The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Alex Levin – then called Joshua Levin – was born in 1932 in Rokitno, a small town in Poland (now in modern-day Ukraine) of five thousand inhabitants. The Jewish community of Rokitno lasted for a short time- less than 50 years. However, in this short period a vibrant town was built. A town that produced successful business owners, active political organizations, and was a spiritual centre for the surrounding villages.

Set in what he describes as “majestic and beautiful surroundings,” Levin’s early years were bucolic. He lived in a large house with a garden and domestic animals and swam in the river that flowed through the town. He enjoyed exploring the lush oak woods nearby – forests that would soon play a key role in his life and very survival. In 1939 approximately 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland, by far the largest Jewish population of any country in Europe. Jewish cultural and religious life had flourished there for hundreds of years. Compared to the Jewish experience elsewhere in Europe and Russia, Polish Jews had lived in relative peace with their neighbours. The Jews of Poland were able to develop important religious and national movements, to establish renowned centres of religious learning, and to develop the rich cultural heritage of the Yiddish language – the daily language of Eastern European Jews. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Jews of Poland could boast a distinctive literary tradition that encompassed Yiddish fiction, poetry, theatre and cinema. Moreover, as Poland modernized and urban centres grew, many professions and industries became less restrictive, and opportunities for Jews opened up.

Jewish life in Poland was full of contradictions, however. Polish Jews were often subject to discrimination and persecution, and even physical assault by their non-Jewish neighbours who harboured prejudice against them. With the rise of Polish nationalism between the two world wars, ethnic minorities – Jews among them – found themselves the target of discriminatory practices. Even though the Polish constitution guaranteed the rights of minorities, Jews were barred from holding jobs in government, one of the largest employers at the time. With the impact of the world-wide economic Great Depression that began in the early 1930s, the condition of Polish Jews steadily worsened.

Yet Alex Levin remembers a comfortable and happy upbringing amid Rokitno’s 2,000-member-strong Jewish community. As a child, little Shike – a nickname for Yehoshua – was aware of, but not directly touched by, the pernicious anti-Jewish sentiments around him. Like many Jews in the small towns and villages of Poland, Levin’s family valued religious education, observed Jewish holidays and other rituals, and savoured the special taste of Sabbath foods. Zionism – the movement to build a Jewish state in the Jews’ historic homeland, then under control of the British – was also important to his family. Levin fondly recalls meeting with his youth group, Betar, on the edge of town, singing Hebrew songs and listening to stories of Jewish heroes in their homeland. Founded in 1923 in Latvia, Betar was one of several youth groups that played an important role in the history of Polish Jews in the inter-war period. These groups fought antisemitism and fostered a sense of Jewish identity. Their leaders later played an active part in Jewish resistance in the ghettos and camps during the war. The youth group gatherings were, in Levin’s words, a “magical” time in his life.

In June 1941, however, when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, reneging on the Nazi-Soviet pact and ending the alliance between the two countries, the situation changed drastically. Rokitno was soon occupied by Germany. As the German army moved eastward, special units of the SS and the military police followed behind them, waging an unprecedented campaign of murder against the Jewish civilian population.

On August 26, 1942, after living under a reign of terror for just over a year in the Rokitno ghetto, the Jews of Rokitno were ordered to gather in the central square for deportation to a killing site outside the town. When many of them realized what was about to occur, the crowd began to panic. As people began to run, Nazi and Ukrainian police began to shoot. In the chaos that ensued, young Alex and his older brother Samuel ran – as fast and as “far away from that murderous place as possible.

Those who were not massacred that day in the town square were deported to Sarny, some forty kilometres away. There, over the course of four days in late August 1942, Nazi killing squads claimed the lives of over 18,000 Jews.

Through his evocative and touching description of his hometown and childhood, Alex Levin brings back to life this community that was destroyed in the systematic mass murder of European Jewry.

I was born in the small Polish town of Rokitno in 1932 and when World War II began, I was only seven years old. The part of the town where my family lived was predominantly Jewish. I lived there with my father, Mordechai, and my mother, Mindl, and my three brothers – Natan, who was ten years older than me, Samuel, who was seven years older, and Moishe, who was five years younger. Although Rokitno was a poor and simple place, it was set in majestic and beautiful surroundings. There was a tiny river that was a popular spot with young people. There were wells with unforgettable pure, cold water. There was a park and even an old castle encircled by huge oaks. All around the village, serving as both a barrier and a resource was a lush, thick, overgrown old forest that was by far the most important feature of the locale.

Members of the local medical-sanitary committee posing in front of the wooden bath house. Rokitno, 1921. Source: YIVO

Jewish history in Poland dates back a thousand years and the history of Rokitno was bigger in scale than its size might have suggested. Initially a small village, a new town was established on the edge of the old village when a glass factory and railway were built at the turn of the twentieth century. It was Jewish businessmen who brought prosperity to our little town. Eliahu Michaelovitch Rosenberg from Belgium built the Rokitno glass factory around 1899 and the plant became the monopoly supplier of bottles for the state vodka factories. The local sand, rich in silicone, made our town an attractive site for the glass factory and it provided jobs for many local people – Jews, Poles and Ukrainians. Rokitno was also chosen for economic reasons – the massive forest surrounding the location provided cheap wood for fuel, and the fact that this area was considered to be the middle of nowhere at that time allowed for cheap labour. A railway line to the town was completed in 1902.

The first settlers who migrated to the new town of Rokitno were primarily Jews and among these first settlers was my grandfather Sheptl Levin, who, like his father, was a rabbi and shochet – that is, someone trained to slaughter animals so that the meat is kosher. In 1913, the community elected my grandfather to go to Palestine – or Eretz Israel as we called it – to buy land on behalf of Jews in Rokitno who planned to move there. These settlers were mostly dependent on local farmers who sold them surplus grain and local blacksmiths who shoed their horses, and on local trades people and merchants for the exchange of other important services. But despite the mutual benefits, the relationship between Jews and other local people was tense.

Members of Kibbutz Meshuria, in Rokitno, posing in the lumber works, Rokitno. Source: YIVO

The woods surrounding Rokitno played a major role in the life of the Jewish community. Famous for thousand-year-old oak trees, the forests were a source of raw material for the local woodcutting shop that was owned by Jews. This area, with its generous harvests of white mushrooms and various berries, was a jewel of Polesie. Jewish entrepreneurs dried, sorted and sold the mushrooms to travelling salesmen.

Our house was just like the majority of the houses in the town. It was fairly large, with a vegetable garden and a separate tool shed. Most Jewish families had domestic animals such as cows, chickens, geese and ducks. They also grew their own vegetables. If we needed anything else we bought it at the market. Our town was known for a volunteer fire brigade with both Polish and Jewish volunteers. Fires were a great danger to our town because most houses were made of wood with straw roofs. The town was also famous for the pharmacy run by the Soltzman family, and people used to come from distant villages to buy medicine prescribed by our doctor, Anischuk.

Marketplace in Rokitno, the site of the Rokitno Massacre.

The population of our town in 1939 was about 8,500. The majority were Poles, with the next largest group being Catholic and Orthodox Christian Ukrainians. Jews made up the third largest group and numbered about 2,000, followed by Russians, Belorussians, Czechs and Gypsies (now known as Roma), although the latter only passed through the town. Jewish community life before the war revolved around two synagogues. The younger children attended an Orthodox primary school, or cheder, and the older children attended a Jewish Tarbut school that taught most subjects in Hebrew. Hebrew was the language of instruction, but Polish language and literature were mandatory subjects. I still remember learning a Polish poem by Adam Mickiewicz: “Zimno, zimno, mróz na dworze, jak do pieca, drzew nołozym, będzie ciepio i milutko, będzie, będzie, ale krótko.” (Cold, cold frost on the road, when wood goes into the oven, it will be warm and nice, but only for a short time.)

Our house was at 11 Piłsudski Street in the older part of town that was mostly Jewish. The street was named after Poland’s first and most revered leader after the country achieved independence in 1918, but when the Red Armyarrived in September 1939, they renamed it Stalin Street. Rokitno didn’t have a sewage system, so rainwater always flooded the streets and the town was full of mud all year round. For us boys the floods were an invitation to play and navigate little handmade boats in the puddles. Perhaps if I had lived in the village as an adult I wouldn’t have liked the mud so much, but a healthy child only thinks of play.

Piłsudski Street, where Alex Levin lived in Rokitno before the war.

The mud wasn’t the only source of happiness in Rokitno. On Sundays we enjoyed a colourful weekly market in the square in the centre of the new part of town. Hundreds of peasants would come to the market dressed in their best clothes and carrying their goods in willow baskets. Some walked and others filled the streets with their horse carts. Trading happened all around the market square as well as in little Jewish-owned shops. There was so much noise and activity that the market square looked like a boiling sea.

I remember the days when I used to walk to cheder or when I went to the synagogue with my father and couldn’t wait for the prayers to end so that I could rush home to taste all the wonderful food that my mother had just cooked. I recall the sweet moments when the whole family used to gather around the dinner table on Fridays for the start of Shabbat (Sabbath) when my mother would light candles, and on Saturday afternoons after synagogue. My mother was a good cook and she enjoyed doing it. I still remember the smell and the taste of her meals. How could I forget her bean stew – her cholent – followed by a fruit compote?

Not every child is able to have a good and safe childhood, and I consider myself blessed because those essential formative years were rich with positive and healthy memories and experiences. Rokitno was not a lavish environment, but even something as simple as playing in the mud was fun for me. We weren’t a wealthy family but we were strong and loving. Because of that, perhaps mostly because of that, I am alive today. It sustained me through very dark days. Looking back, my childhood and adolescence were wonderful and I now know how irreversible and irretrievable those years are. Even though there was hunger, cold and poverty, I only remember the good things about my family. They are the only things worth preserving.

There was no shame or fear in being a Jewish boy at that time, although there was certainly antisemitism all around us. We felt we were a part of Polish society. The antisemitism wasn’t masked, but it wasn’t always visible either. As a young boy I was familiar with the saying “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us” that comes from the Haggadah that we read aloud at every Passover seder. But I had no reason to expect that something bad would happen to us. I know now that Rokitno was not paradise, but it was home. I don’t actually know why that means so much, but it does. In the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shtetls – small Jewish towns and villages – across Europe, others shared these feelings. We were part of our families, part of our communities and part of the life around us. We didn’t expect to be murdered.