Columbus Jewish Federation. My name is Fred Magaziner and I am interviewing Victor Levenstein.
Interviewer: What is your full name?
Levenstein: My full name is Victor M. Levenstein.
Interviewer: Do you remember after whom you are named for?
Levenstein: No, the only thing that my second name is actually my patronymic – is name of my father Matwayi, Jewish name Morde.
Interviewer: Do you remember any stories or legends have been told in your family?
Levenstein: Oh yes, I know the history of my grandparents, my father’s parents and my mother’s parents. This is how far I go down history. I know the story of my grandfather, my paternal grandfather. So this is how deep I go into the past.
Interviewer: If it’s short you can say that story?
Levenstein: My father’s ancestors are rather… their destiny is rather unusual for Russia. My grand grandfather was served in the Russian army and my grandfather received land, a piece of land in Mala, Russia, it’s south of Ukraine and became a farmer which is as I said rather unusual for Jews in Russia. He was granted land and worked as a farmer. It was very good land, very good condition. There was few people at this time and he became rather successful. He worked with his family and had some worker in time of harvest and became successful farmer in selling grain to the elevator in Odessa and Cherson so he was able to teach his kids at the universities and even abroad. My aunt graduated from university in Switzerland and she became medical doctor. My father graduated from Kiev University in economics. So this is I would say rather unusual. My mother’s parents was typical shtetl Jews growing up in Belarussia and being very, very religious, very devoted to Jewish religion, religious people. I remember my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather, being in black suit and black hat observing, going to the shul every day and inviting me when I was little to shut lights on Friday night before my bar mitzvah. As far as my father’s parents, they’re attending synagogue on holidays. They’re not … they grew up in agricultural colonies where they lived next to German colonies and Bulgarian colonies and the Ukraine and being friends with all these people, mixing up. They spoke Yiddish of course but also Russian. They’re not strictly religious people. Nevertheless my father and my mother was married by a rabbi and I still have this certificate. So this is my answer about the ancestors.
Interviewer: What is your mother’s full name?
Levenstein: My mother’s full name is Gita Rips. Her father was Fulyoseph Rips. In Russia they called him Yoseph but Jewish name was Fulyoseph. My mother was Gita and remained Gita.
Interviewer: And your father’s full name?
Levenstein: Father’s full name, Russian full name, was Matway, Matway Levenstein but his Jewish name was Morde, – Mordechai Levenstein. Loewenstein they pronounced their name in Russia. I became Levenstein here in America.
Interviewer: Do you remember names of relatives like your mother’s brothers, sisters and your father’s brothers, sisters?
Levenstein: Oh yes, oh yes, first of all, my father’s father was, his Jewish name was Yena (Yoni).
Interviewer: Your grandfather?
Levenstein: Grandfather, Yena (Yoni) Loewenstein. Nevertheless my father’s patronymic was Akimovich You spell this Akim (Akiv) in Russian. It was big family and the oldest sister of my father, Rosa, was killed by German when Germans occupied Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) Sheyustriv. My grandparents died before the German invasion but my aunt, oldest aunt, which I love very much because after some event in my life she became actually my mother. She died in… Germans, the Nazis killed her. Nazis killed her, Nazis killed my maternal grandfather Fulyoseph as well.
Interviewer: In Belarussia?
Levenstein: In Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev). This time he lived in Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) also. I was born in Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev). My parents married in Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) and my grandmother died before the war but my grandfather was 84 years old and very young at his 84 years but he was killed with the other Jews in Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) by Nazis. Whom else I remember? My father has one brother, Alexander, and several sisters. I don’t know, do we need their names?
Interviewer: It’s okay if you don’t remember…
Levenstein: I don’t remember.
Interviewer: Your parents – did they tell you how they met?
Levenstein: Yes, yes. My maternal grandfather, with the family, immigrated to Austro Hungaria. It’s actually from Belarussia they just crossed the border, now it’s Ukraine. It’s Lvov, Lemburg at the time. They lived there until Russian army occupied this area in 1916. My grandfather became homesick and he went to some Russian general with my mother who was 16 years old and free to go and asked him permission to come back to Russia and he was given this permission. They came back and settled with my grandfather’s oldest daughter who didn’t come abroad with him and they lived near Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) in Ukraine. She was married at the time. My father’s sister was friends with son and daughter of my mother’s father’s oldest daughter. When they came to the area they decided to meet my father with this pretty girl. T hey met. It was long courtship because as I said my mother’s father, my grandfather, Fulyoseph Rips, was very strict and he didn’t give permission to my mother to marry before her older sister got married. After her older sister got married, it was1919, my parents got married. She finally got permission from her father and they got married. In 1919 the Rabbi in Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) performed the wedding. I was born three years later in 1922. This is the story.
Interviewer: Do you know how they made a living?
Levenstein: Yeah. This was just after the revolution and as I said, my father’s father, my grandfather, was rather a rich guy, a successful farmer. He owned the mill and a lot of stuff, horses, cows, sheep and my father worked for him. My father graduated from Kiev University and I think idea was that he supposed to inherit this farm, farm and everything around but it was a civil war and there was famous bandit Makhno. Makhno came with his band and all trib…. (Russian words) “kikes farm.” I would translate this, was ruined completely and he became nobody. This is the story but at this time already my oldest aunt, oldest sister of my father, became successful doctor in city of Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) and the whole family moved to her, abandoning everything what was before, the successful farm and everything.
Interviewer: How is the next period of life from your parents was put together?
Levenstein: After the civil war in the Ukraine was over, my father starts working for government jobs and other. As far as I know, his first job after the civil war was with American Joint Distribution Committee. He worked for this committee distributing American help to Jewish population of Ukraine which was because of starvation, because of famine what happened in early 20’s. He worked for several years, he worked for Joint Distribution Committee and this period of his life have grave consequences afterward. During the silent purges, during the infamous period of terror at the end of 1937 both of my parents were arrested by KGB at this time. This time it was NKVD. I don’t know maybe right now is good to say his destiny and how it happened. Actually in early 30’s, in late 20’s I think, in 1929, 1928, he moved in, this work for Joint Distribution Committee was finished and he moved to Kharkov working as an economist for agriculture.
Interviewer: Excuse me, how do you spell city Kharkov? K-H-A-R-K-O-V?
Levenstein: Right, that’s correct. At the time it was capital of Ukraine. He worked for SSA which is Supreme Soviet of (Russian words), I don’t know how to say it.
Interviewer: Peoples’ business?
Levenstein: I don’t know it’s actually… It’s like ministry.
Interviewer: Yeah, it like ministry.
Levenstein: He worked for Ministry of Agriculture as an Economist. As I remember him, it’s my earliest memories in Kharkov, he used to work in this big building and going to villages very often visiting writing articles in the special professional magazines about the agriculture in the Ukraine. He was rather you know, he had good position and I think because of his knowledge and education. Later he moved, the family, I was the only son so it was family of my father, my mother, and myself. In Moscow when subway construction began he had an offer to work as economist in this construction of Moscow subway construction and we moved from Kharkov to Moscow.
Interviewer: Your mom that time work also?
Levenstein: Yes, yes, the work was rather hard. As soon as I became, I don’t know, four or five years old my mother started working. She knew foreign languages because of this story what I said earlier that they moved abroad and at this time it was Austro-Hungaria and my mother graduated from gymnasium in city of Lvov and their official language was German. So she spoke German, Polish, and Russian and Yiddish of course and she start working in Kharkov in the institute, Polytechnical Institute.
Interviewer: Polytechnical College?
Levenstein: College yeah, working for the library, foreign language schoolbooks and things like this. So then we moved to Moscow and as I said in 1937 my father first and then my mother was arrested. The destiny of my father was tragic. He received five years of labor camp and died in labor camp. It was terrible this time. It was terrible conditions. The place where he served his term, it was Polar Eurov, behind the Polar Circles. Somebody said that if Hitler had Polar Circles he wouldn’t need the ovens of Auschwitz. It was actually Soviet fabrics (factories) of death. People was dying in these camps like flies. My father died in the labor camp. My mother came back from prison and told me this story. Her interrogator said that her husband was American spy because he worked for Joint Distribution Committee. As far as everybody knows, he said, the Joint Distribution Committee was nest of American spies so he was American spy. My mother tried to reason him and explain that he was just distributing food and some necessities to the starving population but I don’t think they listened to her. She was lucky, she was lucky. The leadership changed then and they let her out but my father died.
Interviewer: Do you remember your youngest years as a teenager?
Levenstein: Oh yes, as I said, we moved to Moscow and I was studying at the middle school and then when I was 15 years old my parents were arrested. My parents were arrested, I was left alone in Moscow. I was fortunate enough that my aunt who was a doctor, whom I talked about earlier, took me to the city of Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) where she lived and where I was born. This time my grandparents were alive. She took me and for 2 1/2 years she was like a mother to me. I lived in Nikolaiyev (Nikolaiev) with her. Then when my mother was released from prison I came back to Moscow. I was accepted to Moscow University, Physical Department.
Interviewer: What year it was too?
Levenstein: It was 1940. Then when the war started I was sent with the university, I was sent toward the front to build the…, to dig trenches, to dig huge anti-tank trenches. I worked there the whole summer and fall of 1941 and fell ill. Later it came out that I had stones in my kidney. There was terrible pain and I was evacuated from there with the military hospital, come to Moscow. Because of this I was not mobilized to the army. In 1944, already myself was arrested by KGB. It’s rather complicated, looking back, even funny story. It wasn’t funny at the time at all but maybe it makes sense to tell the story.
Interviewer: Yes, I think it is.
Levenstein: As I said, it was circle of friends, very close friends. We started… actually friendship started in the middle school when we were 10, 11 years old. We were I would say bright kids and we were interested in everything that was going on around us. As I said, my father was a prisoner at this time, parents of some of my friends was also arrested. A lot of people in Moscow especially was arrested in 1937, 1938. Maybe because of this, but we became kind of critical to the system, not completely critical. I wouldn’t say that we were anti-Soviet or we had a real system of political views. But as I said we were bright kids, were reading books, were looking around. Not everything what we saw we liked. We knew about the United States. We knew about life in England, in Britain. We read translation of American writers, of English writers. We understood that there are countries where people are free to think, free to say whatever they want, free to write whatever they want and we discussed this problem. Probably because of some of us parents were in prison at the time the KGB had surveillance and maybe some informers also was infiltrated in our circle. This I don’t know but we were arrested, 13 of us, 13 young people, students of different universities and colleges, as I said very bright, were arrested and…
Levenstein: …and accused of anti-Soviet terrorist activity. It was “Group of Young Terrorists in Moscow,” officially name of our case was. Why terroristic, this is what I had no idea when I was arrested why I’m a terrorist. Later it happened that I found out. As I said, this is the funny part. Because it happened that somebody in our company said, and this was recorded, they put some bugs in the apartment where we spent time. It was recorded that somebody said that the root of all problems, life is not free in Russia with Stalin. As soon (long) as Stalin is alive and continues to be the Soviet leader there is no hope for any freedom in the country. I was not present at the time it was said so I didn’t have any idea that such conversation took place. As I said, it was recorded and the KGB start thinking okay these young people are saying as soon (long) as Stalin is alive, so maybe they wish him not to be alive and they developed this case and they found out this story that young brother of one of my friends who was 11 or 12 years old. The family had a summer house, dacha on outskirts of Moscow. The German plane or bomb which bombed Moscow at the time, fell down at the time. This young boy, 11 years old, or 10 years old or whatever he was, with his friend, took the machine gun from this plane and installed somewhere in their property and they played war, ta, ta, ta, ta, tah, with this young kids and his older brother who happened to be my friend told this story as a funny story in our circle. As I said they recorded this story about the machine gun, about the girl living on Arbot Street which was apartment for this terroristic act against Stalin and then Alexander Gurevich working ambulance at the Arbat Street again who was supposed to supply us information about Stalin’s following the street, Stalin’s cars (trip from Kremlin or Stalin’s summer residence). They started building the case. They started torturing us. They beat one guy first, beat him badly. He actually died in labor camp just the year after the interrogation ended, a healthy 21 year old guy.
Interviewer: How many people were in that group?
Levenstein: In that group was 13. Thirteen people was arrested. As I said, they beat only one. As far as others are concerned, including me, it was sleep deprivation, sleep deprivation and continuous interrogation. When one interrogator changed to another and you are sitting at the chair without sleep for several nights, after several nights you don’t think clearly. The only thing what you think is let me sleep. Finally, okay what do you want me to say I would say, just let me sleep. I agreed that I was member of anti-Soviet group, that I took part in anti-Soviet discussion which means that lack of freedom in the Soviet Union and freedom in the United States and England, in capitalist countries, which was true, which we really, really discussed but I was very strong not to accept anything concerning terror. I understood that this can lead to be shot, to be executed. Six guys from our group, six guys and one girl accepted this, how to say…
Interviewer: That they were terrorists?
Levenstein: Yes, they say we took part in terrorist activity. Yes, we contemplated assassination of Stalin. This is what they want and they signed this but I signed that I was member of anti-Soviet group. This case looked very bad, especially for these six people. I think the result would be, if it stayed this way, the result would be execution for them and very long terms for others including me. But what happened at this time that two mothers, mothers of two of the boys, became active. They have very high standing. One of them was Rebekah Lavin (Levin). Rebekah Lavin (Levin) was academician, old member of Bolshevik party. The second was a music teacher but with good connection to, she was actually cousin of the guy who shot the movie to Stalin, Michel Romm, a famous movie director whom Stalin liked a lot. These two mothers went to the chief of the KGB. At this time Merkulov was head of MGB. At this time they called it Ministry of State Security.
They went to this minister and asked him what’s going on. He said that your kids contemplated assassination of the leader of the (Russian word) of Stalin. Rebekah Lavin (Levin) said to him “How could you do this kind of stuff? There is war going on. You’d better go to war instead accusing kids of such insane things. I was a communist party member. What you are working under the table.” She was much older. As a result of this meeting he gave command to check our interrogation. By the way, one of these mothers, Rebekah Lavin (Levin) the academician that was bad consequences for her. She save her son maybe, I’m sure she did. But four or five years later when the KGB started developing anti-Jewish cases, doctors’ plot and everything around it, she was academician and she was Jewish and she was very prominent. She was arrested and badly beaten. Stalin died and she was released and this time she was completely crippled as a result of interrogation. This is the…
Interviewer: Another story?
Levenstein: Yeah, this is another story. As far as we are concerned this Minister of State Security decided to check our case because, as a result of this meeting. They start checking and they found amazing things. First, the apartment was rear, address was Arbat Street. In reality, it was one room where this poor girl lives and the windows was facing back yard. Back yard, if you go to back yard you can go only on the side street and by side street you can walk to Arbat Street. So in order to shoot somebody from her window you have to have a rifle, machine gun or something very crooked. As a matter of fact, the weapon but they didn’t bother to find this weapon. When they start checking everything, they found and it was completely you know a piece of crooked metal from this plane which was absolutely ruined. So the whole thing fell apart. They couldn’t accuse us for the real terrorist activity but they say okay you’re not plotting anything, you’re not doing anything but you’re contemplating in your heads something against Stalin and the guys who accepted this, received ten years of labor camp. The other six or seven who did not, including me, received five years of labor camp. I served five years of camp, I came back, Stalin died. Then afterward I was 4 1/2 years in exile. Only after Stalin’s death I was able to come back to Moscow, continue my education, met my wife to be, Dora, and then live my life in Moscow. But as soon as the gates for immigration was open we immediately start dreaming about leaving the country.
Interviewer: When you came back from exile your mom was alive?
Levenstein: Yes, my mom was alive. She lived in small…
Levenstein: No a room in apartment, a communal apartment so I have place to live. When I married my wife we started our life in 13 square meter space.
Interviewer: How did you meet your wife?
Levenstein: It’s a story. When my father was arrested, I was arrested, I was in prison. My father was in labor camp. My mother lived alone in Moscow and everybody was afraid of her including her sisters. It’s hard to understand. She was isolated. She was completely isolated, even her older sister told her “Gita, you should understand I have kids, I couldn’t see you. Don’t call me.” This was the life at this time. The only person who visited her once a month was a former college buddy of my father. He was very decent man. My mother used to say “I didn’t have anything to do with this guy but once a month he felt obligated to come to me and ask me how are you and we drink tea and he just left.” When I came back my mother said “You know we have to pay visit to this family because this is the only person who visited me during these terrible times.” We went to…and she said “And by the way he has a daughter. His daughter just got married so there will be young people it will be interesting for you to meet.” We visited this family. There was a daughter and her husband and her best friend from Moscow Conservatory, Dora Tomchin. This is how we met and six months later I married her.
Interviewer: What a nice story. What year you get married?
Levenstein: It was 1956.
Interviewer: You got a son, a son was born?
Levenstein: Our son was born four years later, in 1960. We start our life in this tiny, tiny room of my mother and my son was born there. It was terrible. That was the life, hard life, in the Soviet Union.
Interviewer: Right. What kind of work you did? Did you get a chance get to work, graduate from college?
Levenstein: Yes I finally graduated from technical college. As I said, I started at the university physical but my experience during my life in camps and then in exile was mining engineering so I did mining engineering school and graduated and then made my Ph.D degree in Mechanical Engineering. I worked for the company in Moscow, actually they call it institute, Research and Development Mining Machinery Institute in Moscow. So that’s why when I came to the United States, we came to Chicago and I found job in Columbus in Jeffrey Mining Machinery. It was exactly my field, I was lucky enough.
Interviewer: Dora was a…?
Levenstein: Dora graduated from Moscow Conservatory as a pianist and piano teacher and as an organist as well. She has two diplomas. She worked as a music teacher. I worked as a machine designer in Moscow. It was a pretty decent life I would say but we remembered our past and we remembered how not free we were all our life. We remembered our parents, my parents very similar destiny with Dora. Dora’s father was also arrested in 1934 first and they let him go. Arrested again, he finally came back from labor camp. He served maybe three or four years but he came back absolutely ruined person. I remember him just sitting and reading Sovietishe Haim Land (Yiddish for Home Land) in Yiddish from morning to the evening, not talking to anybody. And so we remembered this. As soon as there was some opening for immigration we applied for immigration and finally got permission in 1979.
Interviewer: The main reason to leave Russia was the absence of freedom, religious freedom?
Levenstein: Religious freedom and freedom in general, I didn’t myself personally, I didn’t see, maybe I did but not much, the anti-semitic prejudices of the Soviet regime. Some university, twice it was, they wanted me as an instructor, as an Associate Professor. Both times the party secretary said no. My wife who was Dora Salomonoff, In her job she worked in a very prestigious music school in Moscow and they used to say “Dora Salomonova why you couldn’t change your name, it sounds very Jewish. Make something Dina Segerna or something. It’s easy, we can help you.” She kept saying “No, I don’t want to.” When our son graduated from high school and we understood that he was a very talented artist. His destiny is this and he wanted to study as an artist and they told him… he brought his work to this school what he want, and the guy who was very sympathetic to him told him “You know what? You are very good but don’t even apply with your name Matway Loewenstein you will not be accepted because of your Jewish heritage.” So this was the reason, we always felt restriction as Jews and remembered the terrible destiny of our parents. We didn’t want this destiny to repeat itself for our son. This was the main reason.
Interviewer: You, yourself, could get a job because of your qualification, right, because they needed qualified people?
Levenstein: Right, yet I didn’t work in some military industry or some space or something like this which were restricted for Jews, underground machinery was not.
Interviewer: Especially who spent time in prison?
Levenstein: Yeah, for our son it was a closed door. We saw like it, we did. Our son now is a famous artist in New York City.
Interviewer: Did you have any hobbies, like an interest in hobbies?
Levenstein: I wrote a book…
Interviewer: You wrote a book?
Levenstein: Yeah. As soon as I stopped working I start writing. I wrote a story of my father which was, I went to Moscow. At this time files of KGB were open for relatives. I spent a couple of terrible days in KGB copying file of the interrogation of my father. That was maybe the hardest days of my life. Then I wrote and published a small book, published it in Russia with my money. I just paid for this. I wanted to be published. It’s called The Story of My Father, with all the story of his life and his interrogation and his end. I also went the second time. It was still open, now it’s closed as far as I know. I copied my interrogation file and I wrote a book about, it’s actually my story beginning with childhood, with all these friends. It was bright and beautiful people who were arrested, 13. Three didn’t come back, died in the camps, young and healthy guys. Who came back became successful in life. Two of them became very famous screen writers, I think the most famous, Frid (Fried) and Dunsky, the most famous Russian screen writers. I would say the state is supposed to be proud of these young people instead of this they imprisoned them.
Interviewer: When you came here you found a second life here?
Levenstein: Oh yeah, I got this job in Jeffrey Mining Machinery. I worked 20 plus years for this company. Our son was accepted in the best art schools in the country, first the Art Institute of Chicago. He graduated first in the class. They presented him with first prize, four or five thousand dollars. At this time it was huge money for traveling abroad. He spent almost a year touring Europe museums and everything, came back, applied at art school of Yale University, graduated from Yale University, met his wife at Yale, got married and now is a successful and famous, I would say, artist. He recently got a show in New York and a show in Rome in Italy.
Interviewer: That’s wonderful, that’s freedom.
Levenstein: This is the freedom. This is the fruits of freedom, yeah. We never look back. We never suffered from homesickness or something.
Interviewer: Your wife Dora also had a successful career.
Levenstein: Right, Dora teaches here. Even now teaches piano. By the way one of her students won first prize in all American competition and then became famous, graduated from Curtis Institute and then from Julliard School and now professional musician which was very rare for a woman.
Interviewer: Who is it?
Levenstein: It’s Polanski’s daughter, Anna Polanski, nice sounds more like concertizing even here in Columbus.
Interviewer: How do you look on Jewish values in the United States?
Levenstein: Jewish life?
Interviewer: Jewish values.
Levenstein: Jewish values?
Interviewer: How important to keep Jewishness for you?
Levenstein: Sorry to say but we’re not born and raised in Judaism.
Interviewer: But you’re a big supporter of Israel, you participated in events to support Israel.
Levenstein: Oh yes, we are very involved in all Jewish business, in all Jewish activity I would say. We support the Jewish Federation. We support Israel. We feel very strongly about Israel. We went to Israel two times and planning to go the third time. Yeah, I feel very much involved in Jewish life but sorry to say on a secular level because religion, we tried to, even trying now.
Interviewer: I envy you for instance. I don’t think you were raised in the Jewish faith but you became religious. It takes a long time. It’s hard.
It’s not easy. It’s hard for us without upbringing in the childhood. As far as secular life, oh yes we feel ourselves as Jews and very proud being Jews here.
Interviewer: Victor, what would you say to young generation? What would you like to recommend to them in your future life because your experience is unique, you (unintelligible) with many?
Levenstein: I would say first of all to cherish your freedom and understand first of all that freedom is not free, that you have to preserve it and maybe if needed be ready to fight for it because the freedom is the most precious thing what human beings have. This is my experience. I can compare life with lack of freedom with the free life in this country. Secondly I, myself and we, I would say we, my wife, we feel ourselves being Jewish and being proud of being Jewish, so the Jewish identity. Support of Jewish state is extremely important for us and I think for you young guys you should remember that you are Jewish and there is a Jewish state, the only Jewish state in the world. After what happened to Jews in Europe you have to support this state. This is also part of your life.
Interviewer: Victor, on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for contributing to the Oral History Project. This concludes the interview.
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