Obituary of a fighter against fascism and for working class emancipation
Maurice Levitas, a fine comrade and friend, died on 14 February 2001. Maurice will be well known to regular readers of
for the numerous occasions he contributed to meetings reported by us held on the subject of the Spanish Civil War where he was always a popular and informative contributor. We had thought we knew Maurice well, but on attending his funeral, we learnt a great deal about him from family and friends which he had been too modest to talk about. The funeral oration was given by Maurice’s long-time friend, Manus O’Riordan, and we reproduce below extracts from this which we know will interest those who knew Maurice.
Known to his family and friends as Morry, Irish International Brigader Maurice Levitas died on February 14th aged 84. He was the son of parents who had fled the anti-Semitism of Tsarist Russia to join relatives already residing in Dublin. It was to be a life-saving choice for both of them – Harry Levitas from the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmeyan and Leah Rick from the Latvian capital of Riga. Leah’s sister and family, with the exception of a daughter who had emigrated to Palestine and a son fighting in the Red Army, were all to perish in Nazi gas chambers. Harry’s only sister and all her family were to be among those herded into the local synagogue and burned to death, while a brother who had emigrated to Paris was to be shot by the Gestapo in the closing stages of the War. Such family experiences reconfirmed Maurice Levitas in his lifelong commitment to anti-fascist struggle.
“Maurice Levitas was born on February 1st, 1917, in Warren Street, a predominantly Jewish neighbourhood of artisan housing in the Portobello area of Dublin. As his father learned to read and write with the painstaking help of a next-door neighbour studying for the Catholic priesthood, he developed a life-long love of Ireland as the first country to make him feel at home.
“Maurice Levitas attended St. Peter’s Church of Ireland National School as his father struggled to earn a living, sometimes as a traveller dealing in scrap metal, but more often as a tailor’s presser. Both his father and two uncles were also to become active in the International Tailors’, Pressers’ and Machinists’ Trade Union, known to Dubliners as “the Jewish Union”. These childhood years were marked by poverty as well as personal tragedy when Maurice’s year-old brother Isaac died as a result of a domestic accident in March 1923.
“Economic circumstances forced the Levitas family to emigrate to Glasgow in 1927 and to the East End of London in 1931. Maurice commenced employment in a series of upholstery shops, but soon began working on building sites, first as a labourer and subsequently a plumber. His political consciousness had already been awakened during his Dublin childhood as he learned that his father was a Communist supporter. He himself joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1933. As Secretary of the Young Communist League’s Bethnal Green Branch he was to the forefront in the struggle against British Union of Fascists, most notably in October 1936 at the legendary ‘Battle of Cable Street’.
“In December 1937 Maurice Levitas enlisted in the International Brigades in order to fight against fascism in Spain. During January and February 1938 he was in action at Belchite and Teruel on the Aragon front. On March 31st he was captured by Italian fascist troops near the town of Gandesa, along with Irish Republican Congress leader Frank Ryan. He was to spend the next nine months imprisoned in the concentration camp of San Pedro de Cardena, subject to arbitrary beatings from Franco’s camp guards and interrogation and ‘scientific’ measurements carried out by visiting German Gestapo agents. On January 6th, 1939 he was transferred to San Sebastian prison, with its own horrific environment of systematic executions of Basque prisoners, including priests. He was, however, fortunate to be released on February 6th as part of a prisoner exchange sought by the Italian dictator Mussolini. One of his first acts was to visit his native Dublin on February 27th to speak at a public meeting calling for the release of Frank Ryan.
“In 1942 Maurice Levitas enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps, giving wartime service in India and Burma. After the war, having resumed employment as a plumber, he was offered a place in an emergency Teachers’ Training College in 1948. He spent the years 1949 to 1966 teaching in secondary modern schools in the London area. During this period he also became Secretary of the Communist Party’s Hammersmith Branch. Having obtained an honours B.Sc. in Sociology as an external student of London University, he was appointed Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Education at Durham College in 1966. His book ‘Marxist Perspectives in the Sociology of Education’ was published in 1974.
“Following his retirement from full-time employment in Britain, Maurice Levitas emigrated to the GDR in 1985 where he taught English at the Karl Liebknecht Hochschule in Potsdam. He also renewed friendships with those few surviving German anti-fascist fighters with whom he had shared imprisonment in the San Pedro concentration camp. He returned to London in 1990 and joined the New Communist Party. Ever loyal to those who had also committed themselves to the anti-fascist struggle in the decade prior to the Second World War, he denounced as a show trial the prosecution and imprisonment in Berlin of the former GDR President Erich Honecker. He highlighted the latter’s previous ten years of imprisonment at the hands of the Nazis and tirelessly worked at editing and translating a book published in 1992, which he entitled ‘Erich Honecker Cross Examined’.
“Maurice Levitas paid his last visit to Spain in November 1996 to receive the right to citizenship conferred on all International Brigade veterans by unanimous decision of the Spanish Parliament. This he regarded as the ultimate vindication by the Spanish people themselves of his fight against fascism 60 years previously. The vindication of his native city followed in the wake of his 80th birthday, when he visited the Mansion House on February 14th, 1997, to be accorded a civic reception by the Lord Mayor and Dublin City Council in honour of the five surviving Irish veterans.
“As Maurice Levitas suffered worsening health in recent years he was sustained by his own fighting spirit and acerbic wit, and the love of his children, his brothers Max and Sol, his sister Toby, and a wide circle of friends in Britain, Ireland, Spain and Germany. He is survived by four children from his first marriage to the late Liz Scott- Bill, Diana, Ruth and Danny; and by two children from his second marriage to Jackie Litherland – Rachel and Ben.”
After the Funeral Oration, the music
Viva la quince brigada
(‘Long live the fifteenth brigade) was played, followed by the congregation singing
, including the immortal lines:
We are proud of the British Batallion
And the stand for Madrid that it made,
For we fought like true sons of the people
As part of the 15
The Congregation also sang
, a fitting tribute to the true communist, internationalist that Maurice was.
Lalkar extends its most heartfelt condolences on behalf of all of us who knew, respected and learnt from Maurice Levitas, to his family and friends. The world is a better place for Maurice having lived and we are all saddened by the fact he is no longer among us.