Aug. 23, 1914-Dec. 19, 2010
My great-grandmother, Ilse Halpert, passed away on December 19, 2010, two days after my 22nd birthday. She was 96 years old. My picture of my Oma’s life is incomplete—comprised of the same family stories told over and over until they took on the air of legend, and the hilarious circumstances of being an awkward teenager with a 90 pound European aristocrat for a great-grandmother. By the time I met her, she was a sort of impish, tiny impeccably made-up old woman with bright blue eyes and a condo in Deerfield Beach. She loved pelicans because they are “the saddest birds” and told me that I could stay slim, even with my sweet tooth, if I ate only ice cream for supper. Oma always told stories with a flair for the dramatic, like biblical creation stories with triumphant flourishes. And, without argument, she had a lot of material. To say that my Oma was a Holocaust survivor is certainly true, but I don’t think it captures the extent of this incredible woman’s story, or the reason why she has inspired me, and continues to inspire me after her death. She was a person who refused to let anyone, even a dictator, define her life or the lives of those she loved.
In 1940, when the Nazis invaded Belgium, all Jewish men were made to go register with the new Nazi regime. My great-grandfather (Erich Levi), his brother-in-law (Erick Kahn) and father-in-law (Jacob Kahn) had left Germany in 1938, right before Kristallnacht. But Hitler’s regime followed them to Antwerp, and they were taken from their homes to a prison camp in St. Cyprien, France.
As the bombs fell, my great-grandmother, Ilse Levi, tried to load her two young children, mother, and nine-months-pregnant sister-in-law, along with the family valuables, into her Mercedes Coupe and drive them to England. They got stopped at the border and sent to a “refugee” camp in Ampleteuse where, as my Oma told us time and time again, they were only given burnt chickpeas to eat and had to sleep in a barn with hundreds of other “refugees,” mostly Roma.
However, a bomb caught the roof of the barn on fire and in the chaos, my Oma and her family ran. Back in Antwerp, with the help of a neighbor who was a member of the Belgian Red Cross, my Oma got false papers and a Red Cross uniform. With the neighbor’s help, she was also able to get a car and driver, and enough gasoline to make it to St. Cyprien–almost to the Spanish border. Once there, she was able to use her authority as a Red Cross nurse to see her husband, brother, and father under the guise of a “medical examination,” and with the assistance of the French Resistance, and a dug-out passageway, they escaped the camp. The Kahns returned to Belgium, but Erich was still a wanted man because of his political activism, so he remained in France, hidden by nuns in the Resistance. My Oma was actually caught in Perpignan, France and imprisoned, but was somehow rescued by the nuns and reunited with Erich and her children. Still dressed in a high fashion slim-cut skirt and heels, my Oma walked with her family through the night, across the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. They arrived at Ellis Island in New York City in 1941, where my great-grandfather changed the family name from Levi to Leeds.