Septuagenarian savors graduation, golden anniversary

Ask the typical undergraduate what she'll do upon receiving her diploma, and her answer could easily be a panicky "who knows?"

Ask Eva Levi what her post-graduation plans are, and her response is more along the lines of a casual "who cares?"

"Well, I'm 72, so I think I'll take it easy for a while," said the oldest graduating member of San Franciso State University's class of 2000. Levi laughed, paused briefly, then reconsidered.

"On the other hand, maybe I'll get my master's when I'm 90."

She is not one to sit still too long. Even as she rehearsed for Saturday's graduation, the San Francisco resident was eagerly anticipating the commemoration of yet another walk down the aisle. On Sunday, she and her husband celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary.

"I'm very proud of what she's been able to accomplish," said 78-year-old Max Levi, "and I'm thrilled that we've been able to spend the last 50 years of our life together.

"This weekend is going to be rich, warm and full of memories," added Levi, who serves on the regional executive board of the Anti-Defamation League.

Eva Levi's circuitous odyssey to college graduation is par for the course.

In the spring of 1939, she and her family took what she called "the slow boat to China" to escape Nazi persecution. The journey from their Berlin home to Shanghai took more than three months, with a considerable amount of time spent traveling around the horn of Africa.

When her family left Germany, it was the last year Jews were allowed to emigrate before being sent to the death camps, Levi said. The family was prompted to leave when a cadre of SS officers came to arrest her father, who was not home at the time.

"We left very soon after that," she recalled. "The warning signs were getting really grim. Restaurants didn't want to serve you; Nazi youth brigades were holding rallies saying 'kill the Jews,' and schoolteachers were very pro-Hitler."

Living in Shanghai for nearly a decade was a mixed bag.

"It was very shocking at first, because we had to leave all of our possessions behind," Levi said. "We had to live in displaced-person camps for quite a few months before we were able to move back into a home."

Levi studied English during her teenage years in Shanghai, and also apprenticed in a medical laboratory. She received a well-rounded education while living in the Asian port city, she said. But there was one subject she never mastered.

"I know just a few phrases in Chinese," said Levi. "But when I lived there, it was still a very international city, so you could exist in your own community without having to learn the language."

According to Levi, Shanghai then had a Jewish community of 20,000 people — mostly refugees from Europe — with a smattering of wealthy Russian émigrés who had lived there prior to the war.

"We had thriving synagogues, theaters, hospitals, and an artistic community," she said.

At 20, she and her mother moved to San Francisco's Richmond district (her father and brother died while in Shanghai). Since Levi already spoke English, she was able to enroll in night classes at Galileo High School, and complete a General Equivalency Degree.

Her academic career took a major detour when she married Max, another émigré from Germany, whom she met through mutual friends over a half-century ago.

Like most of the seminal events in Levi's life, graduating from a university required taking a longer path than the norm. Instead of four or five years, she studied over the course of 18 years. Now, the mother of three and grandmother of four, is wrapping it up.

"Well, I didn't want to overload myself," she said, laughing. "So I took a few courses every year, first at [S.F.] City College, and then at [S.F.] State."

Levi felt accepted by almost all of her classmates, and faced little discrimination on campus because of her age, she noted.

That is not to say she didn't occasionally feel uncomfortable on S.F. State's campus.

"There was a lot of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish demonstrations," she recalled. "I tried to avoid it, but it really made me nervous. I don't like all that excitement and uproar."

Nonetheless, the liberal studies major has unwittingly found herself at the center of a minor media storm. She has been interviewed by three local television stations and two local newspapers, and is rapidly learning the art of sound bites.

But Levi is well equipped to handle the vicissitudes of fame, according to her daughter.

"My mom is too low-key to get wrapped up in all the media coverage," said Connie Levi. "We're really proud of her for seeing her goals through. And what's really neat is that she used to study some of the same subjects as my kids. So they could talk about Greek mythology, or botany.

"My mom is a terrific role model. She's showing my children that love of learning doesn't end when you're 25 — and that education keeps people young."

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