Courtesy of Gabriel Levin

A superior pinning a medal to Howard Levin's uniform.

November 20, 2023

LEVIN | My Grandfather Couldn’t Come to Cornell. But I’m Here Now

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Howard Levin, my grandfather, was 17 years old when he lied to the Army recruiter about his age. The year was 1942 — the height of the Second World War. Adolf Hitler commanded the fiercest army on Earth with the promise of mechanistically eradicating every single Jew. Crematoria, gas chambers, firing squads, drowning, death marches through the dead of winter, disease and starvation. This was evil on an industrial scale. 

“There were not six million Jews murdered,” said one Holocaust survivor. “There was one murder, six million times.”

My grandfather, a Jew from Brooklyn, knew when he enlisted in the most fatal war in world history that his bravery could play a part in defeating fascism and hatred. An avowed pacifist, Howard trained to be a medic. In the aftermath of D-Day, he was just outside of Normandy, tending to the wounded on the front lines as bullets and bombs whizzed by. 

Caught in the path of approaching Nazis, he used a piano to barricade himself in a house, buying him just enough time to toss his dog tags before being captured. Had he still been wearing those dog tags, which listed his religion for burial purposes, I likely wouldn’t be alive to write this piece. Allied Jewish soldiers caught in Nazi Germany were often summarily executed. 

Enshrined in the family lore of every Jewish household are such close calls. The history of Judaism is a record of the myriad times Jews narrowly defied the odds, from pharaoh to the pogroms that swept Eastern Europe in the early 1900s — the same bloodthirsty lynch mob-style riots that sent Howard’s mother and grandparents fleeing to Ellis Island. Still today, Jews at Cornell and beyond are looking over their shoulders, wondering which of their peers wants them dead

Howard spent 11 grueling months in a prison camp in Essen, Germany. At one point, he was discovered arranging fallen leaves to indicate where in the camp munitions were being stored. Because he was a medic who could be forced to perform surgeries on injured Nazis, they decided not to crucify him onto the side of a train car — the punishment for subversion. 

For nearly a year, he and other starving soldiers subsisted on potato peels and bread crumbs that Nazis threw on the cold dirt floor for them to fight over. Upon liberation, Howard weighed 95 lbs. He never wasted a scrap of food for the rest of his life. 

One fellow inmate was a dean at Ohio State who said he would grant Howard admission if they made it out alive. Howard found out that, not long after the war ended, his friend had died. When he visited the dean’s office at the university, he had been replaced. The new dean, when told about the promise, dismissed my grandfather. “You Jews are always asking for favors,” he said, sitting smugly behind his desk.

Howard, who would go on to become New York City’s chief veterinarian, pursued a college education so he could learn how to heal animals. After being rejected from Ohio State for no other reason than that he was Jewish, he applied to Cornell, which has long ranked among the top vet schools in the nation. It was his dream to come here and forge a future for himself beyond the devastation of war.

He was accepted, but the University said he wouldn’t be able to attend for another five years. The glut of qualified post-war applicants made for extraordinary deferral periods. Howard had a family to provide for and couldn’t wait. His goal of becoming a Cornellian was dashed, though his expectations may not have been high to begin with as admissions offices across the nation used discriminatory policies to limit Jewish enrollment. 

Our University hasn’t always lived up to its motto. But for generations of Jews and other minorities who have applied here, “any person, any study” has always been about more than just education — it’s about finding a refuge, a place where one can feel safe being who they really are. My grandfather was time and again deprived of that basic dignity. 

He may not have been able to attend, but I’m here now. I consider myself blessed: I’m the realization of a dream that took generations of familial effort to make possible. When I applied, though, I didn’t expect to have to confront the kind of horrific anti-Semitism that Howard saw in his lifetime, whether in fighting it overseas or facing it here at home. 

Today, “any person, any study” sounds like just another broken promise as my Jewish classmates experience daily degradation so intrusive that the Department of Education has stepped in to investigate it. It feels like we’re going backwards to a dangerous chapter of history, one that no Jewish student wants to revisit because we know what could come next for us if everyone doesn’t take a decisive stand against prejudice. 

Gabriel Levin is a second-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. His column Almost Fit to Print spans issues in science, social justice and politics. He is the host of Under The Sun, a Cornell Daily Sun opinion podcast. He can be reached at [email protected]

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