Ben Levison, a Toronto man who spent the last six decades believing that his entire extended family had died during the Holocaust, recently discovered he has two long-lost cousins living overseas, and he now harbours the hope that he’ll find more of his relatives.
Born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1936, Levison was two years old when his father, a rabbi, was imprisoned in the Dachau concentration camp following Kristallnacht.
“The only way you could get out of Dachau at that point was if you could find a country that would accept you [as an immigrant],” said Elaine Levison, Ben’s wife.
“Canada wouldn’t, the States wouldn’t, but China would.”
With his parents and two older sisters, he escaped to China, where they lived for nine years before permanently settling in Canada.
“His father was an only child, but his mother was one of seven and her six siblings were all married with children,” Elaine explained.
Marum Levisohn, who was born in 1828 in Gudensberg, is seen with two of his children, Biene, left, and Leo.
"They chose to remain in Germany, and as far as we knew, perished in the Holocaust. Years went by. Benny never had an aunt, uncle, grandparent, cousin, relative [besides his immediate family] whatsoever.”
When Andrew Levison, Ben’s son, found old family photos and a letter that his grandfather had written about 30 years ago that detailed his family’s history, he decided to do some of his own research.
He said he searched on Internet ancestry websites, including Jewishgen.org, for Levisons or anyone who had a Levison attached to their family tree.
“I didn’t hear anything and I kind of gave up for a bit, and about two years ago, after giving myself a year hiatus, I went back to Jewishgen and there was a posting from a guy named Andre Heidt,” Andrew said, adding that he lives in France.
“I saw a posting back from him saying, ‘I’m not sure,’ but he gave me a bit of history, which I didn’t know anything about, beyond what my grandfather left us.”
He consulted the photo album and sure enough, he found pictures of the Heidt family. His grandfather didn’t detail who each person in the photo was, but when Andrew scanned the photo and sent it to Heidt, he got a response that opened the door to an amazing reunion story.
“Five minutes later, I get a message from him, saying, ‘Where did you get that picture? That’s my father.’ Immediately we got in touch with each other and started to fill in the pieces. We ended up finding out that my dad’s grandfather, Leo Levisohn, had a sister, and her name was Biene. Biene was Andre’s grandmother. So in essence, my grandfather and Andre’s father were first cousins.”
As unlikely as this discovery was, Andrew was able to make another family connection through the Internet when he found a man living in Israel with a connection to a Levison.
“I had posted messages on a number of sites and there was a name of a guy named Mario Bar Levi who was connected to a Levison.
“I had sent him three or four emails through Jewishgen and never heard back from the guy,” Andrew said.
“I just figured there was no connection. He sent me an email about a year ago saying, ‘My father’s name was Willy Levisohn.’ Again, I went back to the photos and we had a picture of a guy named Willy Levisohn. I scanned it, sent to him, and he said, ‘That’s my father.’”
Andrew explained that the man who connects each of them to one another was their great-grandfather, Marum Levisohn.
“Mario had a picture of him, and Andre had a picture of him, and it’s pretty incredible. He died in 1903.”
After making a virtual connection with his father’s cousins, Andrew capitalized on an opportunity to meet Heidt while on a business trip to Paris last November.
“He didn’t send me any pictures so I didn’t know what he looked like, but I knew exactly who he was when I got off the train. I got off the train and he embraced me and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever held a family member.’ He was weeping. It was crazy,” Andrew said.
“I came home on a mission to get my dad to go meet his cousins.”
He said he planned a family trip that had his parents travel to Israel first to meet Bar Levi. After that, Ben and Elaine Levison travelled to France where they met with their four kids – Andrew and his siblings, Craig, Tracey and Randi.
“We got in a car, drove to Gudensberg, which is the town that connects us all – we have over 200 years of history in that town, seven generations – and we met Andre in this town of Gudensberg.”
Heidt had connected with a Gudensberg native named Liseselotte Habenicht, who had spend years researching the Jews who had lived in the town before the war and wanted to help Jews reconnect with their past.
In addition to visiting Jewish historical landmarks, including a cemetery where the Levisons’ ancestors were buried, Habenicht also took them to the homes where Ben’s great-grandfather Marum Levisohn was born in 1828, as well as the home where Marum’s children Leo, (Ben’s grandfather) and Biene (Ben’s great-aunt) were born.
“Being in that house, knowing that my great-grandfather lived there when he was nine years old… it’s amazing. I still stay up all night thinking about it,” Andrew said.
He added that he was happy that his father was able to make new connections with family he never knew he had.
“You look at Andre and my dad and you can see the resemblance… you can see they’re cousins. But what was even better was to see these two – they were like long-lost brothers. They would stay up all night and talk. There was a total connection.”
“It was like that with Mario, too,” Elaine added.
Andrew said it’s because of technology – and a lot of luck and patience – that the families have been able to connect.
“After the war, the only way to look for family, before the Internet, was through the Red Cross, or you’d get on a plane, go to the town and post flyers on posting boards. You’d come back a year later and see if anyone posted back. It was not very effective. Once the Internet came along, it changed everything,” he said.
In light of the success the Levisons have had so far, they’re hoping to make even more family connections.
Andrew learned that Marum was married twice and there is a man who was born out of the second marriage in England who he’s recently made contact with.
“Hopefully, we’ll work on another reunion and get everyone together.”
Ben, who was content to let his wife and son tell his amazing reunion story, summed it up by saying, “I’ve been very lucky, with Andrew’s help, to find family… This doesn’t happen everyday.”