With camera and pen, Grandpa conveyed Holocaust horrors to me

Before he became my grandfather, Ralph Levine came up with a plan to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Gazing at his infant daughter (my future mom) and his wife, he swore at the Nazi tyrant for taking him away from his young family and forcing him to fight in a nasty war.

At the time, Ralph didn’t know that he would soon have another reason for wanting Hitler dead. He was to become one of the first U.S. troops to witness the horrors of a concentration camp up-close.

Though he was a housepainter by profession, Ralph’s heart was in writing stories and drawing comic strips. So when he imagined killing Hitler, he put it in a pulpy story with supernatural horror and spine-tingling suspense.

In his imagination, Hitler was raising an army of zombies using an ancient, evil artifact. The hero of the story, after much struggle, kills Hitler and smashes the artifact.

This was before the knowledge of genocide in Europe was widely known.

The real story of his experience fighting the Nazis is more horrible than his fiction.

My now 94-year-old grandfather made it through the mud and blood-soaked misery of the U.S. infantry in World War II by drawing and writing letters home through “v-mail,” basically little telegrams.

In the 3-by-5-inch space, he would draw a picture of his baby girl looking across the ocean and him waving back from the back of a half-track. Driving across freshly liberated France, he would talk about the devastation he saw surrounding the innocents.

He wrote about the abuse he took from the other members of his battalion, including some who had never before met a Jew. My grandfather eventually bonded with them by writing letters and drawing pictures for the men who could barely compose a sentence, to send to their families.

He also wrote about the aura of fear on the battlefield, the agony of waiting in the rain with rations running out. The look of terror on the faces of the Germans whom he shot at and who shot back at him.

As a little boy, I found my grandpa’s drawings and paintings to be magical. I would tell him a story, and he would draw it for me in the moment. I loved his old artworks, which seemed like they should be in a museum. I was 8 or 9 when I started asking questions about the drawings filled with creepy images — the pile of bones, the stack of shoes, the sketch of a man who was too thin. There were also beaten-up photos that showed the same things.

My grandfather, a short man with a gentle demeanor, is blessed with the ability to talk about difficult things in an easy way. He explained to me what those drawings were about in a way that made the Holocaust real, but without giving me nightmares.

As he left for Europe in 1944, rumors of the Holocaust were everywhere but many people had trouble believing them. My grandfather believed.

His company, Patton’s 4th Armored Division, made a beeline for Germany, facing some heavy fire. Whether or not the rumors about the genocide were true was one of the favorite topics in his platoon. That question was settled one day when, trudging through Germany, a powerful odor filled the air.

The stench of decay.

As they got closer to Ohrdorf, a satellite camp of Buchenwald, they could barely breathe. The camp had been left in a hurry. Bodies were freshly killed and stacked, some people were even barely alive. The horror was real and beyond what he had imagined possible.

Whenever my grandfather’s company had gone into a village, the soldiers confiscated all the guns and cameras. As a result he had access to a variety of cameras through Europe and even set up makeshift darkrooms along the way to develop what he could.

He responded to Ohrdorf by doing what he knew how to do best — by capturing the horror for others to see with a camera and with his pen.

Grandpa’s photos and drawings sat in a drawer for a long time after the war. I’d pore over them almost every time I visited him in Los Angeles when I’d drive down from San Francisco. They now rest in the archives of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in L.A.

For me, his courage to document the horror and explain it to me nurtured my ability to understand the world. It can be a beautiful and terrible place. The moral thing to do is to capture the experience for the world to know.

Jay Schwartz can be reached at [email protected].