Robert Levitt – Historian
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While working in the archives of the Alpes-Maritimes in Nice, France, sorting Holocaust-era documents related to a 20th century politician in Vichy France, American historian Robert Levitt ran across a letter that gripped his attention like no other. It was a letter from a man about to be deported by the Gestapo because they were convinced he was Jewish, when in actuality, he was not. It was a letter that made him realize that he had moved to one of the most important cities for Jews in World War II, and also a city with a long Jewish history.
Nice is one of the rare places where Jewish history is everywhere and alive. In almost every apartment building there is a story and those stories weren’t just of the twentieth century, but throughout history. The first Jew was discovered in the region in Roman times, and during the medieval period, Jews who were expelled from England, France, Spain, Portugal, Rhodes, Gibraltar and many more came to Nice to find refuge. In the Second World War, Nice was the last refuge for Jews in Europe and it is estimated that as many as 50,000 Jews came to Nice to find shelter. Nowhere else in France could one find kosher food, or wear traditional rabbinical garb, nor speak Yiddish openly on the streets, except in Nice. That is until September 8, 1943 when the Italians quit the war and the Germans invaded the city.
Unlike elsewhere, everything remains in Nice. Nothing was destroyed by bombs and it all remains operating. The 19th century synagogue remains the primary synagogue in the city. The places local Niçois walk by every day, were the places frequented during the war, or where Jews were saved or captured. Even the famous hotels where Jews were rounded-up or interrogated and tortured remain open today, although their history is little known and often hidden.
Robert, who is writing a doctoral thesis on Jews in Nice in the 13th-15th centuries at the université de Perpignan, will illuminate us about history of the city of Nice through the prism of Jewish history and take us on a tour of our own city in a way most haven’t seen before. Robert is a partner in the archival and research firm Via Nissa.