Together, we remember: Hear Eva Levitt's Holocaust story on Yom HaShoah

By Carl Zebrowski

Some stories need to be told over and over. You can only begin to get a glimpse of their depth and magnitude after multiple retellings. Think of Genesis and Exodus. Think of the Holocaust.

On May 5, Yom HaShoah (Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day), the Jewish community of the Lehigh Valley will hear the Holocaust survival story of Eva Levitt z”l, one of only six Jewish children in her hometown of Humenné, Czechoslovakia, to survive the reign of the Nazis.

“A lot of people in the community have heard Eva’s story,” said Stephanie Smartschan, coauthor of “Evitchka: A True Story of Survival, Hope and Love,” the book on Eva’s life that will be released on May 5. “She told it a lot.”

Smartschan and her coauthor, Larry Levitt, Eva’s husband of 61 years, will present Eva’s story that night at the JCC. They’re two of the people who know that story best. Working on the book for about two years—interviewing, researching, writing, and editing—only deepened their understanding.

The Levitts and Smartschan are no strangers to this community. Eva, who died in 2023, served in various leadership positions, including president of the board of the Jewish Federation from 2017 to 2019. Larry, a retired neurologist who founded and built up the Neurology Division at Lehigh Valley Hospital, has served on the Federation board and various committees. Both are well known for their generosity and volunteer work. Smartschan is a journalist by trade turned Jewish nonprofit professional who used to be marketing director for the Federation.

Eva lived her youngest years in Humenné, where there were 200 Jewish children before World War II. Then the Nazis came. They took Eva’s father and sent him from concentration camp to concentration camp. Her mother remained, and she took care of Eva, a toddler at the time—in hiding.

Larry and Stephanie will focus on this early part of Eva’s story at the Yom HaShoah commemoration. They’ll tell how courage, determination, resilience, and luck—and the grave risk taken by the Catholic couple who hid Eva, her mother, and her father’s sister—saved them all from being discovered and captured by the Nazis.

The second part of Eva’s story, the post-Holocaust years, gets detailed treatment in the book. “What makes this different from many other Holocaust books out there is that the Holocaust is just part 1,” Stephanie said. Larry added, “The whole part 2 is about life in America.” Life in America, that is, without previous ability to speak English.

One part of that later story is Eva’s reunion with the Catholic couple in the 1980s. Exchanging letters after that, the Levitts found out that the husband was suffering from serious medical problems. They brought him to the Lehigh Valley to get treatment that was not available to him at home. He underwent a successful surgery here.

Larry at one point asked him why he helped Eva’s family when getting caught meant they could have been shot for collaboration. “That’s what anyone would do,” the man replied. “A good life comes from working hard and helping other people.”

The mission to spread Eva’s story, through the book and to those gathered for the Yom HaShoah commemoration, is ultimately about encouraging people to push through even the most difficult, possibly terrifying, challenges in their lives and come out on the other side dedicating their lives to helping others, as Eva did.

“This story has been inspirational my whole life,” Larry said, “but I think it might inspire others.”

Both Larry and Stephanie were honored to be leading this year’s Yom HaShoah presentation. “We feel very fortunate for the opportunity to share this story with Eva’s home community on such a special day,” Stephanie said. “We’re grateful to the Federation for giving us the opportunity to share that story at such an important program.”

Larry said the fundamental message he wanted people to take from Eva’s story can be found in the dedication he chose to open the book: “We dedicate this book to Eva, aka Evitchka, who has inspired us to try to live our lives the way she lived hers.”

The presentation on Eva Levitt will begin at 7 p.m. on Sunday, May 5, 2024, at the JCC Hammel Campus in the Kline Auditorium. The annual reading of the names of Holocaust victims with ties to the Lehigh Valley will begin at 6.