Maurice "Morry" Levitas (Moishe ben Hillel)
Born February 1st 1917, died February 14th 2001 – Levitas was by then one of the last surviving Irish veterans who served with the International Brigade in the fight against Fascism in Spain. Born in Dublin‘s Warren Street, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of artisan housing in the Portobello area. The families of his parents, Harry Levitas (his family name was Kovno, from the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmeyan) and Leah Rick (whose family came from the Latvian capital of Riga) had fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Tsarist Russia to join relatives already residing in Dublin. Harry went to Ireland in 1912 and Leah was born in Dublin on 1st February 1917. It was to prove to be a life-saving choice for Morry and his part of the extended family.
Leah Rick’s sister and family, with the exception of a daughter who had emigrated to Palestine and a son in the Red Army, all perished in Nazi gas chambers. Harry Levitas’s sister and all her family were among those herded into the local synagogue and burned to death, while a brother who had emigrated to Paris was shot by the Gestapo in the closing stages of the war. Such family experiences reconfirmed Maurice Levitas in his lifelong fight against Fascism.
He attended St Peter’s Church of Ireland National School whilst his father struggled to earn a living, sometimes dealing in scrap metal, but more often as a tailor’s presser. These childhood years were marked by poverty as well as personal tragedy, when Maurice Levitas’s year-old brother, Isaac, died in March 1923.
His father and and two uncles were active in the Dublin-based International Tailors’, Pressers’ and Machinists’ Trade Union, known to Dubliners as the "Jewish Union". With his three brothers and sister, he absorbed socialism and a love of Jewish culture and Yiddish. The result of which gave him a passion for learning and argument — and a large repertoire of Yiddish songs. Proud of his heritage, he later wrote articles under his Hebrew patronymic, Moishe ben Hillel.
Economic circumstances forced the Levitas family to emigrate to Glasgow in 1927 and to the East End of London in 1931. Maurice began employment in a series of upholstery shops, but soon began working on building sites, first as a labourer and subsequently as a plumber.
His political consciousness had already been awakened during his childhood in Dublin by his father, who was a communist supporter. Maurice Levitas joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1933. As secretary of the Young Communist League’s Bethnal Green Branch he was to the forefront in the struggle against the British Union of Fascists, most notably in October 1936 at the "Battle of Cable Street", an experience that prompted him to volunteer for service in Spain.
In December 1937, Levitas enlisted in the International Brigade to fight against Fascism, in Spain. During January and February 1938 he was in action at Belchite and Teruel on the Aragon front. On March 31st he was captured by Italian Fascist troops near the town of Gandesa, along with Irish Republican Congress leader Frank Ryan.
At one point, he was marched off with his fellow prisoners to dig their own graves. By some quirk of fate, the guards changed their minds, after which he spent a year in San Pedro, one of Franco’s prison camps. Often beaten, he was subjected to “scientific" measurements by visiting Nazis, testing their theories" about the shape and size of Jewish skulls, before being released in March 1939. He spent the next nine months imprisoned in the Spanish concentration camp at San Pedro de Cardena, subject to arbitrary beatings from camp guards and interrogation and "scientific" measurements carried out by visiting German Gestapo agents.
On January 6th 1939, he was transferred to San Sebastian prison, with its own horrific environment of systematic executions of Basque prisoners. He was released on February 6th as part of a prisoner exchange sought by Mussolini. One of his first acts was to visit Dublin on February 27th to speak at a public meeting calling for the release of the well-known republican leader, Frank Ryan.
In 1942, Levitas enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and served in India and Burma. In 1948, having resumed employment as a plumber, he was offered a place in an emergency Teachers’ TrainingCollege. After qualifying, he spent the period from 1949 teaching in secondary modern schools in the London area, using drama to get through to difficult pupils; some, in Ladbroke Grove, were coached to produce stirring productions of St. Joan and The Merchant of Venice.
During this period he also became secretary of the Communist Party’s Hammersmith branch. He obtained an honours B. Sc. Degree in sociology as an external student of LondonUniversity. In 1966, he was appointed senior lecturer in the sociology of education at DurhamCollege. His book, Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education, was published in 1974, a text obviously much influenced by his own personal history.
Although he opposed the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he remained an unwavering Party member. Levitas was also an effective and compelling old-style soapbox orator. After retirement from university, he taught English in an East German school from 1985, the Karl Liebknecht Hochschule in Potsdam. He also renewed friendships with the few surviving German anti-Fascist fighters with whom he had shared imprisonment in San Pedro.
He returned to London in 1990 and joined the Communist Party of Britain. Ever loyal to those who had also committed themselves to the anti-Fascist struggle in the decade prior to the second World War, he denounced the prosecution and imprisonment in Berlin of the former East German president, Erich Honecker. He highlighted Honecker’s 10 years of imprisonment by the Nazis and tirelessly worked at editing and translating “Erich Honecker Cross Examined”, which he published in 1992.
Even in his late 70s, Levitas could often be seen on demonstrations, particularly those against racial injustice. In the 1990s, as an old brigader, he was awarded Spanish citizenship and, with other surviving Irish veterans of the International Brigades, he was given a civic reception by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. On May 4th, 1991, he was chosen by his fellow veterans to read out the roll of honour of those Irishmen who had sacrificed their lives in defence of the SpanishRepublic, on the occasion of the unveiling of the Liberty Hall plaque in their memory by the Lord Mayor of Dublin. He again returned to Liberty Hall on May 12th, 1996, for the unveiling of the James Connolly statue by the then President, Mrs Mary Robinson. Maurice Levitas paid his last visit to Spain in November 1996 to receive the right to citizenship conferred on all International Brigade veterans by unanimous decision of the Spanish parliament. This he regarded as the ultimate vindi-cation by the Spanish people of his fight against Fascism 60 years previously. The vindication of his native city followed in the wake of his 80th birthday, when he visited the Mansion House on February 14th, 1997, and was accorded a civic reception by the Lord Mayor and Dublin City Council in honour of the five surviving Irish veterans.
Guardian 7th March 2001; The Irish Times Saturday, February 24, 2001
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