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Maj. Gen. William P. Levine, Liberator of Dachau, Dies at 97
The Highland Park resident helped build a Northbrook school and two Deerfield synagogues.
Editor's Note--The information and eulogy below come from Jonathan Plotkin, one of Gen. Levine’s sons in law. Some of the reporting also comes from Deerfield Patch Editor, Steve Sadin, who attended the funeral and whose parents were long time neighbors of the general.
Maj. Gen William P. Levine of Highland Park, was a liberator of the Dachau Concentration Camp in World War II and helped build Solomon Schechter School in Northbrook, died March 19. He was 97.
As a member of the United States army in World War II, Levine served in the 34 AAA Group and was among those who liberated the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany toward the end of the conflict. He was part of army intelligence at the time and one of the first groups of Allied soldiers to enter Dachau.
Initially, Levine did not talk about his experiences freeing the Dachau survivors but was persuaded nearly 40 years later by a family friend when Holocaust education became law in Illinois, according to a Chicago Tribune story at the time.
After the war, Levine operated a displaced persons camp in Europe and was instrumental helping more than 5,000 Jewish Holocaust survivors reach Mandatory Palestine, according to a eulogy given by Rabbi Samuel Fraint of Moriah at Levine’s funeral. At that time the British were actively trying to keep Jews out of what was to become Israel three years later.
When he left active duty, Levine joined the Army Reserve eventually attaining the rank of major general, the highest status possible for a member of the reserves. He was awarded the Legion of Merit and Distinguished Service Medal.
In addition to being president of Lakeside Plastics Sales Company in civilian life, Levine helped oversee the building of Moriah Congregation and Congregation B’nai Tikvah in Deerfield. He also supervised renovation of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park.
Levine was born July 1, 1915, in Duluth, MN, to the late Sadie and Joseph Levine. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1937. He was drafted into the army after the outbreak of World War II, went to officer candidate school and was commissioned.
Levine was the loving husband of Rhoda Kreiter Levine and the late Leah Goldberg Levine. He was also preceded in death brothers Clarence and Orrin Levine. He is survived by another brother, Robert. He was the extraordinary father of John (Merril Prager), Maxine (John Souza), Susan Kreiter Margolis (Dr. Fred Margolis), Shelley Kreiter-Solow (Sheldon Solow) and Robin Kreiter Plotkin (Jonathan Plotkin). He was the adoring grandfather of David and Adam Margolis, Alison and David Solow as well as Noah, Oliver, Alexander and Pearl Plotkin.
Donations to a meaningful charity are welcome. Services and burial were March 31.
Eulogy, by Jonathan Plotkin, one of five delivered at the funeral.
I have been thinking hard over the past few days how does one possibly take the measure of a man like William Levine. Father, husband, son, brother, uncle, mentor, soldier, patriot and devoted friend to so many. His complexity and multifaceted interests and experiences are almost without measure.
Consider for a moment 1915 the year he was born. Woodrow Wilson was only half way through his first term as President. Trans-continental telephone service would be established for the first time that year with Alexander Graham Bell himself making the first call between New York and San Francisco. Babe Ruth would hit his first home run in May. The cornerstone of the Lincoln Memorial would be laid in Washington DC just 50 years after that great Presidents untimely death while far out at sea the Lusitanian would be sunk by a German U-Boat propelling the United States into the First World War which was already at that time raging over most of Europe and the Mid-east. In 1915 France and England were busy at work seizing control of the Mid East by creating zones of influences that established the borders of Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq…the very nations, 97 years later that are imploding in civil war.
It is not inconceivable that William as a baby might have been held in the arms of a person who may herself been held as a child by an adult born before our nations very birth. Such is the short arch of history and William’s place in it. Our William came on the scene into the arms of a loving immigrant family that saw opportunities for those who worked hard to achieve their goals at the crucible of our nation’s history. William learned his lessons well.
I only knew William for the last third, or approximately 33 years of his long and productive life however I honestly don’t know anyone else who had a such a profound influence over my own personal destiny other then my own parents.
For those of you have heard this story before forgive me. In the summer of 1980 fresh out of graduate school I caught a ride from Massachusetts with my brother Danny who was returning to school in Wisconsin. My intentions were to be dropped off south of Chicago as he turned his car north and to hitch-hike from there to San Francisco, a trip that I had made on a number of occasions. This time I had enough money to hitch one way and fly back…a rare treat. Approximately 10 miles from my drop off point at what I now know to be I-80 and I-90/94 I pulled Danny’s car that I was driving off the highway into a road-side oasis. The weather was nasty…hot and humid with the air smelling like sulfur from the south shore blast furnaces.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the moment I elected to take a chance and call Rhoda Kreiter in Highland Park who had reminded me recently that her door was always open for a meal if I was ever in the area. Here was my chance to get off the highway to eat, shower and replenish myself before the long push west by myself. I located a pay phone and called Rhoda in Highland Park.
A man answered who identified himself as William Levine…a man I had never met or spoken to who had apparently three weeks earlier married Rhoda on my birthday no less. Rhoda was not home and wouldn’t be for a while. After a series of rather awkward exchanges I made up my mind to make my dash for the west coast that afternoon and skip Highland Park.
William wouldn’t even consider the idea.
“I’ve heard of you and the rest of the Plotkin family…it would be nice for you to stop by” he said. “Get dropped off at Skokie and Dundee on the North Side and I will pick you up”. I protested making up lame excuses along the way. William dug his feet in…his voice transforming from mild amusement to well….an actual order:
“Get dropped off at Skokie and Dundee and I will pick you up…DO YOU UNDERSTAND?”
I did, and I did.
That evening at dinner Robin, my first friend and companion from an earlier time as little kids in the neighborhood joined us for dinner. Before the night was over Robin (who will confirm all of this) decided we were going to get married however she had the presence of mind of waiting to tell me until after I finished my journey. I had no idea as to what was in store for me. The next morning William arranged a ride for me south to the I-80 and Harlem interchange in Tinley Park and three days later I arrived tired and dirty in San Francisco. The following weekend…back in Boston, Robin showed up at my door like the beautiful angel that she is. After a year of long distance telephone exchanges and expensive travel between Boston and Chicago I proposed and my life became enriched beyond measure…with a loving wife and four children who are here today and a large family of Kreiter’s and Levine’s to keep me occupied for the next 30+ years…..and all because of William ordering me that fateful afternoon to change my plans and stop by for dinner.
It is nearly impossible to describe the odd couple of friends that William and I became over the intervening decades. A General and a free spirited ex hippy would not necessarily have gotten along however William by this time had mellowed and I had seen enough of the world where my politics would be challenged, especially after traveling through various eastern bloc counties. All of a sudden America was looking a lot better to this self professed radical.
William and I rarely discussed politics; we both agreed that politics was a spectator’s sport that neither of us could abide by. We both loved history and the interactions between the sublime and the great events of the day…all of which in one form or another were expressions of the self interests of people acted out on vast stages. Biographies were a favored form of history for both of us.
I am not ashamed to say I was in awe of William’s military background, especially his service during the Second World War. While my brothers and I were “playing army” in the fields and ravines around our house William had actually been in the thick of it…from D-day to the surrender of Germany. Every year around June 6th I would entice William with a bottle of wine and a lunch where I would squeeze information out of him regarding his experiences. I was most interested in what a happy go lucky guy from Duluth made of the events surrounding him during those difficult years when life changed so drastically for his family, friends and the nation. When I asked him what first went through his mind upon opening his eyes the first morning in France when he woke up his eyes lit up and he said “I can remember the feeling like it was yesterday” I was convinced he was going to tell me some great truth about fighting and dying, of great armies and sweeping plans to free an enslaved people. Instead he said “what came to my mind that first morning was that I had to pee like a racehorse!” (his words). Apparently the day earlier he was a little busy and simply forgot to stop long enough to relieve himself.
Most of you know Williams experiences toward the end of the war as he and his fellow troops entered Germany. As a liberator of Dachau he saw firsthand the evil perpetrated on an innocent population without restraint. The death and suffering was almost overwhelming. Even so William managed to conduct himself with dignity and honor, while allowing for that home grown Minnesota optimism to shelter him from the abject brutality all around him. However it wouldn’t be until years later that William could speak about these experiences.
Forty years later, at a ceremony at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem in memory of the Warsaw uprising where William was asked to represent Allied Forces he encountered a man in the audience, a father and a grandfather by the name of Maurice Pirot, a Belgium Jew, now a Israeli citizen who came down from the seats and embraced William as his savior…the soldier who carried him in his arms to safety in Dachau that first day of liberation. Pirot was now able to thank William for saving his life even though I suppose William in his modesty would have rejected this as simply his responsibility to help along with the many others who needed to be cared for at that time.
In a world of CNN sound bites and artificial hero’s of the day it is becoming more and more infrequent to find a person like William who represents the best in all of us…a person who reminds you that there is yet hope for our species. While not perfect William epitomized the very ideals that formed our nation, that personal sacrifices are essential despite easier roads many of us would have elected to take. Williams abiding faith and unfailing thirst for knowledge and doing it right the first time set him above and apart from most. It is a blessing that Rhoda and William found each other…two strong willed hearts of gold.
Like Maruice Pirot William carried me to safety and nurtured our growing family unconditionally. Our collective lives are richer beyond measure as a result of William's influence. He will be missed and adored for all eternity. J