On the face of it, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is the story of an elderly Holocaust survivor. A man who made it through horrifying events and lived to tell the tale. But Gidon (pronounced “Gid-awn”) did more than survive – he thrived. Gidon’s is the story of a little boy who never really grew up, with a desperate need to belong and to build a family for himself. His story spans the beginnings of a fledgling country, a first marriage gone seriously wrong, and a second marriage that lasted for over forty years.
I moved from Los Angeles to Israel in 2012 on the heels of great grief and loss. Everybody thought I was crazy. But the heartfelt memoir I would write about my experiences would prove everybody wrong and heal all of my wounds. 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. It turns out that you can’t really outrun grief and that regaining a sense of purpose can take time. In my case, a lot of time and a very special person named Gidon Lev.
When I was a kid, I saw a miniseries about the Holocaust on television. Starring Meryl Streep and James Woods, among others, the series aired in four parts. I was shaken to my core. Ovens? Gas chambers? Later in life, of course, I learned much more about the Holocaust through films, books, and museum exhibits. By then, I had converted to Judaism. But the Holocaust, the lowest moment in human history, the absolute nadir of humankind, wasn’t part of my family history, nor of anyone’s that I knew, even tangentially.
When I came to Israel, I was aware that many Holocaust survivors lived here. Israelis are accustomed to their presence in the social fabric. Every year, on Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), sirens blare out over the whole country, in every city, village, and town. Cars pull over to the side of the road and freeways come to a standstill. The whole country simply stops and stands, heads bowed for what seems like forever but is really only two minutes. My first encounter with this annual ritual of mourning left me with a deep sense of sadness and respect for the millions of victims of the Holocaust and the way that Israel, as a nation, chooses to mark the day each year.
I didn’t know it at the time but only two months before I arrived in Israel in 2012, Gidon lost his wife of over forty-one years. Susan’s death was a terrible blow for Gidon and the whole family. It was that great sorrow and a need to keep busy that allowed him the time and space to introspect for the first time in a long time through writing down the story of his life. It was through his writing that my life and Gidon’s overlapped.
Gidon’s life can be, in some ways, expressed through numbers, symbols and dates. He was born in 1935, an only child. He was put on Transport “M” as number 885 and imprisoned in the Térézin (or Theresienstadt) Nazi concentration camp from the ages of 6 to 10. He is one of the only 92 children estimated to have survived the camp. His father was sent to Auschwitz, where he was tattooed as prisoner B12156. Gidon lost 26 family members in the Holocaust. He was liberated in 1945 and came to Israel in 1959. He was a soldier in the 1967 war, responsible for a FN 5.56 caliber Belgian automatic rifle. He has been a husband to 2 wives, father of 6 children and grandfather to 14. Gidon is also a two time survivor of cancer. There are an estimated 200,000 Holocaust survivors left in the world today. Gidon, is one of a rapidly disappearing generation.
Sadly, there will be fewer living eye-witnesses to the Nazi atrocities of WWII when you finish reading this book than when you began it. We must share their stories and we must make these stories matter.
The research, writing and reading that I did while working with Gidon on this book was, naturally, distressing for me on a number of levels. Not the least of which because as much we like to believe that the human race has progressed and improved, on the continuum of human history, seventy-five years ago is but a negligible blip. Equally as much, it distresses me that for many, the Holocaust seems like it happened eons ago, on a scratchy, black-and-white newsreel. We have become alarmingly removed. “History”, as Mark Twain may or may not have actually said, “doesn’t repeat itself, but if often rhymes.”
The Holocaust has not defined Gidon’s life – he has not allowed it to - yet he found himself in the position of feeling responsible for conveying his experiences at the hands of the Nazis but not wanting that terrible experience to be the focal point of his life story. For me, this was sometimes tricky to navigate. I felt responsible as a curator of Gidon’s Holocaust testimony, as well as of his many other sometimes painful life experiences. I did not want to cause him or his family any more pain or grief than they had already endured.
As we worked on this book together, it became clear to me that actually, Gidon’s deepest feelings of anger and hurt were reserved for his mother. It took me some time to understand why. He didn’t always express his emotions directly or dramatically on any topic, but I decided to err on the side of simply observing Gidon being Gidon, in whatever way was natural to him. That seemed and seems the right decision to me. He didn’t owe me or anyone else any kind of performance. I have seen people almost genuflect before Gidon when they find out he is a Holocaust survivor. He is suddenly a saint, a relic, or both. I think I did that at first, too, before I came to know him in all of his complex, flawed, sometimes hilarious, opinionated humanity.
Things began to get pretty dire in the world as Gidon and I worked on The True Adventures together. There were fires and hurricanes and political upheavals and migrants drowning in the sea. Then there was a global pandemic. The book became more than the story of one man; it became the story of two people telling an important story in times that desperately needed perspective and hope.
There is history in The True Adventures – I think it’s important to put things into context – and there is also poetry and laughter and singing. The True Adventures of Gidon Lev is about living through dark times and uncertainty and taking chances. It’s about reinvention, resiliency and joy. It’s also about one of the most colorful characters you’ll ever come across; there is absolutely nobody like Gidon Lev.
Gidon Lev did something extraordinarily courageous; he allowed his most deeply held narratives and beliefs to be challenged by viewing his life events with the benefit of time and a different perspective. All of us should be so brave.
I hope that Gidon’s story allows you the grace and the courage to carry on – even when it’s hard. You don’t get the life you want, Gidon once said – you get the life that you get. A very simple principle is embedded in those words – gratitude.
These, then, are the True Adventures of Gidon Lev.