Roland Levi has a different level of appreciation for the freedoms Americans have, considering he spent a large portion of his childhood attempting to escape from the Nazi regime.
“Don't take the United States of America for granted,” Levi, a Holocaust survivor, said to the seventh through twelfth graders at an assembly Friday at Crocker.
Levi was a young child when American soldiers helped to liberate Belgium, where Levi was living in an orphanage with his older sister.
Levi asked the students to think about the word “hate” before they use it to say they hate school and other things, using his experience as a Jewish Holocaust survivor to illustrate the way hate can present itself.
“Hate, don't use that word, hate. Just forget that word,” Levi said.
Levi' told the students about the great lengths his Jewish family went through to hide from the Nazis as they waged war on Europe. His parents were printers who registered themselves as Italian Fascists where they lived in Belgium to avoid deportation and sent their children to a convent Catholic school.
Levi said his memories of the earlier parts of the invasion of Belgium were very vague because he was so young, but he did remember hiding in a basement with his father during bombing.
The ruse of the family's origins worked for a long while, but his parents were eventually arrested causing Levi and his older sister to be separated from them.
“They came to the classroom and arrested us,” Levi said of his experience being taken by the Gestapo.
According to Levi, he was saved from the concentration camps by a woman named Marie Blum, famous for rescuing Jewish children and keeping them from camps at Wezembeek Orphanage. Blum “smuggled children in and out of the home and into the hands of the underground or into other homes in Belgium,” according to the United States Congressional Record when she was honored as part of Holocaust Commemoration Day.
At any given time, 50 to 100 children ranging in age from newborn to 16 were in residence at the orphanage, Levi a resident listed on its rolls.
Levi said, “We were lucky,” in reference to himself and his family.
Miraculously, Levi, his sister and both of his parents survived the Holocaust. He said he lost most of his extended family, including aunts and uncles, but still feels as if their survival was a miracle.
Levi came to America when he was 35 and met his wife, Gail while on vacation in Florida. “What brought me here was a dream,” Levi said.
“The freedom we have here is unbelievable,” Levi said.
Currently, Levi owns a couple of restaurants and lives in St. Louis. Together, he and his wife have five children and six grandchildren. He said he travels around speaking about his Holocaust experience, hoping to make sure that the period in history is not forgotten.