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Irene Levin

Irene Levin, 70, at a gate designed to give center visitors a feeling of entering a Nazi death camp. She and her mother were taken by boxcar to Theresienstadt in December 1941.
(Times photo / Fred Victorin)
Weiner and Kamil Weil

Photo courtesy of Irene Levin

Irene's parents, Irene Weiner and Kamil Weil. Both had died by the end of the Holocaust.

A child's story

By Waveney Ann Moore, Times Staff Writer

A boxcar journey stripped Irene Levin of her liberty, but another would restore it.

Before that happened, though, she would endure the hardships, horror and indignity of Nazi persecution.

It was in December 1941, when she was 14, that she and her mother were herded into a boxcar for the journey to Theresienstadt, a place of death from starvation and disease or a stopping-off point before going to almost certain death in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

Her father, she says, was fortunate.

"He died in September 1938, just as they (the Nazis) were starting to take over. He wouldn't have made it, anyhow," she said. "He was older than my mother by about 10 years. On the older people, it was much, much harder."

At Theresienstadt she was put to work in the garden. Though there was little food and conditions were harsh, Mrs. Levin said she was fortunate to be sent to the ghetto.

"The conditions were better than anyplace else," she said.

She and her mother were sent to Auschwitz and later to a slave camp. With the Allies closing in, they again were moved, this time further west. Forced to march for miles at a time, they were always hungry and cold.

Once a farmer gave them food.

"It tasted pretty good," Mrs. Levin recalled.

"In the morning, when we looked at the leftovers, we realized it was food they give to pigs, potato skins and straw. I guess he had it all ready for the pigs and he felt so sorry for us that he gave it to us."

That and other experiences during the Holocaust were never spoken about in her home until last year, said Mrs. Levin, when the Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center asked her to make a videotape for its archives.

The mother of three and grandmother of five recalled her mother's increasing weakness and eventual disappearance on the way to Bergen-Belsen.

"She couldn't walk anymore," said Mrs. Levin. "She just crawled out of the boxcar and they put her on a truck with some others who couldn't walk anymore and drove them away. . . . I never found out what they actually did with her."

Her mother was 40 years old.

In 1947, Mrs. Levin came to the United States to live with cousins in Indiana. Even in her new life, there was intolerance.

"I came there and it was only white people there and I asked them how come," she said.

"They explained that they are not allowed by law to sell or rent to any black people. My first impression was that America treated the black people here the same way we were treated. The only thing they don't do is that they don't kill them. In Prague we just had one park we could go to, and there were restaurants there that said no Jews or dogs. We had to wear the Star of David, and we had to sit in the back of the streetcars."

Mrs. Levin, who lives with her husband, Joseph, in an unincorporated area of Pinellas County, hopes that the Holocaust Center will teach tolerance.

"If you tell the story and tell it often enough, it may sink in," she said. "There are still a lot of people who say it never happened."

And though she recalls few details of the boxcar journey that took her to the ghetto, she clearly remembers the one that took her back to Prague at war's end.

"We were not overcrowded in it. The doors were open."

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