Date of Birth: 1910
Date of Death: 1993
Place of Birth: Poland
At the end of 1993, while sitting shiva for their beloved 83-year-old aunt, several of Jennie Levenson’s nieces stumbled upon an old Winkelman’s department store box that had been stored in her Southfield apartment. To the ladies’ amazement, the box contained more than 100 letters and postcards written more than 50 years earlier in Yiddish, Polish, and German--most of them by a man in Poland named Jozef Perla. The box also contained photographs taken in Poland in 1939 of Jennie with individuals unknown to surviving family members. So began the unfolding of a family mystery, a poignant story of love, perseverance, loss, and grief.
The letters (translated largely by Saul Hankin, a University of Michigan Judaic studies student) expose the tragedy that shadowed Jennie’s life from 1939 on. Her surviving family members were aware that she had gone to Poland just prior to WWII and had married. But they did not know what had happened to her husband. Jennie Levenson never remarried, never had children, and never talked about her husband or the circumstances under which her marriage ended.
Jennie's parents, Louis (Lewi) and Anna (Chana) Levenson, were from the Russian partition of Poland, where they were married and where all five of their daughters, including the middle child Jennie (Jenta), were born. As was the case for many immigrants from Eastern Europe, Louis came first, alone, to the United States. He established Levenson Wallpaper (a paint and wallpaper store) on Detroit's Chene Street in 1916. Four years later he brought his wife and daughters to join him. Louis was at best moderately successful in business. But his middle daughter, Jennie, was a natural. Red-haired, smart, with an outgoing personality, she took over the business and made it flourish. She renamed it Ferry Wallpaper and Paint, running the store until 1984, well after almost all of the businesses on Chene had closed and disappeared.
Sometime around 1939, the Levenson Paint and Wallpaper store relocated to its third location at 5450 Chene Street. In March 1939, while on a visit to Poland, Jennie Levensonmet Jozef Perla, a Polish Jewish educator and social activist from Siedlce, not far from Warsaw. They soon married. Jozef's entire family warmly welcomed Jennie. But with the imminent threat of war descending on Poland, Jennie returned to Detroit, expecting to send for her new husband at once.
The recovered correspondence documents what happened over the next two years. Amid Jozef's declarations of love, his letters detail his attempts to acquire a U.S. visa, the beginning of Nazi occupation, and his forced resettlement into the Siedlce Ghetto. Correspondence from him ceased completely in late 1941. There are other letters from Jozef’s siblings and friends. It is clear that Jennie and her family did what they could to get Jozef out of Poland: unsuccessful interventions with the U.S. Department of State, unused boat tickets for transport out of Lisbon to New York, and repeated pleas to postwar Jewish survivor organizations for information on the fate of her husband--to no avail.
Then in May 1946, Jennie received a letter in Yiddish from a family friend in Cleveland that stated that Jozef “was unfortunately lost to the German murderers during the first exterminations –action 22/VIII-1942.” Not until Hankin translated this letter did Jennie's family learn the fate of Jozef Perla.
Adapted from Marian J. Krzyzowski, "The Jewish Presence on Detroit’s Chene Street," Michigan Jewish History 2014. It is drawn from interviews with Levenson family members, including Goldie (Golda) Levin, Jennie’s youngest sister, and Linda Ashley and Debra Rottman, two of Jennie’s nieces.
Jennie Levenson with Jozef Perla (to Jennie's right) and his brothers (1939)