I wonder how many people today could identify Meyer Levin. Levin, who lived from 1905 to 1981, was a writer, journalist and film maker. He wrote 16 novels, two memoirs, and 5 books on Jewish subjects. A few are still read from time to time today. The majority, I think, have probably been long forgotten.
One of the books which is completely out of circulation is Levin’s 1950 autobiography, “In Search”. This book is very hard to find – not even very many copies are for sale on the Internet’s used book sites. I recently ran across a copy, bought it and started reading it, not knowing how much I would go through before I turned to other things. “In Search” turned out to be an extraordinarily fascinating book of the first 45 years of Levin’s life.
I knew of Levin because I had read one of his books, “The Obsession”, published in 1974, the story of Levin’s relationship with “The Diary of Anne Frank”. He had dramatized the diary, but his version was cast aside, for unique reasons not related to his version of the play itself, and replaced. “The Obsession” is the story of what became Levin’s obsession with the events surrounding the production of the Diary and how he felt unfairly left out and ignored. This was a repeat of a pattern of his literary life – often he wrote things that people praised, but there was some reason, sometimes related to Jewish content, that limited its publication or circulation.
I also knew that Levin had written a novel “Compulsion” based on the murder of Bobby Franks by wealthy Chicago teenagers Nathan Leopold, Jr. and Richard Loeb. This book was written in 1956, years after the crime had occurred. (Levin was a journalist in Chicago at the time of the kidnapping and killing.) I had heard of two other of his novels, “The Settlers” and “The Harvest”, both about Jewish early settlers in Palestine. They were both written in the 1970s.
But I knew little about Levin himself (other than what I had read in “Obsession” where, in fact, he did seem a bit obsessed) and didn’t expect much from his memoirs. Boy, was I wrong.
Levin was born and grew up in Chicago, the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. He was very bright, skipped a lot of grades, and graduated from the University of Chicago at the age of 18, in 1923. Then, he needed to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.
This was particularly hard for Levin, because he didn’t know who he was, or to what group he belonged. He appears to have faced a lot of anti-Jewish discrimination growing up in Chicago, primarily from his Italian and Irish neighbors and schoolmates, so he never really thought he “belonged” to America. And he didn’t think his parents did either. And he wanted to figure out how to reconcile his two identities. He wanted to figure out how to live in America as a Jew. The first words in “In Search” are: “This is a book about being a Jew.”
While this is a dilemma I never faced, perhaps it was not unusual in the 1920s, when so many Jewish Americans were very recent immigrants having their own problems finding their way in American society what with new language and an entirely new culture, and their young children, who knew they were different because their parents were so different. Most Jewish youths, however, overcame this dilemma as they grew and matured and found their own ways (often very successfully) through American life. I don’t know that Levin ever did. This question, and his own discomfort with it, plagued him at least until he was 45, and probably after that (again based on my read of his reaction to the Anne Frank affair in “Obsession”).
One thing Levin knew from his youth – he wanted to be a writer. He was writing stories while still in high school, sending them to potential publishers. In part, he undoubtedly thought that being a writer, he could work out his dilemma, he could explain himself to the world, he could find others who thought like he did. But it did not work out that way. Perhaps this is because times were different in the 1920s. Perhaps it was something more related to Levin’s style, approach or personality. I don’t know.
As he said about his teenage writing days, “I was soon aware that the big magazines didn’t buy stories about Jews. Of course, the stories I was sending out were probably unusable for other reasons, but the awareness of this taboo was to have a real effect on my life. On the one hand, I absorbed the basic writing axiom, “Write about what you know about”, and on the other hand, I was barred from communicating exactly that.”
Levin’s search for his identity was an active one, and one that continued for decades. He was not one just to sit at his desk and write. He needed to get out and about. After his university graduation, he headed first for Paris (many young American writers did that) and then to Palestine, something few young Americans did in the 1920s, thinking maybe he belonged there. And he found out that he did, but also that he didn’t. He seemed to develop what used to be called a complex. He was Jewish, but not an easy fit into an all-Jewish environment. He was an American, but uncomfortable there was well. Would he have to decide if he was American or Jewish? Can he be both and equally Jewish and American? And if so, how? And if not, what was he anyway?
During his young years, he kept running up against this Jewish wall. He wrote a novel based on his kibbutz experience; he was asked by a potential publisher to change certain scenes, although they reflected what he saw when there and to change them would be dishonest. The title of the book was “Yehuda”, the name of the central character. One potential publisher told him that he couldn’t market a book with that name. He wrote another book on a Jewish subject, this set in Chicago, based upon his growing up, and was told by another publisher that, for it to be successful, he should take one of the major Jewish characters and rewrite him as a Protestant. There were too many Jews in the book. The implication: the book was not American enough. As he said, “I had difficulty reaching my audience”.
Levin did not stay in Palestine long that first visit. He returned to Chicago, got a job on the local Hearst paper, was let off, took time to work on his next novel, went to work for a Chicago social service agency. He sent material to an agent to send to publishers, and then he went again back to Palestine, this time staying a little longer, meeting Gold Meir (then Myerson), and living on a newly created kibbutz, Yagur. Three months later, he went back to Chicago learning that a book had been selected for publication. He took another newspaper job, his book was published, he became embroiled in an unfortunate claim that he had plagiarized the plot, his book was withdrawn, and he returned to Yagur, this time staying a little longer and finishing a novel based on his experiences, and reporting on the 1929 Hebron massacre for a newspaper in Chicago. He then left Palestine, stopped again in Paris and came home, or at least to New York, where he rented a cabin in Croton and finished yet another book.
But, then it was back to Chicago, with a job at a newly created literary magazine, which was aiming high, and gave him a further chance to meet Chicago’s literary elite. He grew disillusioned with the periodical and its failure to, in his opinion, treat its writers fairly, and he left. At about this time, he married his first wife who, surprisingly was not Jewish, and about whom he writes virtually nothing in the book.
These were now the depression years, and one of Roosevelt’s initiatives was the establishment of the Federal Writers’ Project, employing writers to keep theatrical creativity going, and provide employment. A play that Levin wrote was to be the first play. A director was chosen the play was cast, rehearsals went on, and opening night was close. But then there was word from Washington that the play could not be performed. The cause was eventually traced to an influential priest in Chicago, who had heard that Levin was a Communist and that the play was subversive, and who reported it to the mayor, who reported it on to Washington. It turned out that Washington did not investigate, there was nothing subversive about the play, and of course Levin was not a Communist. The priest eventually apologized, but it was too late for the play, and Levin was fairly convinced it was largely because he was Jewish, and that there was something wrong with Chicago if one priest in one parish could wield this power.
Disillusioned, Levin decided to back to work on a book he was writing and decided he needed a quiet place to write. Somehow, he and his wife located a nudist colony near Valparaiso, Indiana, where he had a private cabin and wrote away quite content. Until that is he brought a guest one weekend (over a year from when he first came to the club) and was told by the membership committee that the guest was not welcome because he was Jewish. They obviously didn’t think or know that someone named Meyer Levin was Jewish, I guess. At any rate, this did it for the Levins and the other nudists, and gave him one more example of how difficult it was to be Jewish in America.
He then got involved with a group of young intellectuals who were supportive of workers rights and got involved supporting a CIO steelworkers’ strike. He felt he was doing his part, had some unpleasant adventures with the police and, of course, intended to write about it.
In the meantime, he had obtained a job for another periodical, and was asked to go to Spain, to write about the Civil War. There, where he met and palled around with Hemingway and his wife Martha Gellhorn, and wondered if he should quite his job and become, not a reporter, but a soldier, helping the Republic against the Fascists. But by this time, the war was clearly lost, and he knew that would be a useless (not to say very dangerous) thing to do. But his stories of the war in Spain, and his experiences (by no means devoid of danger themselves) make for exciting (and, of course, depressing) reading.
And then, immediately back to Palestine, where Arab/Jewish conflict had raised its head. It was 1937 and after a few quiet years following the Hebron massacre, things were hearing up again.The year was 1929, the year of the Arab massacre of Jews in Hebron. Levin had done a lot by this time – this was his third or fourth trip to Palestine, he had worked in Chicago, he had traveled Europe and reported on the war in Spain. He was only 32 years old.
Once again, he came back to Chicago where he got a prestigious job at a literary magazine, but he was soon again anonymously accused of being a Communist (something he never was), this time based on his involvement in the CIO strike, and had his name banned from the masthead. He continued to edit at the publication – but he was not recognized as an editor. He wrote – but under an Irish name.
He wanted to write his book about the American worker. Realizing that, although he had been active in the steelworkers’ strike, he didn’t know much about factory work, and decided to write about the experience of American factory workers. He was given permission to hang out at a steel mill in Gary Indiana, commuting each day from Chicago. But then he was hit with another problem, totally unexpected. He developed a writers’ block; he explains his struggles with his inability to put pen to paper in a credible fashion.
Tiring of writing articles that could not be published under his name, now married, he changed course and location once again went to Hollywood to become a screenwriter. And he became fascinated with film, and decided to become a movie maker. But he wanted to film, not in California, but in Palestine, where there had been no feature films made. But this would require money, something he did not have. So, instead, with the Americans in World War II, he came to Washington, where he worked for the federal government, the Office of War Information, which made films to help support the American war effort.
He was then sent to England, to continue writing pamphlets about the war. But he wanted to get to the front – he had already been in the middle of the Spanish Civil War, and witnessed some awful scenes in Palestine.
He met a French architect, who was studying the effect of fighting on French churches, and he somehow managed to get a military jeep and accompany the architect around the country. Thus his adventures during the Second World War began, and probably half of the book details his years in France and eventually Germany, Czechoslovakia and other countries informally covering all sorts of battles and other wartime scenes, including most interestingly perhaps, his months long coverage of the Battle of the Bulge. Fascinating reading. Through most of the war years, he was partnered with an Irish American, who had his agenda, as Levin had his. Levin’s was to find and write about Jews in the war – Jews still living in Europe, and Jews in the American army, and write their stories. He found that, except for the limited Jewish press, no one was really interested.
The war was ending; Levin, now approaching 40 was divorced (he had written almost nothing about his wife and daughter – nor does he mention his parents once he goes off to college). He had a new jeep companion – this time a French, Jewish photographer, who was anxious about this fate of his mother, whom he had been told had been shipped to Terezin, in Czechoslovakia, a few years earlier. Was she still alive?
They couldn’t just drive to Terezin, but they seemed to be running all around Europe, following the last gasps of the defeated Germans, writing stories, becoming involved in intrigues of various sorts, getting caught in perilous situations, even finding and capturing a Nazi general in hiding and turning him over to the military. They visited a number of concentration and death camps shortly after liberation – including Buchenwald and Ravensbruck. They reached Terezin and, miracle upon miracle, discovered his partner’s mother, working in the children’s house, ragged, thin, but alive.
He returned to New York, began writing about his experiences, and realized once more that the public was not interested in what he had to say. He believed that no one who had not been in Europe could possibly understand what had happened there, and what the current chaotic post-war situation was like. Even (and maybe especially) American Jews by and large did not want to learn or read about the Holocaust or about the condition of the Jews who remained on the continent. They wanted to forget about it, perhaps send some money to help, but that was it.
Staying in America, though, was apparently not for him, so in 1946, he found himself back in Palestine, where conditions were extremely bad, the Arab opposition to the Jews was if anything increasing, the British (who were still controlling Palestine under a UN mandate) continuing to block any Jewish immigration. Sporadic fighting broke out between Jews and Arabs, and Jewish underground military and terrorist groups kept up their fight against the British. He was across the street from the King David Hotel when it was bombed. He met some of the Jewish terrorists (normal people, except in their spare time, they were terrorists) from Irgun and the Stern Gang.
And he made the first feature film produced in Palestine, something he had written out before he went, about a 12 year old young boy, rescued from Europe and brought to Palestine, hopeful of finding his father. The boy was not as lucky as Levin’s friend who found his mother in Terezin. He never found his father, but matured sufficiently to realize that life must go on in the fight for a Jewish homeland. The film, “My Father’s House”, was produced , and is listed on IMDb, but I don’t know if copies are still in existence.
For the time being a committed film maker, it was then back to Europe, for the film he really wanted to make, this one about the underground movement and illegal immigration of Jews to Palestine in 1947. Most people don’t know how mixed up Europe was after the war ended. Occupation armies everywhere, displaced peoples all over, Jews roaming the continent not knowing where to go, and strict border rules to keep Germans in Germany, Austrians in Austria, Poles in Poland, as countries tried to re-establish themselves.
In the midst of this chaos, there was a massive underground movement to move Jews to Palestine. Secret camping places and warehouse hostels, night marches, arranging transportation where possible, sneaking across borders (with help, of course), fake papers and visas, all to get to Italy or the Romanian coast to get on a ship which needed to secretly get out of Italian or Romanian waters and, once it crossed the international waters of the Mediterranean, to get into Palestinian waters without the British taking over the ship and arresting (at this point by jailing passengers in Palestine – later by sending them to Cyprus) its passengers. Levin wanted to make a film about this, using a combination of acting and real life footage, to show the world something that no one knew about, to show the problems of surviving Jews in post-war Europe. He wanted to preserve the historical record.
He accomplished this as well – two actors, a young man and a young woman (his future second wife and the daughter of a French sculpture he had met in Paris 20 years earlier – her husband had been killed in the war), and everyone else were actual participants in the mass exodus. He, his actors, and his crew (and their equipment) became refugees fleeing Europe. They filmed in any number of countries – the process for getting permission to bring in their equipment, etc. showed bureaucracies at their worst. And they followed the underground guides with tens of hundreds of others – cold, night mountain hikes in the snow, poor food, little sleep, a number of times turned back at border crossings or being subject to lengthy delays, but finally getting on a ship anchored off a hidden beach in the north of Italy. Storms at sea, terrible overcrowding, having to keep below deck to avoid being sighted, sea sickness, pregnant women and small children on board, and then being boarded by the British off the coast of Haifa, being arrested, film being taken (and later miraculously recovered) and so forth. Unbelievable adventure – all told here. The film is called “The Illegals”.
The Israeli 1948 war saw Levin back in Europe. But then he went back to Israel (no longer Palestine) after the armistice, and took one more tour around much of the country to see the destruction, to hear of the fate of many he knew, and to witness the fate of some of the now deserted Arab villages, realizing that things would never again there be the same.
This is one fascinating book, about a confused, but talented, brave, determined young man who continually found himself in the heat of the action, never seemed to have suffered for it, had extraordinary experiences, and lived to write about them. What happened to him in the final 30 years of his life, I don’t know, except Wikipedia tells me he was to write 9 more novels, “The Obsession” and a few non-fiction books on traditional Jewish subjects. My guess, though, is that his lack of understanding of his place in a world continued on, and that he was always “In Search”.
I would hands-down recommend this book to anyone who comes across a copy.