Rachel Levy is an inspirational woman. Born in the former Czechoslovakia, she survived the horrors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Eventually she and her brother came to Northern Ireland as refugees where they enjoyed a new life on the safe haven of a Resettlement Farm in Millisle, Co. Down. This is her story.
Hello and welcome to A Wee Bit Of War, a podcast dedicated to telling the stories of Northern Ireland during the Second World War. I'm your host, Scott Edgar, and in this episode, we are joined by Holocaust survivor, the inspirational Rachel Levy.
Well, I was born in a tiny village, part of Czechoslovakia, which today, now, it is not that at all. It’s Ukraine and it’s a part of the world where the status changed very often. But, when I was born and my family, we were Czech. I can tell you about my childhood. It was a small village, Jewish families, about a hundred families in the village and very self-contained. We had pleasant lives although we certainly didn’t have comfort lives in many ways because we didn’t have electricity, running water or cars. It was horse and cart and so on and a well near the house. And we were lucky we had a well near the house for water. Life wasn’t so difficult because we didn’t know any different. We lived quite happily there and very self-contained. We had lots of our own produce and my mother was running a little shop, which was attached to the house, and we played a lot outside in good weather. We swam. We had a river in front of our house and we swam as children. It was a happy life until the Nazis started.
And though many countries had earlier problems, our problems first real serious ones started late in the years, in the 40s, ’42, ’44 was the time they took us away from there. My father was taken away long before us because he was still a young man. He was only in his 40s and all the young men were taken away for labour force camp. And, by the way, by this time, Hungary was occupied and they were out and out Nazis. They were in charge. And so, we would hear lots of news. We had no radio so we didn’t listen to radio news but there was always travelers – people that told us what was going on. We had a warning. We went through quite a lot first because we couldn’t go to school. Jewish children were not allowed to go to school.
Then, after that, it was that shops weren’t allowed to be owned by Jews so my mother’s shop closed and so she was left on her own with 5 children. My father was away and things were a bit hard, of course. We had the rest of the family in the village, my grandparents, my aunts, and uncles. My father was mainly studied through his life. We were very orthodox and my mother would have run the shop but then she was put out although she was still doing some business sometime through the back door. But, we weren’t allowed to open it officially. There were times when we were short of things but because we had our own produce in the garden ad the field behind our house, we had plenty of produce, and my grandfather had a flour mill so we had flour for bread. So, we weren’t actually starving. In about the 40s, after my father was taken away, after that, we were told that we were going to be collected and taken away, and that came by word of mouth information.
And so, our good neighbours in the mountains, who were not Jewish, hid us. In fact, they hid the whole village people. We were only a hundred families. It wasn’t a big place. Everybody was hidden by their friends and we got away with it the first time but then we had a bit more time in our home, and then in ’44, we got a warning again that this time they are coming to collect us, and they hid us again but it didn’t work this time because the people were threatened that they would be killed themselves if they hid the Jews. And they gave us up. And that was… They were blameless. They couldn’t do otherwise because they were threatened.
That’s when they took us away to a ghetto nearby in another town. A town, not a village. There was lots of other people in this ghetto. I don’t give you dates because I don’t remember dates. I don’t know how long we were there but we were there quite a bit, quite some weeks. Then we were told we were going away from there and we were given a sort of camp. We couldn’t go free, we weren’t free to wander out of it. We were put into the tracks and very crowded, very young and old, and males and females all together, old men, young men, young children screaming and crying, very uncomfortable. There was no air coming in and there was nowhere to sit. We were all standing. And, no hygiene, nothing there. I don’t know how long the journey took. We eventually arrived. We arrived somewhere. As children, we didn’t know where it was. And that ended up in Auschwitz.
I spent time in Auschwitz. I saw my brother, and we were saved. And pushed to the area where we go to the camps. But my mother, my two little sisters, and my little brother were taken away, which once we got into the camp, we knew where they had been taken and we saw the chimneys rising. We knew what was happening but up to then we didn’t know what it was about. He was… I could only see him through the fence because he was in the male camp, men only and women on the other side. And, I only saw him that one time, the next morning after we arrived and I didn’t see him again, not ’til after the war. Nobody else survived. He did survive. And I survived of our family. My parents, my grandparents, my father’s sisters, their families, everybody.
And you and your brother survived and remained in that camp until it was liberated in 1945?
No, no, no. We didn’t get as far as that. I never saw him then. I was transported out of there to a small camp for a while where we worked in the fields, digging ditches, and that didn’t last very long. All because the war was getting near and we could hear the fighting. We were moved again and we walked, I believe, it was 21 days and nights we walked and we arrived in Belsen. Bergen-Belsen was the next camp, and that was hell on earth once we got there already, and it became worse and worse. And there, I met a sister, still barely alive, very, very ill… my mother’s sister. And it was a terrible state. I wouldn’t stay with her in her hut. We didn’t have beds. What we did have was lice and dirt and filth and hunger. My aunt, my mother’s sister didn’t survive. She died before we were liberated, a week before, she was thrown up on a heap with all the other bodies. And then we were liberated by the British.
And after liberation, you would eventually come to live in Northern Ireland for a while. How did that journey for you begin?
That journey was also months later because my brother had found me, and then we found an uncle, my mother’s brother and he looked after us for a while. And then he learned about children under 18 were going to Britain and he put our names down. He said, I think you’ll be better off staying there. And they wanted to go to Palestine and it would be a difficult journey for us. And he sent us to join that group, which took us to Ireland.
And, how old were you at the time when you were making that journey?
I was just over 14. I’d spent a year in Auschwitz and Belsen, and a bit part of it after I’d met my uncle, so I was 15 and by the time I got to Ireland, it was just after. My uncle told us what we were doing if we came to Ireland. We didn’t. We had no idea where Ireland was and were just taken. We had no say in the matter. It was done by Central British Fund who collected, wanted to collect a thousand children, but they weren’t able to find a thousand children so altogether we were 731 children but we were divided into different groups, and my group and my brother went to Ireland. And, when we arrived in Belfast, the committee met us again, the Jewish committee there, met us and told us we were going to go to a farm.
We arrived on the farm, we were very ignorant of all the things that were happening to us. We just did what we were told, really. But, living in Ireland, we had only been there about a month, not even a month, when we were all taken to the local hospital to see if we were healthy and what was wrong with us or not wrong with us. And they found the majority of boys, not girls, they had TB. And so, my brother was taken away from there together with other boys to Kent, Ashford, Kent, to a sanitorium. And I was left there. Well, it was a good life. We were beautifully received and looked after. There was people helping. There were doctors, there was counselors. There were classes. They started off teaching us English. None of us spoke the language. Our language was Yiddish and nobody spoke Yiddish who we met. But we did have part of the committee from London, which was the refugee committee came to look after us as well. We had good food and good air, and it was lucky that we had come there because my brother would have died otherwise if he hadn’t been found and diagnosed with TB and sent to the right place to recover.
After that warm welcome to Ireland, and realising that you were somewhere safer, and somewhere you were going to be looked after, what was life like on the farm in Millisle?
Well, it was great. It was absolutely wonderful. We had good food. We had clean beds and people were kind. They brought in lots of entertainment from the local people, choirs, and entertained us. We didn’t understand what they were singing. And they opened classes, as I said so that we could start learning the language, and we did. It was absolutely heaven. We had our own cooks. They brought in cooks and we ate good food and recovered and really became very, very humanised after that. It was the saving of us all really. I don’t know how long actually we were there. I had to come on my own on a ship from Belfast to England to see my brother who was in an open sanitorium and then moved to another sanitorium. I used to visit and go back to Ireland but eventually they closed that place in Ireland and they brought us into London.
So, you got to see your brother again…
He was still in hospital. He spent years in sanitoriums to get over his TB. It was a difficult time because they didn’t have antibiotics yet and they were given good food and fresh air. The sanitorium in Kent was an open-air sanitorium, and they looked after him. Everybody was very kind to us.
After you moved to England, did you remain in contact, did you keep in touch with other people who had been on the farm with you?
No, we didn’t really because that was difficult. Our English wasn’t good enough to correspond. When we came to live in South London, I was still trying to speak English, and still going to classes, and still trying to learn the language. And that goes for all of us. None of us spoke English. It wasn’t… We weren’t on that sort of terms to correspond. In fact, I discovered my family who had got to Palestine. My only way of contacting them was writing in Yiddish and that’s the only thing I knew.
What was your life like in England then after the war? You’ve obviously come far and done many wonderful things with your life, and do you credit the people of Millisle, the people of Ireland?
The people in Ireland gave us a wonderful start because we got healthy there on the farm. We were, those that didn’t have TB were looked after. We stayed on and it was wonderful. Everybody gave us their attention and mainly the fresh air and good food, and people coming to see us regularly and get involved with us… That was fantastic. Although we couldn’t converse, we knew that people were good to us.
And you’ve returned to Ireland, to Northern Ireland many times…
Yes, it took a long time. It took a long time for me to go back. But then, it took a long time for me to open up and talk. I could never talk about my life at all. It took 50 years for me to open up and even when I got married, I did not speak to my husband about my experience. I couldn’t. I couldn’t talk about it to anybody. My children didn’t know. My husband didn’t know. It was only after 50 years and we were married nearly 50 years when he heard me talk about it.
Now, obviously, I have heard you speak at events and saw you speak on videos and things. You believe this is a vital story for people to hear and to learn from.
Yes, it has. I have spoken since I opened up, which was a terrible experience for me because I had opened up in a crowded place where everybody was telling their story. I thought I could too but I had not spoken at all so it made me very ill for months. But once I had counseling, and I started talking. I started talking to classes, to kids, as young as 7 years olds. And then I decided this was too difficult at 7 years old. I decided to ask for older children and I went to lots of schools and have done it for years relating my story in detail, very much so in detail. Kids can take it. There’s somehow they can take it and they ask… They’re very, very good at asking questions. And good questions and that encourages me to talk, and they want to know. Hopefully, I have inspired some people. I’ve had good feedback and I hope they will remember. I talk about the cruelty of human beings, how cruel they can be. Of the Nazis, how cruel they were to us. I’ve talked of horrible, horrible experiences that I went through. They’re very sympathetic and very attentive, and remember I hope, for good.
Well, it is certainly something that has stayed with me in other conversations that I’ve heard you speak in and I believe you are doing an absolutely wonderful job giving up your time to share these stories, which are often quite difficult.
Time I’ve got. Time I’ve got. But energy is running out. I must say I enjoyed the Irish audience. The children were absolutely fantastic. They’re so verbally sympathetic and ask and talk of the right things, and I found them absolutely wonderful. When they did an interview with me for radio. I’m full of admiration for your children there, much more feedback than I’ve got from English children, although they’re fantastic too. And, hopefully, I’ve made an impression. Hopefully, although unfortunately, lots of bad things have happened since then, since we suffered… I hope they remember to be kind to one another.
Well, I certainly think you have made an impression on not just children but people of all ages and hopefully more people of all ages will hear this story when it goes out. I would just like to thank you again for chatting to me. If you had one message going forward for people listening to this or for people watching the video. If you could leave them with one thought, what would it be?
Well, I can only say, you know, I hope I’ve done a little bit of good. And there’ve been many of us talking to schools. Many of us survivors have talked to schools and the impression that I’d like to leave is again to be kind to each other. And, don’t let this sort of thing happen again amongst ourselves. We’re all here. We all want to live a peaceful life. And also, look at other people’s opinions as well. Listen to other people. Don’t just write us off. Don’t write anybody off. Be kind to each other.
I think that’s a wonderful message to leave people with. Rachel, thank you very much for speaking to me this afternoon. Like I said, this will be going out to several audiences on Holocaust Memorial Day, and I think you’re doing fantastic work in educating and inspiring young people and old people alike. Thank you for sharing your story with me.
Thank you. Thank you for listening.
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