Gidon Lev was busy sending an email to Steven Spielberg. Gidon insisted that the famed filmmaker and director would undoubtedly be V E R Y interested in making a film adaptation of his book, The True Adventures of Gidon Lev.
First, I had no idea that Spielberg’s middle name was Allan. Second, I had spent a decade of my life working in the periphery of Hollywood as a lowly script reader. I knew that Gidon was destined for disappointment. The odds that an email riddled with typos would actually reach Spielberg, not to mention, move him to write back are incredibly low. But Gidon had already beat the odds so many times in his life, so who was I to say?
With his merry blue eyes, shock of white hair, and mischievous grin, Gidon Lev did not fit my image of a Holocaust survivor. But then, he was the only one I had ever met. Of the 15,000 children imprisoned in or transported through the Nazi concentration camp of Theresienstadt, fewer than 100 survived. Gidon is one of those children.
In Theresienstadt, the younger children lived an almost feral life, shifting for themselves while their parents worked as slave laborers. Gidon spent his time vying for an extra rotten potato and avoiding beatings. When he was liberated, he was severely malnourished, disoriented, and could barely read or write. A few months later, Gidon discovered that his father was not coming home. He had been transported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz.
I met Gidon in 2017. He was looking for an editor. He had written thousands of words about his life story, and he wanted me to help him turn that into a book. I turned him down flat. It was impossible, I explained. I was not qualified to take on such a serious topic as the Holocaust, and I had no experience writing biographies. But Gidon does not take “impossible” for an answer. Not only did he convince me that I absolutely could help him write this book, but he also charmed me in the process. Reader, I fell for the subject of the book. Gidon is, as I call him, my Loving Life Buddy. The peanut butter to my jelly. My best friend and life partner, even with our 29 year age difference.
A few months ago — B.C. — Before Corona — Gidon and I went to see JoJo Rabbit in a theater. I was excited. I’d seen the previews and was primed for the ironic, intellectual and clever wit. As the film began, suddenly, I was overcome with anxiety. What a stupid move, to see a comedy about Adolf Hitler with a person who had been in a Nazi concentration camp! What was I thinking? But I was wrong to worry. Hitler may have stolen Gidon’s childhood and destroyed his family, but he couldn’t take away his joyful spirit and sense of humor. Gidon laughed uproariously at Hitler, portrayed as an unhinged buffoon. He cheered for the funny, heroic, vulnerable children. He could relate to their earnestness and dreams of freedom, acceptance, and safety.
Of course, being a child survivor of the Holocaust has affected Gidon’s psychology deeply, in myriad ways. Some of these echoes remain unarticulated, and others are closer to the surface. Gidon loves to “beat the system,” take shortcuts and get away with things while I prefer following “the rules” and “making plans.” Gidon considers questionable looking food found in the back of the fridge perfectly edible, while I hold the trash can lid open. He has a mischievous, devil-may-care, Peter Pan way about him, which is exactly why I fell in love with him.
Once more, I tried to explain to Gidon that it was improbable that Steven Allan Spielberg would ever see his email. I must admit that briefly, I harbored a vision of a fleet-footed, ruby-cheeked intern with a baseball hat on backwards running down the hallway, wildly waving a piece of paper that had Gidon’s email printed on it — Mr. Spielberg! Mr. Spielberg! You’ve got mail! Roll the credits. It was a dream.
Steven Allan Spielberg, I told Gidon, gets a lot of emails. Gidon watched me patiently until I was done explaining. He allowed a polite second or two to go by. “Okay,” he said. “But he might see this one.” And then he hit “send.”
The email bounced back, of course. Which email address Gidon had used or where he got it, I don’t know. Typos were likely the culprit. For a man who can speak three languages, Gidon is famed for his wonky spelling.
Still, Gidon has not given up. He asks me over and over whether I know anyone – ANYONE – who knows Spielberg? I once saw Spielberg on a studio lot as he got out of his car and went into a sound stage. I was at least 100 meters away. We didn’t exactly have a meaningful conversation.
Probably in the next few weeks or months, Gidon will slowly give up on this idea. Or maybe not. Only time will tell. In a long life lived in extraordinary times that ranged from a genocidal nightmare to going zip lining for his 85th birthday, to Gidon Lev, nothing is impossible, and hope – even crazy hope – is something worth having.