Berkeley architect reconstructs wartime, refugee past

Ed Levitch harbors no illusions about becoming a famed author. Yet last year, at age 73, the Berkeley architect published his first book: an autobiography about his family's frantic scramble to safety during World War II.

Now he is completing a sequel.

"I love to write," says the head of Levitch Associates, Architects and Contractors.

"I think people should write their story, no matter how bizarre or meaningless [it may seem]. Families need to be connected," he says, adding that spoken words "are easily forgotten."

Levitch, who is the divorced father of four sons, makes no secret of his motivation for self-publishing. In the introduction to his book, "From Beginning To Beginning," he notes, "When I started writing my biography I was 61 years old. My relation to my children was shaky. My desire for them to know me better was very strong. I felt that they would benefit from my life's stories compressed into a book…

"I hope that I may become an inspiration to other parents to tell their stories to their children. By doing this we contribute to new generations the unmistakable link that humans appear to need to their past."

His family's arduous wartime journey began in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1941 and included nearly 20 relocations, including a lengthy stay in an Italian internment camp for Yugoslavian Jews, before the family ultimately reached safe harbor in New York in 1944. There were often times of lengthy separations between the father, Josif Levi, and the rest of the family — wife Fortune, sons Edward and Leon, and daughter Manon.

Their arrival in America left little time for celebration: They were quickly whisked off by train to a refugee camp in Oswego, N.Y., where they spent nearly two years before becoming naturalized citizens. At that point, Jewish Family Services paid the family's trainfare to California and gave them temporary lodging at a home for Jewish seniors in the dusty San Fernando Valley town of Reseda.

Josif, a pharmacist by trade, found a job as a clerk in a North Hollywood drugstore. Fortune accepted piece-work as a seamstress.

Levitch, then 21, was drafted into the Army, serving in the Corps of Engineers.

Though his family quickly put down roots — Josif opened a drugstore and the younger siblings concentrated on their schooling — Levitch became involved in Hashomer Hatsair, which he describes as "a Jewish Palestinian socialist movement dedicated to establishing socialist kibbutz life." He worked as a carpenter and made plans for aliyah.

By 1949, he was living on a kibbutz near Haifa. Levitch spent two years in Israel, reconnecting with relatives there and eventually leaving the kibbutz to work in a construction firm before returning to the United States

"Beginnings" ends with a one-page epilogue detailing his parents' declining years: their depression, his father's death by suicide, his mother's death at age 91. Levitch's new book, which is nearly finished but still untitled, will delve more into his adult life in the United States.

Looking back, the traumas of life-on-the-run, refugee camps and poverty pale in comparison to "the two major events in my life," says Levitch — his father's suicide in 1963 and his own divorce in 1974. "They shook me," but didn't deter his determination to become successful.

Levitch was eager to adapt to American ways. While establishing his Berkeley business in the early 1960s, "I was very conscious of being a Jew." He was apprehensive that his religion might have a negative impact on his commercial success.

Eventually, his fears disappeared. "I'm proud of being Jewish and I always share that," he says. Levitch supports Jewish causes and "Chabadniks," serves on the board of Jewish Family and Children's Services of the East Bay and has returned to Israel twice, taking time to "revisit some of the buildings I helped build" as a young man.

He's sent copies of his book to friends and clients, and has given readings to groups such as B'nai B'rith Oakland Lodge.

He remains close to his sister Manon, who works in his office, and speaks highly of his brother Leon, a composer in Los Angeles.

As for the book's impact on his sons, Levitch says, "It's hard to tell. We're too close together, and it may be that they will know me better after I am gone — through the books and through my actions."

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.