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Touching history

A Brattleboro professor’s life takes him from the Holocaust to the U.S. and the Civil Rights movement

BRATTLEBORO—First of all, William Leons doesn’t especially like being identified as one of the “hidden children” of the Holocaust, which he was. Nor does he necessarily like being labelled as a Holocaust survivor, which he is.

“I’ve lived 99 percent of my life not being a Holocaust survivor,” he points out.

He’s more tolerant of being identified as a Freedom Rider during the days of the civil rights movement.

“I see a continuity in that I was discriminated against as a Jew,” Leons said, referring to the brutal enforcement of the segregation of African-Americans here.

It’s the victim status that troubles him.

Nonetheless, his biography includes all of the above, and the experiences are all part of his path, from the Netherlands at age 14 to Wantastiquet Drive at age 75.

A man of many interests, an avid photographer, a cultural anthropologist with advanced degrees from UCLA and Penn State, Leons taught that subject at the University of Toledo in Ohio for 35 years, retiring in 2010.

He’s written two academic books and has published articles in countless journals. On his side table is the widely praised novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, in part about imprisoned women in 18th-century Japan.

Tall, lean, and imposing, Leons looks more like a headmaster at Choate than anything else when he answers the door at his carefully landscaped house.

And his life there, with his wife Kim and their two affectionate dogs, Basil and Skipper, is lived in what appears to be a sea of tranquility, totally absent of victims.

Leons and his mother came to the United States in December 1949.

“My mother just had enough of war, hunger, and the rather soft resistance on the part of the Dutch,” Leons said, making his family story seem just a run-of-the-mill immigration.

Their only other living relative is a cousin, the son of his father’s brother.

The others were all killed.

The fireworks

“The war began in Holland in May 1940 when [the Germans] bombed Rotterdam, but it had become clear in the early ’30s that Hitler meant nothing good for the Jews,” Leons said.

His parents applied for a transit visa, but it didn’t come in time, he explained, adding that the “Dutch are mostly very law abiding, although the people on the left were less compliant.”

The Dutch declared Rotterdam (where the family lived) and Amsterdam “open cities,” which meant no defense.

“I was frightened by the bombing of Rotterdam,” Leons recalled. “I was standing in front of the window in the kitchen and I ran in to tell my parents about the fireworks.”

They knew, of course, that the bombers were German planes.

There were about 6,000 poor-to-lower-middle-class Jews in Rotterdam before World War II, nearly an indigenous people, having settled there in the late 15th century as refugees during the Spanish Inquisition.

“And now they were immigrants again, fleeing the Nazis,” Leons observed.

According to calculations by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dutch Jews numbered more than 180,000 before the Germans invaded.

The elimination of most of that population, either by expulsion to camps, where they were murdered, or by murders prior to deportation, made Holland the only country that lost a higher proportion of Jews than Poland, Leons said.

About 30,000 survived, mostly hidden.

Survival and betrayal

The lives of Leons and his mother from early on in the war were dictated by flight.

“My mother took a few things: a woolen blanket (that my daughter now has), one or two other household things, and we had the clothes on our backs,” he said.

His memories of that time are characterized by specifics: an old man, bread-cutting machines, the little suit he was in and how he was scared when it got dirty when he was playing.

He wondered how his mother might react.

“My mother was in a frenzy, cleaning for Shabbos [a Jewish traditional weekly ritual that begins before sunset on Fridays],” he said, emphasizing the bizarre nature of these rituals while living in fields or staying a few days in empty warehouses.

The Jews who survived lived mostly as nomads during the war, always moving, always frightened.

Leons describes his life as a young boy. “I was disconcerted — no friends, no house, always on the run. But life went on. I remember visiting my father’s brother in Rotterdam. He was a flower merchant.”

The rest of his father’s family was eliminated in one way or another during the German occupation.

Leons reported with cynical clarity the “bureaucratic obsessions of the Germans.”

One day his mother received a letter from a German bureaucrat telling her that a relative in Auschwitz “had died of lung disease.”

Leons describes his mother as strong and “leftish and trying to find a way out of Holland — to Spain, Africa, to a new world.”

There were numerous betrayals of the Leons. “Most betrayers did it for money,” he said.

“Never trust a window washer,” Leons said of a specific betrayal that left his family in danger.

It finally came down to Leons’ mother explaining to him that if ever he saw officials on bikes or in vans, to go immediately to the “green grocer’s store.”

And one day Leons was out “playing soccer with my thuggish friends” and saw officials.

So, he said, his mother put a sweater on him and told him to go with to the green grocer.

“I looked up at a policeman and he pushed me out the door, and it was the last time I saw my mother until the end of the war,” he recalled.

The Communist underground played a role in finding a place for him with a Mennonite couple. “They had a son and a daughter,” Leons recalled.

“My mother was in Vught, a concentration camp in Holland where they killed people at random,” Leons added. “They hang[ed] a couple a day.”

Toward the end of the war, in October 1944, Vught was liberated by English and Canadian troops.

Leons, then 9 years old, happened to be living about 20 miles from Vught when the Germans deserted.

With the help of a series of underground connections, Leons and his mother were reunited. He had not seen her for more than two years.

“I was pretty cool and traumatized,” he recalled. “She started crying.”

She took him “back to our little house in the village of Overschie,” just north of Rotterdam and now a neighborhood within that city.

“I was glad to be with my mother, but I was starving and jaundiced,” he said.

Leons remembers his mother’s response to his constant demands for food: “‘Oh, be quiet — you just got food two days ago.’”

“She used irony most of the time,” he explained.

Leons has clear memories of seeing Canadian and Royal Air Force planes dropping packages of food, and the heavy vehicles of the allies soon after taking control of the country.

He also recalls his mother saying that, had the Germans confronted her, she would have “[shot] the kid and then myself.”

He said he thinks about that part of his life since retirement, more or less constantly, conjuring images of details that are “too intimate” to really describe.

But he does say a little, describing the “haunting images of killing, of a little boy hiding, of corpses, of men standing at the gate.”

“It doesn’t get any easier as you get old,” he said. “I psychologically try to figure it out.”

But, he adds, he doesn’t come to any conclusions.

On U.S. soil

Leons and his mother came to the United States as passengers on the Veendam, a Holland America Line ship that itself was captured by the Germans during the battle of Rotterdam and used during the war.

They docked some days later in Hoboken, N.J., and the mother and son “walked down the street to look for an apartment.” He remembers the one they found “had spectacular views of Manhattan.”

As his mother did, Leons maintains a slightly ironic tone relating all these unusual events.

Life in New Jersey for Leons meant taking the ferry as often as possible to Manhattan, where he “spent hundreds of hours in museums,” he said.

New York City, which he loved and explored, “made me choose anthropology,” Leons explained.

The trajectory of his life from then on could be said to be typically American.

He attended high school, but he did so at night because he had to work during the day. And he took a drive across the country in an ancient 1947 Studebaker to see a friend who was a student at the University of Southern California. (Gas was 26 cents per gallon, he recalled.)

From California to the Civil Rights Movement

Leons speaks of his next five years matter-of-factly but expressively, with a slight smile and with his eyebrows, often raised.

He established residency in California by attending Los Angeles City College, where he was vice president of his class, before he could enroll at UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles).

He was accepted there, and during his time at UCLA in the early 1960s, the country was roiled by the expanding civil rights battles.

A devoted reader of newspapers, he learned about Bull Connor, the Alabama sheriff made famous by use of water hoses and police dogs to attack black protesters.

Leons was then easily recruited by active civil-rights worker Robert Singleton, a graduate student at UCLA, to join in the heady protests of those days.

Off he went to the American South in 1961, where he and 14 others rode an Illinois Central train from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss., where he was arrested and sent to jail. He recalls lots of singing and noise-making on cell bars.

Leons was eventually sent to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm, where he spent about a month in repellant conditions.

The protesters were eventually freed, and Leons returned to California to finish his master’s degree at UCLA. He married and he and his wife eventually moved to the Pittsburgh area, where they took teaching jobs.

His goal was to get his Ph.D., and he soon enrolled at Pennsylvania State University. He spent more than two years in Bolivia writing his dissertation, “Dimensions of Pluralism in a Changing Bolivian Community.”

In describing the “arc of his life,” Leons noted that he had “a pretty dramatic childhood from the ages 4 to 14. But after that I felt I could make of myself as I wanted.”

He calls his own political liberalism “all part of a pattern. My three kids are not as concerned with politics.”

He credits role models in college, as well as the professors he met back in New Jersey when he worked delivering mail at a local college.

“I was talking with all these Ph.D.s, and I was fascinated with physics,” he recalled.

So many things are determined by chance, Leons says. “Things happen to you, fortuitous events [that matter later] if you can freeze the moment.”

His mother had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and died when he was 61, a milestone that, as he remembers it, put him in a trance for a time.

“I remember crossing the street without looking for cars,” he said.

‘Happy in Vermont’

Leons’ worldview, he observes, is determined by his own experiences and is influenced by individuals whose intellect appeals to him. One such person is anthropologist Eric Wolf.

“To explain society, it is important to see it in historical context as within a larger community,” argues Wolf, who did research on historical colonial expansion and the implications of capitalist penetration for tribal peoples.

Leons has read widely on Holocaust literature, which also supports his interest in issues such as race, class, religion, imperialism, and colonialism — “whatever was germane to what I was teaching,” he said.

And he said he’s “probably developed simply a jaundiced view of the world.”

“As human beings, we are our own worst enemies, the most dangerous species on earth,” Leons said.

Apart from radiation treatment for cancer, Leons emphasizes the peace he now enjoys in his house and garden with Kim and the dogs.

“I’m happy in Vermont,” he declared.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #162 (Wednesday, July 25, 2012).

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