As he turns 101, Levy reflects on escape from Germany
Photo: Michael Sudhalter
Walter Levy celebrated his 101st birthday June 9, 2023.

By Michael Sudhalter

On his 101st birthday, Walter Julius Levy is especially grateful — for his family of two daughters, seven grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

He’s also thankful for his synagogue, Congregation Shearith Israel, where he still attends services; the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center of Dallas, which he visits on a regular basis; and his Dallas apartment at the Forum, where he regularly receives friends and guests.

And he’s also been part of a documentary film that’s been screened in the United States and internationally. It was wonderful when he had four celebrations on his 100th birthday, but he was happy to have just one this year.

Levy knows none of these blessings would have been possible if his parents had made a different choice 87 years ago and a continent away.

Levy was born in the small southern German town of Ortelsberg (which is now Szczytno, Poland) on June 9, 1922, during Germany’s Weimar Republic era.

Levy’s family moved across Germany in the early 1930s to Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) because his father received a promotion to regional supervisor of a manufacturing company.

The family’s move coincided with the Nazi party’s rise to power.

“In school, I was attacked, tripped, spit at and called bad names,” Levy said. “Teachers refused to call on me when a question was asked because they didn’t want a Jew to answer the question. Many of my fellow students completely disregarded me. I did not experience these things as a younger child in Ortelsberg.

“The antisemitic situation got so bad that the school’s principal called my parents and suggested that I be taken out of school because they could no longer guarantee my safety.”

The Levys considered immigrating to British Mandate Palestine, but the British government was restricting the number of Jews there.

Levy’s mother corresponded with Jennings Stein (1900-1995), a cousin in his mid-30s whom the family had never met before. Stein lived 4,972 miles away in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

In 1936, Stein offered to sponsor the Levy family to come to live with them in Arkansas. The family accepted the offer, but their arrival took approximately two years.

Immigrating to the United States

From 1936 to 1938, the Levy family and fellow German Jews painfully watched as antisemitism continued to rise.

“The earlier you tried to leave, the better it was,” Levy said. “The Nazis made everything difficult. If you filled out an emigration document and a comma was missing, you had to go back home, put the comma in and come back.”

The Nazis restricted the Levys from purchasing anything new and limited the money they could take with them to the U.S., to $10 apiece for the parents and $5 apiece for Walter and his younger sister.

The Levys were able to take some furniture, including a bookcase that is currently in Walter’s apartment.

“Before we went to America, we made farewell visits to our extended family, not knowing we’d never see them again,” Levy said. “Most of them, we never saw again.”

Before they boarded “The Manhattan” in Hamburg, Germany, Levy’s father had too much money with him. He gave some to his older brother and the rest to Levy, who purchased an accordion that he would cherish.

“I met a boy on the ship from Austria who also had an accordion — he taught me a couple of songs,” Levy said.

Levy doesn’t remember the exact date that the ship departed Germany and arrived in New York City, but he recalls celebrating the Fourth of July aboard the ship.

After a few days in New York City and St. Louis, the Levys arrived in their new home of Fort Smith, Arkansas — which had a Jewish population of approximately 250-300 people at the time.

The family members who stayed behind

Four months after the Levys arrived in the United States, Kristallnacht took place on Nov. 9-10, 1938. The Levys learned about the tragic event from news coverage and also from correspondence with their relatives still living in Germany.

Levy’s father’s side of the family survived, because two of his younger brothers immigrated to British Mandate Palestine, but none of Levy’s mother’s relatives survived.

“All of my mother’s relatives were murdered in the concentration camps — two sisters, a brother, a brother-in-law and a niece,” Levy said.

Stein, the benevolent cousin in Arkansas, pleaded with these relatives to come to the United States. At one point, he paid rent for a property in the Dominican Republic, which granted Jewish families an opportunity for a temporary stay.

By the time they wished to immigrate there, in the early 1940s, the Nazis refused to let Jewish people leave.

Education in Arkansas

Levy and his family spoke little English when they arrived in Arkansas, but his relatives in Fort Smith encouraged him to go to school. Levy’s first decision, before starting school, was to change his name from Wolfgang to Walter — the name of his favorite uncle.

The late 1930s were a long time before the start of English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, so the Fort Smith public schools had some unorthodox improvisation in the fall of 1938.

“I spent my mornings in a third grade elementary school to learn English when I was 16 years old,” Levy said. “My fellow pupils were 8 years old and they had a very good time with me. I played the accordion for them. When the teacher had me read in front of the class, my classmates corrected me.”

Levy spent the afternoons with woodworking, printing and bookbinding at Fort Smith Senior High School.

By January 1939, Levy was spending his days at the high school campus and graduated that spring with his high school diploma.

“I’m the only person you know who went from third grade to graduating in less than a year,” Levy said.

Levy enrolled at Fort Smith Junior College (which is now the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith) and was recruited to Hendrix College in the central Arkansas city of Conway.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophic studies from Hendrix in 1943. The graduating class was small because many of the students were in World War II.

Levy, himself, said he wouldn’t have hesitated to be part of the U.S. military.

“I was not particularly eager to get into the military, but I was not opposed to it,” Levy said.

But a stomach ulcer, at the time, prevented Levy from joining the service.

He became a teacher in the small Arkansas Delta community of Forrest City, where he taught English, Spanish, grammar and speech. Levy recalls taking his students on a field trip to see the Metropolitan Opera of New York perform “Carmen” in Memphis — about 46 miles to the east.

Levy met his wife, Hilma, in the late 1940s on a blind date. She was the 1935 valedictorian of Indianola High School in the Mississippi Delta.

The Levys were married for 67 years until her passing at age 98 in 2016. They had four daughters, two of whom are living in Dallas and two of whom have passed away.

“We loved each other,” said Levy, when asked about his secret to marital longevity.

Levy went on to receive master’s degrees from the University of Chicago (education) and Washington University of St. Louis (social work). He had a decorated career in social work and as the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Dallas (and still has a chance these days to kibitz with current Director Igor Alterman). Levy retired in his late 70s in the year 2000.

After experiencing a significant amount of antisemitism first-hand, Levy said he’s “very disturbed” by the current rise in antisemitism in the United States.

“One of the great agencies here is the Holocaust Center,” Levy said. “I am active in the Dallas Holocaust [and Human Rights] Museum. It’s very important that you never forget what happened. The six million — the way our people were eliminated. This kind of behavior, this kind of hatred is completely unacceptable. The museum does not limit itself to antisemitism but any kind of discrimination.”

Levy pointed out that the Holocaust Museum has an upcoming exhibit on the Reconstruction era of the post-Civil War. Levy said he was saddened to see racial segregation not only in Arkansas, but in his wife’s home state of Mississippi and, later, while living in Texas.

Documentary project

Levy recently appeared in, and contributed to, a documentary titled “Let Us Die” that was featured at the Dallas International Film Festival.

The film is about Tim Mallad, a Dallas citizen who was living in his hometown of Detroit in the early 1980s.

Mallad purchased a desk at an estate sale for $25 and later discovered it had letters and other historic materials. He waited about a quarter-century to have the letters translated, but when he did, it was Levy who helped translate them.

Levy met Mallad through Karl Kuby Sr., regarded by many as the sausage king of Dallas.

The letters revealed Russian war crimes against civilians in eastern Germany toward the end of World War II. Mallad and WFAA-TV Senior Reporter Jason Whitely produced the film.

The film was screened on June 4 at Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington; it included Levy introducing himself while describing the antisemitism he experienced in Germany.

The film has already been shown in Ecuador and Portugal.

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  1. Arthur Calick

    Hopefully Walter’s comments about US antisemitism are not prescient.
    Art Calick

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