Benjamin Levin was a young resistance fighter who, as one of the notorious “Avengers,” spent World War II hiding in a Lithuanian forest, emerging only to kill Nazis or bomb their supply chains.
Benjamin was born in Vilna in 1927. His father Chaim was a successful businessman and the family lived a comfortable life. In 1941, however, Chaim was tipped off that Nazi Germany was about to invade Lithuania. As Jews, that meant the Levins’ days were numbered. Chaim quickly sold his business at a loss, used the proceeds to buy weapons, and went into hiding with his family.
At the time, Benjamin was a 14 year old juvenile delinquent who’d started smoking at age 8 and was member of a street gang. After the German invasion, he chose not to stay with his parents in their hiding place, instead joining the fierce resistance group known as the “Avengers” led by Abba Kovner. Benjamin was an immediate asset to the group due to his unique combination of exceptional bravery and diminutive size. His baby face and unassuming appearance enabled him to avoid attracting attention, even in enemy territory.
Hidden in a Lithuanian forest, the teenager and his fellow Avengers killed Nazis, bombed their transportation lines, and smuggled life-saving food and medicine into the Jewish ghettoes. It was later estimated that the brave band of guerrilla fighters had killed 212 Nazis. Their policy was “take no prisoners.” In 1944, the Jewish fighters helped the Russian army liberate Vilna, after which they marched through town looking for Nazi collaborators to execute.
Benjamin’s parents survived the war in hiding, but when they returned to Vilna to reclaim their home, their former neighbors murdered them on the spot. With nothing to keep them in Europe, Benjamin and his sister moved to pre-state Israel, where he joined the Jewish militant group Irgun, fighting the British occupation of Palestine. Benjamin was in charge of helping Jewish survivors in Europe relocate to Israel. Benjamin’s street smarts and people skills served him well as he traveled through Turkey and Syria with European Holocaust survivors.
The Soviet army did not appreciate Benjamin’s work rescuing Jews from behind the Iron Curtain, and in 1947 he was arrested and sent to a Siberian gulag. After a year, Benjamin was released from the gulag and hitchhiked his way to Southern Europe, where he reconnected with the Irgun in Italy. The organization arranged for him to enroll in college and earn a degree in mechanical engineering. He was assigned to the engine room of a ship that sailed around the world, collecting money, weapons and volunteers to fight for the Jewish state.
The ship was called Altalena, and headed to Israel with hundreds of Holocaust survivors on board, as well as Jewish volunteers from around the world, and a cache of heavy ammunition secretly donated by France. When the Altalena reached Tel Aviv and tried to dock, the ship came under fire by the Haganah, a rival military group. Under machine-gun fire, young Benjamin leapt off the ship and swam to shore, then snuck into the country unnoticed. He had been through so much in the previous several years, had lived so many lives and assumed so many identities, that he actually forgot his own birthday. Later, he decided to make Passover – the festival of freedom – his official birthday.
Benjamin met his wife Sara, a Hungarian immigrant, in Israel, and ironically she was serving with the Haganah when they fired on the Altalena. Together they had two children, and moved to New York in 1967, where Benjamin worked as a mechanic and owned a gas station. In the 1990’s, Benjamin was interviewed extensively by Steven Spielberg as part of the Shoah Foundation oral history project.
For decades, Benjamin was an in-demand public speaker at New York high schools, where he spoke about the Holocaust and his remarkable life. Toward the end of his life, Benjamin was unable to speak, but he insisted on continuing his school appearances, with his son Chaim – named for Benjamin’s father – doing the speaking for him. Chaim remembered how much Benjamin loved interacting with students, and described his father as having “an enormous amount of energy and joy and love.”
Benjamin Levin died on April 13, 2020 at age 93. The last survivor of the Avengers, Benjamin died during Passover – his adopted birthday.
For heroically fighting Nazis and saving European Jews, and for educating generations of New York schoolchildren about the Holocaust, we honor Benjamin Levin as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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