Judith and Zoltan Lefkovits survived the Holocaust and came to the United States in the late 1950s — “separately,” the couple said in unison. Their families’ harrowing experiences created a generational bond to support Israel and the military that protects the Jewish state.
The Lefkovitses, along with their daughter, Malky, and her husband, Jay Spector, were honored at the eighth annual Friends of Israel Defense Forces South Shore community dinner at the Sands in Atlantic Beach on May 15. Officials said it was the organization’s most successful event to date, drawing a crowd of 550 and raising more than $400,000, the highest total ever.
“Lone soldiers” of the IDF — those who do not have immediate family in Israel — were also saluted for their service, including Cedarhurst resident Sergeant Yehuda. (Last names are never given, to protect the soldiers.) FIDF officials said that the Five Towns and other South Shore communities send the largest contingent of young men and women to serve as lone soldiers. They are typically immigrants, orphans or Israeli-born and estranged from their families.
“We can’t take the soldiers for granted,” Jay Spector said, explaining why he and Malky are avid FIDF supporters. “They protect us.” The Spectors helped organize the first South Shore community dinner nine years ago, hosting a meeting in their Lawrence home.
Like many survivors’, the tales the Lefkovitses, residents of Woodmere, can recall are harrowing, and have been source material for movies. Both are originally from Hungary, and have families of Polish descent. Judith’s, father, Michael, owned a factory, and as he followed events in Poland in 1939, he oversaw the construction of bunkers under the factory. He subsequently hid more than 50 people for eight months, even after the Nazis commandeered the factory and transformed it into an ammunitions plant.
Judith recalled the day near the end of World War II when she walked to the house where her grandparents were hiding. “I was not 4 yet,” she said. “There was a ladder going down to the bunker. It was Friday afternoon, and I had not seen my father for eight months. As I climbed down, I glimpsed at the table set for Shabbat with a clean white tablecloth. I felt like I had climbed a ladder into heaven.”
Her father’s side of the family survived the Holocaust, but, except for her grandfather on her mother’s side, the rest of Judith’s family was among the 1.1 million people killed at the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Zoltan, born into a family of 12, survived six concentration camps and displayed the kind of bravery usually seen in soldiers. With his mother ailing in an Austrian camp, Zoltan, then 10, would sneak out and beg for food. According to one story, he knocked on a door, a woman answered and, despite the fact that her husband was in the German army, she gave him food.
Eight of his nine siblings survived, and Zoltan’s family returned to Hungary, as did Judith’s. Both became ardent Zionists. Zoltan wanted to go to Israel, but he was the youngest son, and his father, who loved him dearly, did not allow it. “We are very, very pro-Israel — Israel means a lot to us,” Zoltan said. “Every year since 1966 we’ve been to Israel, our children have been to Israel.”
He visited Vienna in 1956, where the U.S. embassy offered to resettle him in the U.S. Despite being told not to, Zoltan returned to Hungary, collected his family, 40 other people and the town’s rabbi, and they all came to America. Three years later — the same year Judith’s family came from Vienna — he moved to New York. They met at a wedding, and married in 1960.
“I feel very fortunate,” Malky said. “My parents were very open, and spoke about their experience to me and my brother very often. There should never be a generation like that again, God forbid. Holocaust survivors should be called builders, because they came here and built a life.”
Established in 1981, the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces has more than 150,000 supporters and 23 chapters across the U.S. and Panama. It offers lone soldiers cultural, educational, recreational and social programs, and an array of services.
Lawrence resident and renowned criminal attorney Ben Brafman has emceed events since the organization’s inception. “I’ve been a master of ceremonies probably at more than 100 dinners and charitable events in the last five years, and all of them are important, but this might be the most important one,” he said. “It’s incumbent on all of us to support the soldiers of the IDF, as they protect Jews not only in Israel but around the world. We have to step up and show our support.”