When Henry Levine’s plane was shot down over Nazi Germany during World War II, he had a choice.
If he was captured, he had been told to get rid of his American army-issued dog tags, which were marked with an “H” for Hebrew to signify his Jewish faith.
Levine, though, knew the danger and chose to continue to wear the tags.
An American Army Air Corps lieutenant from Syracuse, NY, Henry Levine was a navigator on a B-17. He was captured in February 1944 and held until May 1945 in a German prisoner of war camp, Stalag Luft 1, near the town of Barth.
During those 15 months he led secret Jewish religious services for fellow POWs, right under the noses of their Nazi captors.
“Many people risk their lives to pray to their god,” his son Ron Levine, of Cedar Rapids, says. “He was one of them.”
Ron Levine will share his father’s story at Temple Judah in Cedar Rapids on Sunday, June 7, in a presentation, “The Mogen David of Barth on the Baltic.”
The Mogen David is another word for the Star of David, a symbol of Judaism. Henry Levine built a handmade wooden star in secret to have at his clandestine services. Ron Levine still has the star. It is two pieces, each a simple triangle, which latch together to form the Mogen David. When unlatched, the star was unrecognizable for what it was and could be hidden from the German guards.
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“I still get a chill taking this out,” Ron Levine says. “When I was 5 years old, I used to sit on the floor and play with this thing.”
His father told him he made it in a prisoner of war camp, but beyond that he seldom talked about his experiences in the war.
His children didn’t know the whole story until Ron’s brother Jonathan came across an interview with Bernie Levine, no relation, who was shot down and imprisoned alongside their father. Other details emerged from log books the POWs kept.
On paper, the Germans allowed Jewish religious services, of a sort. The Nazis permitted the POWs to hold Protestant, Catholic and Jewish “church services,” and Henry Levine gave a weekly sermon at the official Jewish service. But no Jewish prayers or other key traditions were allowed at the Jewish services, which Ron Levine says were held for propaganda reasons.
“There is no such thing as ‘Jewish church,’” he says. “They wanted to show the world they were taking good care of the American POWs so German POWs would be well cared for.”
The Jewish POWs decided to hold alternative, secret services. Bernie Levine recalled the worship, held in a different barracks for each session. POWs entered two at a time to avoid detection, and non-Jewish POWs stood watch, to alert them if guards were coming. There were about 300 Jewish POWs in the camp of more than 10,000 prisoners.
For Passover, an Anglican chaplain who had received hundreds of communion wafers from the Red Cross donated them to the Jewsih POWs, so they could have unleavened bread.
Henry Levine, who was raised with an Orthodox Jewish education, served as the rabbi, while another man served as cantor. Levine compiled and translated the Jewish prayer book from memory.
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According to tradition, a prayer session requires at least 10 Jews, called a minyan. The POWs who participated in the services referred to themselves as the Minyanaires.
“They were risking their lives to hold these services,” Ron Levine says. “It was worth it to them. They were willing to take that chance.”
As the Germans realized the war was drawing to a close, they decided to speed up their “final solution.” The Jewish POWs were segregated into separate barracks and told they would be sent to the death camps or executed. Before that could happen, however, Russian soldiers arrived and liberated the camp. Henry Levine was able to translate for them — they both spoke Yiddish.
Levine died in 1984 at age 67. Today, his children are working to tell his story.
Many of his artifacts and photos are on display at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. for the next three months, and his son Richard has written a book, “The Mogen David of Barth on the Baltic,” based on his father’s experiences.
Ron Levine, a composer and violinist who won a Grammy in 1980 for his fiddling on the song “Orange Blossom Special,” composed music inspired by the book, which will be playing as people enter Temple Judah before the presentation.
“I’m doing what I can to make sure people know about it,” he says. “We say never again, but even to this day, there is genocide and extermination of races. Not just my father, but thousands of others, have been willing to risk their lives to pray.”
IF YOU GO
• What: “The Mogen David of Barth on the Baltic,” a presentation by Ron Levine
• When: 2 p.m. Sunday
• Where: Temple Judah, 3221 Lindsay Lane SE, Cedar Rapids
• More information: holocausteducate.org