By Pat ShermanLa Jolla poet and artist Frieda L. Levinsky is grateful to be alive. Levinsky was just 8 years old when her family fled the tiny town of Belz,
Ukraine (then a part of Poland) as the Nazis made their advance in September of 1939.
A nun who worked on her father’s farm offered to hide her family.
“My parents said absolutely not, because Hitler would find out and kill all of the people in the convent, and then he’d kill us — so we ran,” recalled Levinsky, now 81.
The family fled first to Rava-Ruska, Poland (also now a part of Ukraine) where Levinsky’s mother had relatives. The Soviets then sent the family and other Jewish people to seek sanctuary in Siberia, where many died of starvation or disease, Levinsky said.
“We would mix grass with flour to make pancakes,” she recalled. “We were lucky we weren’t sick enough to die, because people were dying all around us.”
Though Levinsky, her brother and parents survived the Holocaust, other relatives did not.
Her aunt, one of the few people to escape Auschwitz concentration camp alive, lost her mother and siblings to the genocide.
Levinsky’s gratitude for her survival has taken several forms — in contributions to organizations such as the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America, and another organization that honors so-called “Righteous Gentiles,” or non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from execution.
In her own community, Levinsky has chosen to honor those who helped save her family’s life and made similar heroic sacrifices via memorial plaques at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial.
She has dedicated granite plaques to both 33rd U.S. President Harry S. Truman and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Though only an estimated 250,000 victims of Hitler’s persecution were admitted to the United States after World War II, Levinsky credits Truman with helping her family find refuge in the U.S.
“I said, well, he deserves my thank you,” Levinsky said. “Churchill is also why I’m here. If not for Churchill, I’d be ash. More millions of people would have been killed if Russia, the United States, Britain and France didn’t stop Hitler.”
Levinksy also purchased a plaque honoring U.S. Air Force loadmaster John Lee Levitow (1945-2000), who became the lowest-ranked service member in the Air Force to
receive the Medal of Honor. As a student at San Diego State University, Levinsky admired him for enlisting in the Vietnam War, while others drafted for service fled to Canada or elsewhere.
“He suffered 40 different shrapnel wounds saving his buddies,” Levinsky said. “He was my hero.”
Levinsky’s most recent plaque, to be installed this week, is dedicated to the same 14 Jewish chaplains
who were honored two years ago at Arlington National Cemetery — though it took an act of Congress to make that happen.
One of the 14 memorialized, Rabbi Alexander D. Goode, was part of the four “immortal chaplains” aboard the USAT Dorchester on Feb. 3, 1943, when it was hit by a German torpedo and sank.
Two Protestant and one Catholic chaplains helped Goode hand out life jackets as the ship slipped into the Atlantic Ocean — the four chaplains giving up their own lifejackets (and lives) to the last soldiers boarding lifeboats.
While the three other chaplains were memorialized with their faiths displayed atop Chaplains Hill at Arlington, Goode was memorialized only on the hill’s World War II memorial, with no mention of his Jewish faith.
In 2011, a bill seeking to honor the 14 rabbis with a memorial unanimously passed both the House and Senate. After learning about the chaplains through a calendar, Levinsky said she was moved to do something for them at home.
“They hold services wherever they are — Iraq, Afghanistan, even in remote places,” she said. “They go to places which are very, very dangerous.”
Student connects with grandfather he never knew via volunteer serviceThough Bryce Matsumori never had the opportunity to meet his Grandfather, George T. Matsumori, the Francis Parker School junior found a special way to honor and forge a connection with his ancestor, who served as technical sergeant in the Korean War.
Last year, the 16-year-old La Jolla resident dedicated a plaque to his grandfather at the Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial, where Bryce has volunteered his services since eighth grade.
Bryce e-mailed the
La Jolla Lightsome thoughts while away competing with his school’s robotics team. He said that upon requesting his grandfather’s military records, he learned that George Matsumori was involved in three of the 10 major battles of the Korean War.
Through his volunteer work at the memorial site, Bryce said he has learned much about the government, the military, wars and the concept of honor that he wouldn’t otherwise have learned in school. “I think more high school students studying U.S. history should
spend time up on Mt. Soledad reading the plaques,” Bryce said. “I think people can learn more about wars, places, sacrifices, bravery, and honor from reading the plaques at the memorial than they can from playing a few hours of ‘Call of Duty.’ I think they will walk away with a new perspective — and as a bonus, they can enjoy the best view of San Diego from the top of the steps.”
Mt. Soledad Veterans Memorial Executive Director Joanie Miyashiro Brennan said she wishes more teachers brought students to the memorial for “the best history lessons.”
“We have excellent volunteer docents that have plaques on the memorial walls and can tell (visitors) the most amazing stories about our plaques,” Miyashiro Brennan said. “And the fact that these kids can actually speak to a ‘living veteran’ about their plaque is pretty cool.”