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William P. Levine, 1915-2013
Army veteran recalled horrors at Nazi concentration camp to students, museum visitors
By Bob Goldsborough, Special to the Tribune
April 22, 2013
William P. Levine was an Army intelligence officer who was among the first Allied troops to arrive at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany as World War II was ending.
He entered Dachau on April 29, 1945, encountering starving, frightened survivors alongside dead bodies strewn everywhere, said his wife, Rhoda.
The memories were so painful that Mr. Levine, who was one of the Army's higher-ranking Jewish officers, couldn't bring himself to share them with anyone for almost four decades after the war.
"He used to say it was for self-preservation — that it was easier to forget it," his wife said.
By the early 1980s, Mr. Levine became more comfortable talking about his experiences. He was a frequent public speaker on the Holocaust, describing what he saw to high school and college students and to visitors at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
"Every time he'd talk about it, when he'd come to the sentence, 'And then I came to Dachau,' he'd break down," his wife said. "He couldn't get that sentence out without the vivid memory of it. That choked him up."
Mr. Levine, 97, died of respiratory failure Friday, March 29, at his Highland Park home, his wife said. He had lived in the North Shore suburb for more than 60 years.
He spent 30 years in the Army Reserve, attaining the rank of major general. In his private career, he was the president of the Illinois sales agency for his family's plastics corporation.
In retirement, he spent time managing the construction of a Jewish day school in Northbrook, two synagogues in Deerfield and a synagogue in Highland Park.
"The general was the one who looked over our shoulders to make sure we were doing it right," said Nate Pickus, retired head of Pickus Construction, which was a part of those three projects. "He was very organized and very fair."
Born in Duluth, Minn., Mr. Levine attended the University of Minnesota. He briefly worked in retail sales before he was drafted in 1942. Mr. Levine soon became an officer.
As the war ended in Europe, Mr. Levine was part of a forward team of investigators that liberated the concentration camp at Dachau, near Munich, his wife said. What he saw left a deep impression.
Decades later, Mr. Levine started to discuss his experiences because of what he felt was the need to educate others. "For me, the most important and effective method of preventing another Holocaust is truth and education," he told the Tribune in 1995.
After the war, Mr. Levine remained in Europe with the Army, helping to operate a displaced-persons camp. He was involved in feeding, clothing and eventually resettling more than 5,000 Holocaust survivors, said his son-in-law, Jonathan Plotkin.
In 1962, President John Kennedy awarded Mr. Levine the first of the two stars he would earn. He retired from the Army Reserves in 1975 as a major general.
Mr. Levine and his brothers and cousins founded a small plastics company in Duluth in 1946 that made advertising signs and point-of-purchase displays. In 1948, he moved to the Chicago area to establish a separate sales agency for the firm. Mr. Levine was president of the sales agency, known as Lakeside Plastics Sales Co., until retiring in 1975.
In his 1970s, Mr. Levine served as the construction project manager for north suburban Jewish organizations, using some of the experience he had acquired while in World War II. At one point during the war, the Army asked him to command a company of engineers. With no background in engineering, Mr. Levine was sent by the Army to engineering school, giving him the skills to become an engineer commander, his wife said.
Mr. Levine put that training to work overseeing the building of the Solomon Schechter Day School in Northbrook and two synagogues in Deerfield, Moriah Congregation and B'nai Tikvah. Mr. Levine also oversaw the expansion and renovation of North Suburban Synagogue Beth El in Highland Park.
"He was the liaison between the team assembled to build and the owner itself," said architect Phil Kupritz, who worked with Mr. Levine on the Northbrook and Deerfield projects. "He was a great communicator. When decisions had to be made on either side, he was a good facilitator, and he understood the need to focus on the real task, which was to get a project completed. He was a person who saw himself as being able to get something done."
Also in retirement, Mr. Levine served as chairman of a retired officers association for the Army covering numerous Midwestern states, his son-in-law said.
His first wife, Leah, died in 1975. He married again in 1980.
Mr. Levine also is survived by a son, John; a daughter, Maxine Souza; three stepdaughters, Susan Kreiter Margolis, Shelley Kreiter-Solow, and Robin Kreiter Plotkin; a brother, Robert; and eight grandchildren.
Services were held.
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