World War II touched so many millions of lives that it is difficult to focus on the moving individual stories left in its wake. Movies have been made and books written about heroic soldiers, sadistic Nazis, and selfless humanitarians. But for every story that is told, tens of thousands remain known only to the families of those who were affected by the savagery of that sad era.
Author Ludmila Leventhal refused to let one particularly amazing story fall by the wayside. In her first book, Star of David: Last Song of Shofar, Leventhal chronicles her father's extraordinary life.
Born Shmul Leventhal, the Polish-born Jew was conscripted into the Soviet Army not long after the Russians arrived in his hometown of Kvasenina. His encounter with the army changed everything for him, including his name. A Russian commander who was impressed with Shmul's intelligence decided that he should be an officer in the army and ordered that he be called "Alexander" after Alexander the Great. His military career would lead Alexander to fight in Berlin where he helped to defeat the Nazis, but not before being seriously wounded four times.
Meanwhile, though, Kvasenina fell to the Nazis, who forced all of the town's Jews to a ghetto in the nearby town of Dobromil in the Ukraine. Suddenly the Jews, who had enjoyed harmony with Christians in the area, were subjected to the infamous and murderous anti-Semitism of the Germans. By 1941 they were forced to the salt mines, where thousands of Polish and Ukrainian Jews were shot to death -- and even buried alive -- by the Nazis. Leventhal's book goes into great detail about the unimaginable cruelty of the German soldiers, but she writes of man's darkest moments with respect for those who were killed.
Star of David goes on to track Alexander's life as a soldier, taking him all the way to Czechoslovakia and Hungary (where his efforts against the Germans led to him being recognized by none other than Josef Stalin himself). Sadly, upon his eventual return to the Ukraine, freedom didn't await him. In the new post-war world, he was still a Jew. So, instead of treating him as a hero, Russian KGB officers harassed Alexander until he was arrested, placed in solitary confinement, and ultimately served years in prison based on the testimony of a man who later admitted he had lied. Alexander was guilty only of being Jewish in the Soviet Union, an "offense" that cost him nearly a decade of his life.
While in solitary confinement and confronted with torturous loneliness, he turned to his memories of his children, often speaking to them as if they were there with him. While some guards thought this a sign that he was losing his mind, Alexander used this technique to instead keep his sanity.
Such a remarkable sense of family was not lost on Alexander's daughter. Her book is not only an important historical document of one man's efforts to survive in the face of evil, it is a testament to the importance of remembering one's roots. Ludmila is today the embodiment of her father's remarkable perseverance. Along with her father, she brought her husband and three children to the United States with nothing but the clothes on their backs. An embodiment of the American Dream, today she is a successful businesswoman and real estate investor living in the affluent town of Brookline, Massachusetts.
Before he left his hometown, Alexander had a dream to build a memorial to the thousands of Jews in his town who suffered at the hands of the Germans. His efforts were squashed by officials who insisted that a monument to Stalin be built instead. Ludmila Leventhal fulfilled her father's dream by creating a lasting memorial not only to him, but to all those that he too sought to honor.