Holocaust Survivor Schelly Levy’s Story
and Her Message of Faith and Optimism
By Fiona Poth '24
On Monday, November 8, Mrs. Beskowiney’s Twelfth Grade World Class had the privilege of
hearing Ms. Schelly Levy, Estee Yankelevitch’s (AON ‘22) grandmother, tell her personal and moving
story of surviving the Holocaust. The Holocaust was the cold-blooded killing of more than six million
Jews and millions of other people by Nazi Germany and its allies during World War II because
of their religious beliefs, sexual orientations, disabilities, and other characteristics. I had the honor of attending the Zoom meeting at which Ms. Levy spoke, and the text below is the emotional story she shared.
Ms. Levy’s story is about the role her religion, Judaism, played in history and underscores the
importance of faith and family and how these elements contribute to survival. Ms. Levy’s
words give meaning to the Holocaust which is difficult to comprehend because
of its magnitude and monstrosity. Ms. Levy’s poignant story will help all of us realize the
importance of learning history, opposing discrimination, seeing ourselves in others, speaking
up for what is right, and appreciating the miracles in our lives.
Good morning, everyone. It is an honor to be here. Thank you for the opportunity and for inviting
me. First, I am going to start with my story and my experiences. I do not know how much everyone
knows about the Holocaust or World War II. At the end, you will be able to ask me questions.
My name is Schelly Levy. I was born in the capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade, just before World
War II started. Today, the region that was once Yugoslavia is now six separate republics including
Serbia. (1) Belgrade is now the capital of Serbia. Life in Yugoslavia was amazing. We had a large family in
Yugoslavia. We had a beautiful family life with cousins, uncles, and grandparents celebrating
holidays and birthdays. Ours was truly a very warm and happy family.
At the age of fourteen, my grandfather, who was an orphan, started working as a
messenger for a bank in Belgrade. Eventually, he become the owner of the bank. The building of
this bank still stands in Belgrade. Life was good. Life was happy. It was peaceful. There really was
no overt anti-Semitism. We as Jews were accepted. I would maybe even compare our life there
to our life in the United States today. Jewish people got an education, went to universities, were
allowed to have businesses. My father had a business—he was the owner of a factory—which
was not the case in so many other countries in Europe. Jews were persecuted, and their activities
were limited. They were not allowed to go to universities or hold jobs or have an education.
Unfortunately, all of this changed from one day to the next.
The war broke out in September 1939. (2) I was two years old at that time. Hitler invaded
Austria and Poland. Yugoslavia declared neutrality at the outbreak of World War II. For two years,
the War really raged all over Europe. It had not yet come to Yugoslavia. On March 25, 1941, Prime
Minister Dragisa Cvetkovic of Yugoslavia concerned about the growing war signed the Tripartite Pact forming an alliance with the Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan. The agreement said that Germany would not invade Yugoslavia if Yugoslavia would allow Germany to use Yugoslavian territory as a passageway to the Balkans, Greece, Bulgaria, and other Balkan regions (3). In response,
the Yugoslav people took to the streets and revolted against this agreement. They did not believe that Germany should be allowed to use the territory. Two days later on March 27, the government of
Yugoslavia was over thrown in a military coup. The new government led by General Dusan Simovic renounced the Tripartite Pact. On April 6, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia. Just before that, so many rumors were going around. We were aware of what was happening in the other countries, and we
knew that something horrific would happen in Yugoslavia as well.
At that time, my father was mobilized. He was an officer in the reserve in the Yugoslavian army.
He was mobilized outside the home in a town outside Belgrade. He and my mom pledged that,
no matter what happened, they would meet back at the family house in Belgrade. But things
started happening. There were rumors that something horrible was about to happen. My uncle,
my father’s brother, was supposed to escape with some friends; but for whatever reason—I
would say destiny—the family he was supposed to leave with stood him up. So, at that point, he
started coming to my house to urge my mom to leave. He would come every day, every night.
He would not budge until my mom accepted. Finally, she gave in to the pressure. We packed a
little suitcase. We were going to leave for “the weekend,” which became a lifetime. We never
went back. So, in the middle of the night we left. We left on a Thursday. The German bombardment of
Belgrade was on Sunday, April 6, 1941. We left on April 3, 1941 three days before the bombardment on
April 6, 1941. Those who did not leave perished. Very few of the Jews who stayed behind survived.
At that time, I was three years old. We left with a large group of people—two grandparents, two
aunts, my mother, and this uncle who basically saved the family. We left in the middle of the
night. We left everything, everything—a beautiful home, a beautiful life. We left into the
unknown. We did not know whether by leaving the city we would be saved or not. Nobody
knew. Nobody knew what was best to do.
We left and started traveling toward the Dalmatian Coast (4). We had to cross a big, big region,
Croatia. The Croatians were very anti-Semitic. They were also persecuting Jews. We were in
very, very grave danger. I don’t remember very much. I was three, and I blocked it out. All of
this that I am telling you is because my parents told me this story over and over and over. My
first memory is that we were traveling in a train; and suddenly, the train came to abrupt stop
because airplanes were flying over the train and bombing the train. Someone—I don’t know who
this someone was—took me out away from the train window. He took me out of train. We ran
for cover under a tree and a blanket. I am not sure this provided much protection, but we
We traveled by train, mostly at night, because we were a large group of people. We were about
ten. The villagers were really nice, and they helped us. My mother had taken some money with
her. We had money for food and travel. In one of the villages, my brother and I—I forgot to tell
you that I had a brother who was two years older than I—got sick. We got the chicken pox, so
we had to stay in that village for a while until we got better.
In the meantime, because of the German invasion, the Yugoslavian government fell, and the army was disbanded. Some soldiers were sent to concentration camps, and some were sent home. My father
was lucky enough to be sent home. He headed toward Belgrade to meet us because of the pledge he and my mother had made to each other. He took the train. He had to have a permit for travel. In all the
chaos in the train station, where hundreds of people were running from one packed train to another,
he bumped into a friend. This friend had seen us going toward the Dalmatian Coast. Within all this chaos
and craziness, my father bumps into this friend who tells him we were not in Belgrade. So, somehow, he worked all night and erased the name Belgrade on the permit and put Dubrovnik in the Dalmatian Coast
on it instead and took the train in the other direction to the Dalmatian Coast.
He got to the Dalmatian Coast before we did because we got sick and had to stay in another
village for a while. Finally, we arrived in Dubrovnik or Split on the Dalmatian Coast; and
somehow, we were reunited with my father. Fortunately, even though, this was in the Croatian
region of Yugoslavia, which was allied with the Germans, this area was under the Italian
mandate. The Italians behaved in a totally different way. They did not abide by the laws. They
were very, very helpful. So, when we arrived on the Dalmatian Coast, we decided to go to a
small island by the name of Korcula. At that time, it was a small, quiet island. Today, this island
is one of the best resorts for tourists. It was a beautiful spot. We stayed there for five or six months
until we heard that the Germans were approaching.
One of my father’s brothers was supposed to meet us to board a ferry boat going to Italy. He did
not make it in time. So, we never heard about him ever again. He was caught and killed by the Nazis. And by the way, my maternal grandmother did not want to come with us when we left Belgrade. She was older. She did not want to be a burden. She wanted to keep an eye on our homes until we returned to Belgrade. My grandmother always said, "What are the Germans going to do to an old lady like me?" She was killed by the Nazis when they invaded Belgrade. No one really understood what was happening, and no one believed what was happening was of such horrific magnitude. When we heard that the Germans were approaching, we knew that we needed to move on. We planned to take a ferry boat to Italy. We did not know that it was the last ferry boat. Whoever did not get on this boat, did not make it.
We were going to Italy on the ferry boat. Italy was allied with Hitler, but the Italian people were
different. They were very helpful. They were human. When we arrived in Italy, we were
assigned to go to a small village, Bardi in the Province of Parma. At that time, I was four years old.
We were carried into town in big buses full of refugees. The whole town was gathered in the piazza to
see the Jews. When they saw us getting off the buses, they looked at us in awe. They had never seen
a Jew. They were surprised to discover that we looked just like Christians. We did not have horns.
They had this idea that Jews had horns like the devil. The villagers realized that the Jews are like
everybody else, like every other human being. We lived in Bardi for about two years. We lived a nice
quiet life. The villagers were very kind and helpful. I think they looked up to us because we were educated people. My mom was an educated woman. She went to the Vienna Conservatory and played
the piano. My father had a business. We lived there for two years. As refugees, we were not allowed to hold jobs. My father and his brother, the one who saved the family basically, observed that there were a lot of bees flying in the area. They decided to learn how to become beekeepers. They produced a lot of honey. They bartered with the villagers for money, chickens, bread and butter. We never went hungry.
Mussolini was in power at that time. He was allied with Hitler. But somehow, his policy did not
really touch the Jews. A few were sent to concentration camps and faced certain extermination, but
not in the same amount and magnitude as in Poland, Romania, and Germany, where 90 percent of the Jews were sent to concentration camps. As soon as Mussolini capitulated in 1941, the Germans invaded Italy.
And everything changed. We knew that the situation had become very critical, and we needed to
At the beginning, my parents thought of leaving me and my brother behind in a convent, thinking
that we would be safe there. Everything was ready for us to stay behind in the convent with the
nuns; but at the last minute, my mother changed her mind and said whatever happens to us will
happen to them. A neighbor had some connections with smugglers who smuggled merchandise
from Italy to Switzerland. She suggested that these smugglers might help us get into Switzerland.
This neighbor risked her own life to help us and to save us. We went and met with smugglers.
They agreed to take us. We walked for two days and two nights over the mountains. It was very
cold. When I complained that my feet hurt, my father would say, “Just take another little step.” And he promised me all the chocolate that I wanted when we reached Switzerland. Our journey was similar to the
journey in The Sound of Music but without the music.
We got to Switzerland and were really very, very lucky to be let in. It was not an easy process.
Unfortunately, the Swiss did not allow everyone to get in. They sent back thousands of people to
their certain death. For whatever reason, I still do not know why, they let us in. We were in
Switzerland until the end of the War.
During the whole journey, we were in grave danger at every single step because we did not know
what would be best, this way or that way. So many people were killed in so many situations
similar to ours. Nobody knew where safety was. Many families had left children in convents, and
the Nazis raided the convents and killed everyone.
Something interesting that I would like to mention. When we were in Bardi and the Germans were
approaching, the Germans sent an order to the mayor of the city asking to be given the names of
all the Jews who were staying in town. This mayor took the order and went from door to door to
every single home where he knew Jews were staying and he showed the order as a way of
warning everyone. By doing that, he risked his life. But he did it. After the War, we heard many
stories of other towns where either the mayor or the chief of police or the priest or some other
authority went and warned the Jews. It only happened in Italy. It did not happen in any other
country. In Poland, Romania, and Austria, people were happy to say where the Jews were
staying knowing very well what their fate would be.
We did get into Switzerland. During the entire journey—in Yugoslavia, in Dalmatia, in Italy—
we were together as a family, giving support to one another. We helped one another. We were
a close-knit family. It gave us a feeling of safety. Maybe it was false safety because whole
families were taken and killed. But when we arrived in Switzerland, thank God our lives were
not in danger anymore because Switzerland was a neutral country. The family was broken up.
Men were placed in different refugee work camps. Women were placed in other refugee work
camps. We the children—I was six and my brother was eight—were taken away from our
parents and placed with a Swiss family. We did not know them. We did not understand the
language. We did not speak German. We did not know how they were going to treat us or what
was going to happen. But we were lucky. They were kind. They treated us like their own
children. In that sense, we were very, very fortunate.
At the end of the War, my parents came to pick us up. But we had grown so attached to this
family that we did not want to go back with our parents. But of course, we did. It was a very
difficult adjustment and readjustment. So, we went back with our parents. But we could not go
back to Yugoslavia. Tito was in power, and Communism was in place. They had taken every
single thing that we owned. We had no home, no factory, no nothing. We had no place to go back to.
We were homeless. We had to start from scratch. My parents decided to go back to Italy. We went to
Milan. My father started selling watches on the street. We never went hungry. Little by little, we started
picking up and making a better living. We started our life again.
I would say that during this journey, we encountered so many miracles at every single step. I
think my story is very unusual. I have many friends who are Holocaust survivors. They cannot
tell a story of miracles. A miracle that they survived, yes, but they experienced so much more
suffering. A gentleman who lives in my building was in a concentration camp and watched them
kill his mother and father right in front of him. Horror stories that you cannot even imagine. You
think that these things happen only in the movies. But they do happen in real life.
Thank God that we survived and little by little we started having a normal life again. Many,
many, many years after that not long ago, I went to visit the Swiss family where I had stayed for
two years, and that was a beautiful reunion. I never forgot about them and, after more than fifty
years, went to see them again.
I also went back to Yugoslavia, also fifty years after had we left on that fateful April 3, 1941, I
went with a cousin who was older than I and remembered more. He was my memory and guide.
He showed me where we lived and where my grandmother was killed. Even though I did not
have my own memories, I lived through all this. It is engraved in my body, my cells, in my
Basically, I have a message that I would like to give because of all the experiences I had, all the
things that I went through. Throughout our journey, when we were on the run or in hiding from
the Nazis, so many people, ordinary people, just like you and me made amazing choices and had
the courage to take action that basically saved our lives, risking their own lives on so many
different occasions. Basically, they had no agenda. There was nothing in it for them. They did it
out of the goodness of their hearts. And just because it was the right thing to do.
There is a well-known quote from the Talmud, one of the sacred books of Judaism, and I quote,
“Whoever saves one life saves the world.” If you think about it, these people who helped us and
saved our lives gave us the opportunity to form a beautiful family and continue to live a good
life. My experience goes to show that every action that we do no matter how big or small can
make a difference in another person’s life. So often we think, “What can I do? I am just one
person. I cannot make a difference.” Yes, we can. It is not hard to say hello or to smile on the
elevator or at the supermarket. We do not know how a smile or a hello can affect a person’s life.
Maybe we cannot see the results of our actions right away, but the smallest act of kindness can
make a difference. There is a beautiful quote that Estee found which I like very much, “Helping
one person might not change the whole world, but it might change the world for one person.”
Now, yes, we need to acknowledge the dark times and the horrors of the war and never forget the
six million Jewish men, women, children, and elderly who were killed during the Holocaust. The
best way to honor their memories is by telling their stories, by creating awareness, by creating a
change in our world so it does not ever happen again to Jewish people or to any other human
being. Even today, we see so much chaos, so much hatred, so much intolerance. We need to
know that, amid all this darkness, there is still goodness in people’s hearts. And People do rise to
the occasion to remedy the situation.
Despite having had to flee from our beautiful home and live from one day to the next, despite
all the hardships and dangers we encountered during those five long years, we did experience
miracle upon miracle upon miracle the whole journey. But also, what kept us going was our
inner strength. We never lost hope that there was light at the end of the tunnel. At the end of the
day, we were able to rebuild our lives. We all have the power and inner strength to overcome the
challenges that life brings our way. Know that every day brings new hope and new opportunities.
Know you are so much stronger than you think. Know and believe in yourselves. Know that
anything and everything is possible that we set our minds to achieve. And never give up.
1.Yugoslavia was in southeast Europe on the Balkan Peninsula along the Adriatic Sea.
Yugoslavia was bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania,
and existed between 1918 and 1992.
2. World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, when Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler,
invaded Poland. On September 3, 1939, France and Britain responded by declaring war on
3. Yugoslavia declared neutrality at the outbreak of World War II. However, after France was
invaded by the Germans, Yugoslavia signed a “Friendship Treaty” with Germany on December
11, 1940. On March 25, 1941, Prime Minister Cvetkovic of Yugoslavia signed the Tripartite
Pact, forming an alliance with the Axis powers, Germany, Italy, and Japan. Two days after he
signed the agreement, his government was overthrown. The Yugoslav people were angry and did
not want to be an ally with Germany. The new government led by General Dusan Simovic
renounced the Tripartite Pact. On April 6, 1941, Germany invaded Yugoslavia.
4. The Dalmatian Coast was on the western coast of Yugoslavia on the eastern edge of the
Adriatic Sea. Today, it is part of Croatia.
Ms. Schelly Levy
Ms. Levy's family in Bardi, Italy
Ms. Levy surrounded by her grandchildren, including AON student
Ms. Levy and her brother in Switzerland
Ms. Levy and her family crossing the border from Italy to
Ms. Levy with her mother, father, and brother in Belgrade