Gidon Lev (pronounced “Gee-dawn”) arrived at a café near Tel Aviv one day in 2017, with a clipboard neatly tucked under one arm. It was stuffed with scribbled notes and receipts. With his merry blue eyes, shock of white hair, and a mischievous grin, eighty-two-year-old Gidon Lev did not fit my image of a Holocaust survivor. But then, he was the only Holocaust survivor I had ever met.
I came to be in Israel when in 2012, I “made aliyah”, which is to say, I moved to Israel and became a citizen. I had converted to Judaism some twenty-six years earlier and had visited many times before. After what I had been through, moving to Israel seemed not really the sensible, but the interesting thing to do. In 2010, in the space of six weeks, I lost a friend to breast cancer, my brother to suicide, and my business to a very bad decision. It was too much loss, too fast. I couldn't cope. Wouldn’t living in Israel be just like visiting? Besides, what other country would have me, as devastated as I was, and give me the time and opportunity to heal? Everybody thought I was crazy.
The heartfelt memoir I would write about my experiences would prove everybody wrong and heal all of my wounds. I knew there would be no shortage of lessons to learn and tales to tell; Israel is arguably one of the world’s most intense, scrutinized, storied places. This was going to be my Year in Provence, my Under the Tuscan Sun, my Eat, Pray Love. I just had to wait for it all to make sense. But it didn’t exactly happen that way.
Only two months before I arrived in Israel in 2012, Gidon had lost his wife and co-adventurer of over forty-one years. Susan’s death was a terrible blow. It may have been that great sorrow, the need to keep busy, that allowed him to introspect for the first time in a long time. Whatever the reason, it was then that Gidon began the slow, painstaking process of writing down the story of his life. He began to search for an editor to help him proofread and organize his writings. Eventually, he was referred to me.
I suppose I was curious about Gidon and besides, I felt a bit obligated. The rapidly dwindling number of eye-witnesses to humanity’s greatest shame, the Holocaust, combined with increasing ignorance about that murderous time in history and anti-Semitism on the rise again, I felt I owed Gidon at least a little bit of my time.
I quickly learned that Gidon thoroughly rejects the idea that the trauma of the Holocaust defines him. His lived experience proves that. Yet along the way, it also became evident that at times, people regard survivors of terrible or particularly infamous tragedies as being in some way obligated to provide satisfactorily detailed or emotional memories. For the survivor there is then a mix of feelings; a performative aspect to the recalling of horror in order to meet expectations, coupled with a sincere desire not to dwell in the past.
Once, Gidon was asked by two different people in the space of as many days, about whether he remembered the public hangings at the Terezin concentration camp. To the first person, Gidon went into great detail about that terrible event, describing it vividly. To the second, Gidon claimed he could not remember the hanging at all.
“The truth is,” he told me later, “that I only remember standing in the public square and it was cold, and there was a large crowd, and we were being made to watch something, and suddenly my mother pulled my face into her coat so I couldn’t see and everybody gasped. That’s all I remember.”
Life is a journey of unfolding and piecing events together in ways that we want to remember them, and in ways that we can tolerate recalling them. Not to mention how we want to be remembered. Our memories, those we can martial, are a carefully, sometimes unruly curated record of ourselves. The ineffable natures of memory and aging work in mysterious ways.
It’s not often that we look back at our lives critically, compassionately, and honestly, and even less often that we are able to do it well. But that is what Gidon was willing to do. With the exception of correcting spelling or punctuation, I preserved Gidon’s testimony of his time in the concentration camp assiduously. This, I feel, is sacred ground. But Gidon allowed me to interrogate other memories, by asking him to take a deeper dive and to question his version of things. There is much between the lines; very often, it is what Gidon didn’t say that is the most revealing.
Gidon made himself vulnerable throughout the process of writing this book. He read and reread every page of the manuscript, making suggestions and small changes, and very often, he laughed or cried. As the book progressed into later chapters, Gidon began to feel freer, more confident and creative, making more emphatic suggestions and additions, which I incorporated and made note of. His additions, objections and comments showed his thought process, which was sometimes touching and astute, and in other moments quite quirky and funny. But always, these notes telegraph to us what is important to Gidon.
The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is much more than the story of an elderly Holocaust survivor. It is the story of a man who lived through historic times in historic places and who lived at full throttle every step of the way. Gidon has so much to teach us about trying, failing and trying again. His brand of cheerful optimism is medicinal, especially during these tumultuous times.
I also saw an opportunity, to contextualize Gidon’s story within the backdrop of the history that surrounded it, and to give readers both an idea of the cultural and physical beauty of Israel and also the challenges that it faces.
Reader, in the process, I couldn’t help but fall in love with this man. Though thirty years, continents and culture separate Gidon and I, we are like dolphins swimming alongside the ship of life, just cruising together for a while. We’ve both had some hard knocks. In a sense, we are both survivors. We get that about each other.
Gidon Lev, so straightforward that he’s complicated, determined, persistent, loveable and yes sometimes a bit reckless – has made me a better person. He is, as he sometimes calls himself, “a ridiculous man.” I want to be Gidon Lev when I grow up.