Yehiel Levavi (born 1921) about his live in Baranowicze and Israel
Sarah and Rivka, sisters of Yehiel (from his mother's side). Sarah is the elder girl, Rivka is the younger
An English resume of an interview in Hebrew that took place in Israel, as a part of the Polish Roots in Israel project. Interviewee name: Yehiel Levavi and his family.
Yehiel was born in 1921, as the only child of Meir Lev and Rachel-Lea, born Pinchuk, in the town of Baranowicze in eastern Poland.
It was the second marriage of both Meir and Rachel-Lea, after they were both widowers from their first spouses.
Rachel-Lea had three children from her first marriage, two daughters – Sarah and Rivka, and a son called Josef.
Yehiel's mother Rachel-Lea had seven brothers and sisters, four of them immigrated to the USA at the beginning of the 20th century and one brother disappeared in Russia during the revolution. Rachel-Lea took upon herself to care for her elderly parents and sick sister together with managing her own household and raising her children. Rachel-Lea's parents died in 1919.
Meir and Rachel-Lea Lev maintained a religious life and spoke Yiddish at home. They owned a bakery, which supplied bread around the neighborhood and they earned a nice living.
"I had a wonderful childhood", says Yehiel, "We had plenty of everything, a house full of warmth and love. I also remember going with father to 'Minyan' prayer (minimum ten men for Jewish prayers). We used to sing Jewish tunes together on the holidays and Sabbath days and visit our master and teacher Rabbi Perlov, the head of a Hassidic court. We were taught good values and morals at home, but not Zionism.
But in the 1930's their situation changed, when the bakery's license was cancelled and their source of income was blocked. The shortage got worse when Yehiel's sister, Sarah (his mother's daughter from previous marriage) fell sick with cancer and expenses were big. "In spite of the difficult economic situation, we celebrated holidays and Sabbath days properly and our parents did everything so that us children wouldn't feel any different from our Jewish neighbors" says Yehiel.
Yehiel was sent by his parents to study in a "Heder" (religious Jewish school) and later at a Jewish elementary school. After completing two more years in Hebrew Highschool, Yehiel had to go to work in order to help maintain his family. He began working as an apprentice, sewing shoes. At the age of 12 Yehiel joined the 'Hashomer Hatazayir' Zionist movement, which was for him like a whole new world. Two years later, he joined the 'Dror' youth movement. He used to visit a training-kibbutz called 'Shahariya' and later joined the 'Poalei Zion' movement, and in those youth movements he caught the Zionist "bug".
In 1937, Yehiel's brother Josef enlisted to the army. The youngest sister Rivka got married and had two children, and her husband was also recruited that year. In 1939, Yehiel's parents received, after many efforts, a license to run a counter for selling pastry at the market, but a short while later the 2nd World War broke out.
On September 17th, 1939, the Soviet army entered Baranowicze and was received with enthusiasm by the local population. Many Jewish refugees fled to town in their escape from the Germans. The local Jewish community tried to help the refugees.
After the initial enthusiasm passed, new draconian measures were imposed by the Soviets. All shops were emptied, many workshops and factories were nationalized and shortage was felt in many products, mainly bread, therefore the authorities allowed Yehiel's family to bake bread and supply it to the residents, which gave them plenty of work and their financial situation improved.
At that time, two difficult blows landed upon the Lev's family. The eldest sister Sarah died of her illness, and the youngest sister Rivka's husband was killed in battle. Rivka remained a young widow with two children. They found some comfort in hearing the good news that Josef was taken prisoner by the Germans. He identified himself as a polish called Josef Elcha and was sent to work in an agricultural farm in Germany. In spite of his fear that his fake identity will be revealed, he managed to go through and survive the war there.
Till June 1941 Yehiel was engaged as construction worker and also worked in a furniture factory. When war between Germany and Russia broke out in June 1941, Yehiel came home but he found no one there. He decided to escape to Russia and on the third day of the war he was already across the border, but he decided to return to Baranowicze, to look for his family. On his way back, he heard from Russian soldiers that there was no point in returning to Baranowicze, because the Germans have already occupied town. Yehiel decided to change direction and continue eastwards. He made his way on a crowded train and after one week he arrived to Tambow, where he was sent with other Jewish youth who were not recruited to the Soviet army (because they were Polish citizens) to a nearby Kolhoze.
Yehiel and his friends tried several times to enlist to the army and participate in the war effort, but they were shamefully rejected.
At the beginning of October 1941, Yehiel heard about preparations to establish a Polish Army under General Anders' command. He decided to try and be accepted at the army as a Pole. He inquired and found out the recruitment bureau was in a village called Tatiszciwa. He travelled there and upon his arrival at the recruitment bureau, he found other Jewish youngsters waiting for the same purpose, and indeed, in October 1941 Yehiel was recruited to the Anders army.
At the beginning of 1942, his military company moved towards Asia. They went through training in Fergana valley and after ending his training Yehiel joined the Infantry force. Yehiel says that the High Command of the Anders army tried to get rid of the Jewish soldiers. He himself was summoned three times for medical checkups, to try and find some kind of health problem and release him from the army. But all his checkups came out normal and he remained in the army.
After he completed his training and was placed at company- 9 of the Infantry force, his regiment moved to Krasnowotezk where they went on a ship and sailed to Pachlawa Port in Persia. From there they were sent to several other places till they arrived to their permanent camp in Iraq, where Yehiel was added to the demolition-unit established there.
In September 1943 Yehiel arrived through Jordan to Palestine with the Anders army. Their regiment camped near Gaza, where they began training in order to join the Allies in their fight against the Germans.
The defection of Jewish soldiers from the Anders army in Palestine was not a secret. Yehiel also had his doubts on that dilemma, till finally he decided to leave the army and remain in Israel (then Palestine), and when he took his vacation from the army on Yom Kippur feast, he left with a decision not to return.
Yehiel arrived at the house of new friends whom he met at the synagogue he went to several days ago on Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year). They were a couple whose eldest son was serving at the British army at the time, and they embraced Yehiel like a substitute of their son, welcoming him with warmth and open arms. Yehiel kept in touch with his adoptive family for dozens of years afterwards, and he keeps in touch with their off-springs till now.
The following day after Yom Kippur, Yehiel was sent to Kibbutz Deganya in the Jordan valley, from where he continued to kibbutz Dan in the North, where he had a family relative. After a while he decided to move to kibbutz Beit Zera (also in Jordan valley) where there was a group of young men from Poland with whom he believed it would be easier to find a common language.
Yehiel was indeed well absorbed at Beit Zera and a year after he was accepted as full-member at the kibbutz, where he also met Zehava, his future wife – a Holocaust survivor from Poland as well.
Upon the breakout of Israel's War of Independence in May 1948, Yehiel enlisted to the army and served in the Golani Brigade. After his release from the army he returned to his regular life as a civilian and his work at the kibbutz.
Yehiel worked in the banana plantations for 25 years and was a poultry-keeper at the kibbutz's hen-house for 19 years. He also did other farm-works for many years.
In the recent years Yehiel lives at 'Savion House' at the kibbutz, which is a protected-tenants' home for kibbutz veterans who need nursing care and medical treatment. Yehiel is now an 89-year old widower who lost his wife two years ago, and still maintains his healthy sense of humor and full senses. Since breaking his pelvis he sits on a wheelchair, but his spirit is not broken and his bed is surrounded with family photos and memory albums.
In 1946 Yehiel heard his brother Josef was alive and living with his new family in Lodz, Poland. Josef came to Israel in November 1947 and the two brothers reunited after nine years during which they knew nothing of each other.
In 1992 Yehiel made a trip following his roots with a Baranowicze-born delegation, and was accompanied by his eldest daughter Tzviya who wished to see where her father was born and lost his entire family.
In Baranowicze the delegation received a plot at the old cemetery, to set up a tombstone for local Jews who perished in the holocaust. They collected the victims' bones that were buried in a mass grave and set up a memorial statue in their memory.
"I helped a little to set up the site ", tells Yehiel. "I felt somehow relieved after we brought their bones to an honorable burial according to the Jewish law. I have no doubt that the bones of my family relatives were also among them".