Yom HaShoah and the life lessons of Eva Levitt z"l

By Carl Zebrowski

“World War II and the Shoah ended 79 years ago,” Shari Spark, director of the Holocaust Resource Center and organizer of the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley’s 2024 Yom HaShoah commemoration, told the audience in the JCC at the evening commemoration on May 5. “But tonight the history cannot feel closer.”

This night, dedicated to remembering the victims of the Holocaust, the Valley Jewish community heard the story of Eva Levitt z”l, one of its most beloved and respected members for the last few decades. Levitt, who died in 2023, was one of only six out of 200 Jewish children living her town, Humenné, Czechoslovakia, to survive the Nazis. “Let me repeat that,” said Eva’s husband, Larry Levitt. “200 children, six survivors.” 

Several hours before the Yom HaShoah commemoration, hundreds in the community had gathered for the official release of the book, “Evitchka: A True Story of Survival, Hope, and Love,” which Larry, a retired neurologist, cowrote with Stephanie Smartschan, a journalist turned Jewish community marketing professional. “Evitchka” is Eva’s story in two parts: part one the Holocaust and part two the rest of her life. 

When the Nazis came to Humenné, Eva’s family was among the Jewish residents permitted to stay, because her father, Laci Ritter, did “essential work,” running a lumber yard that employed 200. “He lived a pretty good life up to the war,” said Smartschan.

By 1944, doing essential work was not enough. “I know we are in trouble now,” Laci said during an interview he later did as part of director Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation project to document the stories of Holocaust survivors. 

The family fled, but not without incident. “On the way into hiding,” Laci said, “they catch me.” He was taken to Auschwitz, where a Nazi officer told him and the friend with him to rest. “Laci said, ‘I want to work,’” Larry told the audience. Fortunately the Nazis took him up on that. His friend, who remained behind, was taken to the gas chambers.

Eva’s mother, Olga, her aunt Munci, and young Eva (aka Evitchka), continued on their way. Along their route, they practiced saying the Hail Mary so that if Nazis ever confronted them, a natural-sounding recitation of the Catholic prayer would “prove” they were not Jewish. They succeeded in their escape and ended up living in hiding with a Catholic couple, Geza and Klara Hajtas, who had previously promised Laci help if his family ever needed it.

The Nazis came to that area at the end of 1944, and the gestapo wound up at the Hajtas house looking for Olga. The harassment continued. “After a few days of this,” Smartschan said, “she was so exhausted.” Smartschan said Olga started thinking, “Would my daughter, Eva, have a better life without me?” 

Soon after that, two gestapo soon showed up and took Munci in for questioning. They beat her over and over, trying to get her to talk. She kept denying she was Jewish.

“They were strong,” she said in an interview later for the Shoah Foundation. “My eyes got full of blood. I didn’t say a word. I just let them hit me. It was freezing cold. I was shivering.”

She did not talk, and the two sisters and Eva survived the war. “It was through the wonderful efforts of those Catholics that they survived,” said Larry. 

Laci survived too—though other relatives did not—and the three reunited and ended up in the United States. Years later Eva met, as Larry put it, “a soon-to be doctor named Larry Levitt at Queens College.” They dated.

Larry talked about how Eva had three suitors, two of them named Larry. The choice from among the three appeared to be coming down to one of the Larrys, when the other Larry announced to Eva that they should see other people. “Boy, did he make a big mistake!” Larry Levitt said. 

Larry and Eva married and had three kids. In the 1970s they moved from New York to Allentown, where Larry founded and developed the neurology department at Lehigh Valley Hospital. 

In the 1980s they made contact with the Hajtases and went to Czechoslovakia to visit. Larry said the couple had helped other fleeing Jews too, 17 of them. They earned the Holocaust museum designation “righteous gentiles.”

“Why did you do it?” Larry asked Geza. “You and the whole family could have been shot.” Larry recalled the response:  “A good life comes from working hard and helping other people.”

Five years after that visit, Eva and Larry had a chance to return the favor the Hajtases had done for Eva so many years earlier. Geza had a serious medical problem that doctors in Czechoslovakia couldn’t treat, so the Levitts brought him here to see Dr. Stanley Zeeman, a cardiologist associated with Lehigh Valley Hospital. 

Zeeman believed surgery would work. It did, and after Geza recuperated, he returned home. He lived another eight years, comfortably.

Larry ended the presentation about Eva by asking what this evening was all about. He pointed to the book’s dedication page, the words in the book he considered most important: “We dedicate this book to Eva, aka Evitchka, who has inspired us to live our lives the way she lived hers.” He then called on his granddaughter, Talia Vaknin, to sum up what Eva meant to the Jewish community—to anyone who was fortunate enough to meet her or hear her story.

“Evil does not begin with murder,” Vaknin said. “No. It begins when good and decent people like ourselves, who are too busy with their own lives, fail to speak out. Let’s take Eva Levitt’s advice seriously and try to make a difference.