At 90, Sarajevo survivor still spreading the word
Jasha Levi, 90, gave up journalism a long time ago, but the Hightstown resident is making up for lost time, reaching audiences in print and in person.
In his talks and books and articles, the nonagenarian discusses Jewish survival during World War II, drawing off research and his own experience as a Holocaust survivor from Sarajevo.
The period he focuses on dates from the German attack on Yugoslavia in 1941, through his internment in Italy, his escape and hiding in Rome, through liberation by the Allied forces. Levi also tells his audiences how he and his late wife, Slava, became the first couple married in the synagogue in Rome’s Trastevere district after the liberation.
He tackles the theme of ongoing anti-Semitism, and talks about two genocides in Bosnia — “of Jews, Serbs, and Gypsies in the 1940s, and the last one, in the 1990s, when Serbs took revenge on Muslims,” he wrote on April 5, in reply to e-mailed questions from NJJN.
On Sunday, April 15, at 2 p.m., he will speak at Hovnanian’s Four Seasons adult community in Warren, giving a PowerPoint presentation and signing his books.
On Thursday, May 24, he will make a presentation at the Clinton Book Shop at 7 p.m.
Levi came to the United States for the first time in 1951 as a reporter for a Belgrade newspaper, covering the United Nations session in Lake Success, NY. He came back in 1953 with Slava, who died in 1987, and their six-year-old daughter, as a permanent correspondent, accredited to the UN and the White House.
In 1956, he resigned to protest the refusal by Yugoslav leader Marshal Tito to support the Hungarian Revolution.
He later wrote four books in Serbo-Croatian, but his memoir, which he began that year at the age of 36, was written in English. Dealing with both a perfectionist’s determination to write flawless English, and a reluctance to deal with what had happened to him as a Sephardi Jew and an anti-fascist in World War II Europe, it took him 40 years to complete.
“But friends who didn’t tire of my stories kept pushing me to finish writing the book,” he said. The Last Exile — Tapestry of a Life was published in 2009.
His talks are only one way he is “avoiding the inevitable,” as he put it.
The second is overseeing the translation of the two books he has written in English into Serbo-Croatian and Italian. And the third is organizing The Independents.org, a project to legitimize independent authors like himself, by reviewing their books and issuing a seal of approval to those who deserve it.
“Gradually,” he said, “I expect this to become the standard in an industry undergoing radical change at this time.”
His own books include Requiem for a Country — A History Lesson, a combination personal story and annotated history book published in 2011. It came more easily than the memoir. “I had a wonderful editor who wouldn’t let me off the hook,” he said. “Had she been a dentist, she would have been marvelous at pulling teeth painlessly.”
The dedication of that work reads: “To all those who were torn out of their roots.”
In addition to his writing, Levi worked as a draftsman, a sales clerk at Saks Fifth Avenue, and eventually as an executive at two national nonprofits. In his retirement, characteristically open to new technology, he has been writing a blog published on his website, www.jashalevi.com.
He lived in Manhattan, then Plainsboro, and, since the 1990s, in Hightstown, with his partner, Mary Hunsicker, a retired doctor. He says his writing style is like him: “bohemian, not organized, sometimes lasting hours on end, at other times neglected.”
“I belonged to the school of writing which waits for the muse to strike,” Levi said. But these days, he continued, “conscious of my age, I work around the clock on my many projects, with time out for sleeping.”
Levi’s late wife’s father, Dr. Hugo Spitzer, and Levi’s father, Mihael, were among the founders of the Zionist movement in Yugoslavia after World War I.
Both his and Slava’s extended families “perished in the Holocaust,” said Levi. “Only part of my family survived by fleeing to the part of the country occupied by Italy. The rest perished in Croat concentration camps or — like my grandmother and one uncle — in the first prototype of the German mobile gas chamber — the Saurer van.”
Despite the tragic chronicle of his family and native land, he finishes his talks on a note of hope, based, he said, “on reports from my newly found relative in Sarajevo that show my hometown rebuilding itself as a cosmopolitan, tolerant city it once was. The almost extinguished Sephardi tribe is playing a role in that out of proportion to its now small size.”
Asked about his own relationship to Judaism, Levi said, “I have been a Jew for over 90 years, not observant, but more tolerant of the Jewish God than he was of his people.
“My young nephew in Israel, the son of my first cousin, learning about Holocaust in school in Tel Aviv, typically summed it up for most of us: ‘What kind of God was this to allow what happened to Jews to happen?’ But I will bloody the nose of every anti-Semite who came at me, or more likely today get my nose bloodied fighting him.”