“My name is Yosef Levkovich. There was a time that I didn’t have a name, just a number. A number that counted for very little.”
So begins the testimonial of a 92-year-old Polish Holocaust survivor who, through a string of miracles, survived the horrors of ghetto aktions and liquidations, as well as the bloodiest Nazi concentration camps on Polish and Austrian soil.
Although for many decades he could not bring himself to describe his sufferings, in his later years, at his children’s urging, R’ Yosef broke his silence. He began sharing parts of his harrowing ordeal and the acts of Divine Providence that brought him through the inferno.
In a book of memoirs he penned late in life, From The Ashes To L’chaim: A Miraculous Journey, and in a 2-hour testimonial videotaped from his current home in Yerushalayim, R’ Yosef describes some of the key events in the long-running nightmare that left him the sole survivor of his family.
Pivotal moments of this journey include many close brushes with disaster, as well as a post-war kind of revenge he sought against Hitler through his rescue of hundreds of Jewish children hidden in churches, monasteries and private homes.
A lonely orphan himself, Yosef took comfort in bringing Jewish orphans back to their people. He coordinated his efforts with the rescue activities of then Chief Rabbi of Palestine-Israel Yitzchak Herzog, and other community activists.
He is one of a unique class of survivors who, not yet recovered from trauma, still weak and debilitated, found the inner strength to take the witness stand at Nazi war crimes trials. There they answered questions and challenges from the judges, the prosecutors and sometimes the defendants themselves. They mustered the courage to relive for the court the process of mass extermination in the camps, and the viciousness and cruelty the Nazis perpetrated against defenseless people in myriad ways.
In 1946, Yosef’s testimony and that of other survivors at a Polish war crimes tribunal, sent the Butcher of Plaszow—the vicious Kommandant Amon Goth—and some of his fellow henchmen to the gallows. In addition to tracking down Goth, Yosef was instrumental in bringing several other senior Nazis to justice in American and Polish military courts.
From Idyllic Childhood to Nightmare
Just 13 when the war began, Yosef was small and slight of frame, and by all logic should have shared the fate of the six million korbonos, he says. He spent his idyllic childhood years in the Polish village of Zolishytz right outside Krakow, the oldest of four brothers in a well-known Polish family. To this very day, a street named Levkovich after this prominent family encircles Krakow’s town square, and Yosef’s ancestral home today serves as the local police station.
“Before the war, we felt safe in Poland,” he recalls in his testimonial. “Jews had lived there for centuries. We were Polish citizens, protected by Polish law. In our wildest dreams we never imagined being deported to factories of death and torture. But after the Nazis invaded Poland in 1941 and the atrocities began, reality set in.”
When the Nazis began stripping Jews of their possessions, Yosef’s uncle sold his textile business to a non-Jew in exchange for a hiding place. That arrangement lasted a short time, R’ Yosef recalled. “When the man grew afraid of being discovered, he took my uncle and his entire family out to a field and murdered them.”
Historian Grabowski in “Hunt for the Jews,” notes that this inhumanity against Jews by Poles was enacted over and over in war-time Poland. The Polish police followed Nazi orders, helping to round up Jews and betraying many of those in hiding. Out of a pre-war population of 3 million, very few Polish Jews survived to the end of the war.
As the persecutions escalated, Yosef and 15,000 other Jews were herded to a flooded field where they were forced to sit all night, cold, hungry and wretched, in waist-high water. “My father who owned a mill realized the Nazis had deliberately opened a dam in order to flood the field to torture us, keeping us half-submerged in water all night,” R’ Yosef said.
He watched in horror as the elderly were dragged to the side and marched into the nearby forest; sustained gunfire reported their gruesome fate.
The next morning, 95 per cent of the Jews in the field—including Yosef’s mother and brothers – were taken to the Belzec death camp for immediate extermination. A remnant of 800 Jews, Yosef and his father among them, were sent to the Plaszow slave labor camp.
Before He Could Shoot, I Whispered Shema Yisroel
In one of the testimonial’s most chilling narratives, the inmates were forced to dig up a Jewish cemetery and dismantle a wrought iron fence, whose 150 tons of iron was needed for the Nazi war machine. Plows were brought in that dug up piles of skeletons, skulls, bones, decayed burial shrouds and taleisim, which the prisoners had to cart away.
Yosef was high atop a fence, loosening some bricks from a column adjoining the iron pillars. He was carefully tossing the bricks down, one at a time, to another inmate when the Nazi commandant rode up on his horse.
“When I saw Goth coming, flanked by his two attack dogs,” I trembled with fear,” Yosef recalled. “Goth was not a human being. He was a monster. I’d been attacked by these dogs before—vicious Great Danes who would tear prisoners apart at the command of a whistle.” In the earlier attack, Yosef had protected his face with his hands; his hands were bitten and torn by the dogs, leaving scars he bore for decades.
“I tossed a brick down to the prisoner on the ground, but when Goth passed by, the poor man got so rattled, he dropped the brick,” Yosef related.
Goth shot the prisoner on the spot, then shouted to Yosef, “Throw down a brick!’”
Yosef obeyed, but the Nazi deliberately let it fall to the ground and with gun cocked, ordered Yosef off the fence. The boy slid down in terror, cutting himself badly on rusting iron and broken bricks.
“Goth pointed his gun at my eyes. Before he could shoot, I whispered Shema Yisroel and everything went black.”
Yosef awoke a few days later in searing pain, finding himself in the camp infirmary, bandages covering his entire body. His mind was a blank but details of the incident surfaced when he later met Wilek Chilowicz, head of the Jewish police who was basically Goth’s stooge.
“Chilowicz knew me because I’d volunteered to shine his shoes for a bit of extra food,” Josef says. “When I had recovered enough to go back to that job, he was shocked to see me. ‘What! You’re alive?’” he exclaimed.
“He told me that before Goth could kill me at the cemetery, he, Chilowicz, began beating me severely, suggesting the Nazi save his bullet as I was as good as dead already. He then summoned some prisoners to cart Yosef’s body away to the crematoria but as they carried him off, they heard him moan. The prisoners quickly switched direction and hurried with Yosef to the infirmary, saving his life.
Even During the Worst Times, I Remembered There Was a Ribono Shel Olam
From Plaszow, Yosef was transferred to Auschwitz, “one of 160 men in a cattle car packed so tight, there was no air to breathe,” he recalls. “It was unspeakable torture. Every few minutes, another person died and collapsed to the floor. When we arrived in Auschwitz, I was standing on so many layers of bodies that I reached the roof.”
Of the original group of prisoners, only 20 were able to stagger out. This handful of survivors was given their first job in Auschwitz: carry the dead Jews to the crematoria and then scrub down the cattle cars.
Thinking back to those horrific events, Yosef wonders how he kept his sanity.
“Every day was as long as a year. Every day was torture, people being beaten and killed for no reason. No food or clothing, skin crawling with lice, no rest, exhausting work from dark to dark. When we left for work it was dark and coming back to the barracks it was dark,” he recalled.
“In the broiling heat of summer, we had to work outside without a sip of water. Blizzards and ice in the winter, frozen stiff with those flimsy striped clothes, wooden shoes, constantly whipped and beaten by the SS.
“Life was so bitter… people couldn’t hold out, they were falling like flies…. But even during the worst times, I wanted to live. I remembered there was a Ribono Shel Olam. The Nazis could destroy my life, but not my belief.”
Throughout the next few years, Yosef was transferred from one camp to another, performing slave labor in the railroads, quarries, salt mines and tunnels of the most notorious camps, including Auschwitz, Mathausen, Melk and Ebensee.
Memories of Home Helped Him Survive
He recalls how when he was in Mathausen, memories of home helped him survive by planting an inspiration in his head. The Nazis would question prisoners about their professions; those considered useful to the Nazis had a better chance of survival. Yosef despaired over his complete lack of skills that might spare him from death.
“One day, the camp Kommandant, Julius Ludolf, stopped right in front of me during the morning roll call. As I was very short, I was always in the front row. He stood there, eyeing me coldly.”
Yosef’s heart hammered inside him. He lowered his eyes, staring at the Nazi’s gleaming black boots. “From somewhere, a memory popped into my head of erev Shabbos in my home… and I saw myself doing what I did best as a young boy…shining my family’s shoes. Without thinking, I saluted, clapped my wooden shoes together, and said in German: ‘Sir! I will shine your boots to shine like the sun!’”
The Nazi snorted derisively but the next thing he knew, Yosef was being led by an officer outside the camp to Ludolf’s magnificent villa atop a hill.
“After a while,” Josef recalls, “Ludolf came, barking out an order to shine his boots.” Afterward, Yosef was led to a garden and given the additional daily task of feeding the Kommandant’s rabbits and chickens. This new job gave Josef access to vegetables and animal food, far superior to his daily fare in camp. In addition, the Germans constantly held parties at the villa and threw out a lot of food, which young Yosef ate and then smuggled the leftovers into the camp for others.
[Sixty years later, his late son Tuvia Levkovich, a renowned Wall Street financial wizard and equity strategist, would describe the legacy of gemilas chesed he and his siblings absorbed from hearing of these incidents.
“My father told us how he would stuff his clothes with vegetables after feeding the rabbits and chickens, and bring that and other food back to the camp to share with starving prisoners,” his son, Tuvia, said in an interview. “He knew he was risking his life. People were shot or hanged for far less.”]
The villa also held terrors for young Yosef. A lieutenant named Otto Striegel often made a sport out of mistreating him. “He’d order me to stand in the corner with my mouth open, then try throwing pebbles into my mouth. He would miss and the stones ended up striking me all over my face.”
Prelude to Liberation
The months passed with no relief from the excruciating slave labor. Yosef was now 17, imprisoned in Ebensee, a slave labor camp where he was forced to dig tunnels out of the mountains. One morning in May 1945, the usual siren that signaled appell--morning roll call—failed to go off. Fearful of what might be in store—any change in routine usually signaled something bad–the inmates tried to enjoy the break from slave labor. After a few hours, they were suddenly ordered to assemble in the camp’s assembly square.
Striding onto a platform, the SS Kommandant announced: “We want to protect you people from the approaching enemy. Everyone run quickly into the tunnels!”
“Rumors had spread that the tunnels were rigged with dynamite,” Yosef recounts, “and the Nazis planned to blow us all up. Thousands of prisoners began shouting, ‘Nein! Nein!’ This was the first time in all my years in the camps that I witnessed what you could call a rebellion. Instantly, the SS sprayed the crowd with machines guns. We threw ourselves to the ground in a panic.”
Eventually the firing stopped and Yosef picked up his head to see dead bodies scattered everywhere. The platform was empty. The SS had vanished. The surviving prisoners were stunned. Was it a stunt, another of the Nazis’ demented tricks? Or was the nightmare finally over?
The answer came in the form of a tank with American markings that came crashing through the camp gates.
“I ran toward the tank and climbed aboard it, crying, ‘I’m a Jew and I’m alive!” Yosef recounted in his testimonial.
“So am I!’ smiled one of the American soldiers. “Can you give me something to eat?” Yosef asked. The GI pulled out something from his pocket and handed it to him. Yosef popped it into his mouth. It was unfamiliar but deliciously sweet. “I didn’t know it then, but that was my first experience with chewing gum,” he chuckled.
Return to Krakow
After the overwhelming excitement of liberation, Yosef focused on returning to Krakow, fervently hoping to find members of his family. He weighed only 60 pounds but refused to let his debilitated state stop him. He finally reached the town of Zolishytz, finding his home occupied by the former landlady of the building, and not a single Jewish face in the city. Bitterly disappointed, he hung around for several days as his hopes of finding family began to fade.
He then received a warning from a non-Jewish neighbor that the landlady’s sons suspected he would try to reclaim the property, and were plotting to do away with him. He fled Krakow immediately. Yosef was desolate. He found himself questioning why he had survived when so many had been killed. “I felt sure there had to be a purpose. I tried to come up with something that would give my life meaning.”
He began to wonder about other orphans. What had happened to the many small children and babies who had been hidden with non-Jewish families and monasteries? In many cases, entire Jewish families had been killed just like his own, with nobody to reclaim these children. Perhaps he should try to find some of them? The idea ignited a spark inside his weary soul but he had no idea where to start.
Around this time, Yosef discovered a distant cousin who was a Communist leader in post-war Poland. “The Soviets were in charge in Poland, and a communist puppet government had been set up,” he explained. “You couldn’t appeal to the communists to rescue Jewish children because Judaism was a dirty word to them.”
“The Ribono Shel Olam put an idea in my head and I told this cousin that I want to unite families that the Nazis had torn apart,” he said. “This was a farce because in most cases there were no families to unite, they were all dead, but this man fell for it.”
The communist cousin introduced Yosef to a Polish general who agreed to help with the rescue activities. “He gave me top level documents authorizing me to collect lost children wherever I tracked them down, even supplying a team of 40 people, including 20 soldiers and 20 detectives, rifles, trucks and a tank.”
Eventually, over a year’s time, Yosef and his team rescued 600 Jewish children. But his aggressive rescue work, and refusal to give up when priests, nuns or private Polish citizens resisted surrendering the children had antagonized the Poles, and he became a marked man.
“There were threats on my life,” he said. “I turned over the rescue work to others and left Poland.”
Bringing Nazi War Criminals to Justice
Yosef returned to Austria where he had been liberated, offering his services to American occupation forces charged with bringing leading Nazi war criminals to justice. His fluency in German and Polish, coupled with his previous rescue work in Poland, gave him legitimacy. Soon he was outfitted with a policeman’s uniform and badge.
“I had a list of the six Nazi Kommandants in the six camps I had been in,” Yosef recalls. “They were all wanted by American military authorities.” He set about studying documents that had been salvaged from concentration camps after they were liberated, gathering every clue about where Nazis might be hiding.
One day, he was investigating leads at a POW camp near Vienna that held 30,000 German prisoners. “I asked a German officer if he can identify all the soldiers in his group, and he told me: ‘There is one here that we don’t know.’ “I approached what appeared to be a regular Wehrmacht soldier, but his huge frame gave him away. My heart started pounding. It was Amon Goth!”
Years of pent-up rage and grief boiled over. “I started yelling, kicking him and spitting in his face – reminding him of atrocities I’d seen him commit. ‘You shot people to death every day! You hanged prisoners who did nothing, you sent your dogs to tear people apart! Filthy scum! Animal! Monster!”
“I almost lost my job over this incident,” recounted Yosef, “but I didn’t care. Goth’s cover was blown and he was arrested and incarcerated, until he stood trial in a German court. I testified at that trial with other survivors. This monster was condemned to death by hanging. But the Polish government insisted he be extradited and put on trial in Poland where he’d committed his crimes, and the Allies consented.”
In Poland, Goth was tried again and once more sentenced to death. He was hanged in Krakow, at the very site where so many had been executed on his orders, and where he personally had shot and beaten to death hundreds of Jews.
Hunting down other Nazis with American military authorities, Yosef discovered Kommandant Julius Ludolf hiding in a village. He recognized him immediately from his time in Mauthausen, where prisoners were strapped with heavy boulders on their back and forced to march up 185 steps to a rock quarry, and then back down. Prisoners who buckled under the strain were shot. Others were thrown off the top of the quarry onto the rocks in a sadistic game called “Parachute.”
Yosef had Ludolf arrested and he testified against him in court. He and other survivors told of Ludolf’s crimes against humanity and his huge quantity of stolen jewelry, gold and foreign bank notes. Ludolf and Otto Streigel, the sadistic lieutenant who abused Yosef by hurling pebbles at his face, were both sentenced to death and executed.
When the sixth Kommandant on his list had been arrested, tried, convicted and executed, Yosef was ready to leave Europe. He settled in Argentina and learned the diamond trade. At 27, he met his wife Perla who was from Columbia, South America. When their oldest son reached school age, they moved to a larger Jewish community in Montreal, Canada, where their children could receive a Torah chinuch.
In the 1980s, Yosef partnered with a development company that built housing projects in Israel. One of these was Arzei Habira, where he secured the apartment he lives in today.
Years passed as his family grew. In 2011, Josef traveled back to Poland with his youngest son, visiting Krakow, Auschwitz, Belzec, where his mother and brothers were murdered, Zolishytz and Plaszow, where he survived the arch fiend, Amon Goth. The trip brought grief and aching loss but also a sense of closure.
After Yosef’s wife passed away in 2016, he decided to leave his comfortable life in Canada and move to Israel. It was a momentous decision as all of his children and children would now be thousands of miles away.
“I wanted to make this move for many years, but I said if I don’t go now, at age 88, I never will,” he told an interviewer. “I’m very happy I made the decision. I found so many friends and good neighbors here. All my children and grandchildren have come to visit.”
His memoir, From the Ashes to L’chaim: A Miraculous Journey, was published in 2019 in a limited edition for family and friends. One of the biggest miracles in his life’s journey, he commented in an interview, is that “all my children and grandchildren are shomer Torah umitzvos and building beautiful Yiddishe families. That is what makes the whole story worthwhile.”
Bringing The Jewish Children Home
Locating the orphaned Jewish children after the war, R’ Yosef Levkovich said, was like looking for a needle in a haystack. He coordinated his efforts with Chief Rabbi Herzog of Israel and several activists including Yitzchak Rafael, a leading figure in the Bricha Movement.
Bricha was an underground effort that helped Holocaust survivors reach Palestine-Israel, in defiance of the British White Paper that drastically restricted Jewish immigration to the Holy Land.
Through a network of informants, Yosef would follow leads to a particular address, R’ Yosef detailed in an interview with Aish.com. “We’d knock on the door, show our badge, and say, ‘We’d like to ask a few questions. Is this your daughter? Show us her birth certificate.’ Many times they claimed the child was adopted, so we’d insist: ‘Show us the adoption papers.’”
With his keen sense for identifying Jewish children, and the assistance of psychologists and security personnel, Yosef succeeded in rescuing 600 orphans. “The overwhelming number were girls, as girls were easier to hide,” he recalls.
“We had a hotel for the children, with nurses and caregivers…Most of the families of the children had been murdered but I remember one mother who came back for her daughter. The little girl, who was a baby when she was left a Polish couple, cried and balked at being taken from her Polish “parents.” It took a very long time for her real mother to win her over.”
Overcoming a string of obstacles, Yosef and his fellow activists succeeded in securing visas for all the children. They were taken to Trieste, Italy, where they boarded a ship for Israel. Before they could reach the shore, however, British forces intercepted the ship and interned all the passengers on the island of Cypress.
Eventually, after the British Mandate ended and the Jewish State was declared in 1948, all the internees reached Israel.
“I’ve met some of those children over the years,” Yosef noted with pride in the interview. “They are now grandparents who raised beautiful Jewish families.”