This Holocaust survivor is a TikTok sensation

Gidon Lev holding his memoir "The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist" in his home office. (Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff/Unpacked)

This Holocaust survivor is a TikTok sensation

Gidon Lev says he’s unafraid of death. Perhaps because the Holocaust survivor has cheated it so many times.

As a child, Lev survived Terezin concentration camp. In 1967, he fought in the Six-Day War and the War of Attrition. Later in life, he battled cancer twice — and this is just the short list. Now, at 86 years-old, Lev is using TikTok to share his story and combat antisemitism online.

“I am an optimist,” he told me when we sat down for an interview in his Ramat Gan apartment. “I believe that you can change things, that it is within your power to make a difference.” 

Since joining TikTok in July, Lev has garnered over 414,000 followers and almost 8 million likes. Some followers have even asked if Lev can be their “TikTok grandpa,” to which he has agreed cheerfully. Lev has six children, 15 grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. “What’s a few more?” he told me with a laugh.

Although the response to Lev’s TikTok has been overwhelmingly positive, he’s also encountered antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

“One of the great things about getting older is knowing how to pick your battles,” he said in a recent video. “I can’t change TikTok, but I can keep creating positive, informative and hopeful content, and that is what I will continue to do in 2022.”

Rather than focusing on the hardships in his life, determinative as they have been, Lev personifies ‘joie de vivre.’ He loves to dance, sing, and be silly — in fact, those are his favorite types of videos to create.

“After [the Holocaust], I didn’t dwell. I didn’t concentrate on suffering and what I had gone through. I was committed to today, to life, to raising my kids.”

Lev was born in Carlsbad, Czechoslovakia, in 1935. He was a child when World War II began, so his memories are sparse, he told me, but there is one that he remembers clearly:

“My grandpa used to take me to this park all the time. There were a couple of swings shaped like canoes and I remember my grandpa pushing me on them,” he said.

“One day, we got there and there was a big sign: ‘Jews not allowed.’ I was about to run in and my grandpa stopped me. He tried to explain that we weren’t allowed in, but of course, I didn’t understand why. I thought: Because I’m a Jew, I’m not allowed to go on the swings? What did I do? What was I guilty of? Why? How come?”

In 1941, Lev and his parents were taken to Terezin concentration camp, which was located just north of Prague. He lived in the camp from the ages of six to ten, until the end of the war in 1945.

Lev lost 26 family members in the Holocaust, including his father who was murdered at Auschwitz.

The yellow star Lev was forced to wear before being sent to Terezin concentration camp. He has kept the painful reminders in order to bear witness. (Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff/Unpacked)

“In many ways, it’s a miracle that I’m sitting here today,” he explained. “Over the four years [I was in Terezin], 15,000 children from the ages of 0 to 17 or 18 went through the camp. Something like 92 returned from the war alive. I’m one of those.”

After the war, Lev and his mother immigrated first to the United States and then to Toronto, Canada where he lived for about a decade. In 1959, as a fervent Zionist socialist, Lev moved to Israel and became a Kibbutznik. He married twice, and was once divorced and once widowed.

Lev shows me photos he has from before and after the Shoah. This one is from Prague after the war. Lev poses with his first Zionist Socialist youth movement. (Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff/Unpacked)

When his wife of 40 years passed away from cancer, Lev took to recording his stories as a distraction. He wrote about everything from his life before the war to his adventures in Israel, and everything in between. To him, his experiences during the Shoah are just one significant part of a much fuller life story, Lev explained.

In 2017, he began searching for someone who could turn the handwritten notes he had compiled into something more concrete: a book.

In comes veteran writer and editor Julie Gray. At first, Gray, 57, declined the job. She didn’t feel qualified, she said. Yet, she was drawn to Lev by an overarching worry: What happens when the last Holocaust survivors are gone? With that in mind, she recalled: “I had to help Gidon with the book. It was clear to me that his book was imperative.”

As it happens, their unlikely connection burgeoned. What was, at first, a collaborative effort to share the story of an extraordinary Holocaust survivor turned into something much deeper. 

“When the shock of me being with a woman almost 30 years younger than me subsided, we found a connection that went beyond the writing,” Lev said. “Here we are four and a half years later, and I have never been as close to another human being as I am with Julie. In spite, or maybe because, of the differences.”

Gray refers to Lev as her “loving life buddy.”

Lev’s memoir, “The True Adventures of Gidon Lev: Rascal. Holocaust Survivor. Optimist,” was co-authored by Lev and Gray and self-published during the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The book is a product of  Lev’s lived experiences, mixed with Gray’s own reflections on writing the book.

At first, joining TikTok was simply part of the effort to promote the memoir. Hence the handle @thetrueadventures.

“The book was selling slowly, but it wasn’t reaching its target audience of young people who were shockingly ignorant about the Holocaust, according to poll after poll,” explained Gray.

TikTok has billions of users and most of them are Gen Z and Millennials. An elderly Holocaust survivor seemed an unlikely match for the app, but Gray, who has her finger on the pulse, thought it was worth a shot. After all, Gidon Lev is not your average grandpa.

For starters, he is a natural performer.

In one video, we see Lev tap dancing while overlaying text reads: “After the Holocaust I was too poor for dance lessons. So I made my own tap shoes out of scrap metal and taught myself!”

In another, we see Lev dancing to Rod Stewart’s “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” The song goes: “If you want my body and you think I’m sexy, come on, sugar, tell me so.” Lev cleverly replaces the “tell me so,” with “buy my book!”

His candor, charisma and quirkiness are key to his popularity, Gray explained. “They find him adorable, even though he tackles the hard stuff too.”

It’s probably a combination of Lev’s charming zest for life, vulnerable honesty and the very fact that he doesn’t shy away from the “hard stuff” that has built his audience. 

Lev told me he was amazed about his unexpected popularity on the platform, which is notorious among Jewish creators for its rampant antisemitism. 

In addition to the dancing and being silly, Lev has also responded to serious antisemitism on the platform. In one of his most viewed videos, he pushed back against an anti-vaxxer who compared vaccine mandates to the Holocaust.

“First day at an unvaccinated camp,” @CarollynnXavier said in a video showing off her buzz cut. 

“Shame on you,” Lev responded in a duet. “Are you trying to look like a Holocaust survivor because you don’t want to be vaccinated?”

“I was four years in a concentration camp,” he continued, holding up a six-pointed yellow star marked with bold black letters “Jude,” which he was once forced to wear.

“Have the day you deserve,” he concluded.

To date, Lev’s response has been viewed almost seven million times.

Gray is mostly behind the scenes, shooting, editing and ideating the videos. Lately, as the account grows, she’s also had to take on the role of moderating the comments, trying to shield Lev from the most vile and hateful posts.

“It feels like a full-time job sometimes!” Gray told me. Although, for the most part, their audience is positive and eager to learn.

TikTok has become a very real part of Lev and Gray’s daily routine. A homemade green screen and ring light even adorn the wall behind their dining room table. 

TikTok is, quite literally, ingrained in Lev and Gray’s home. This is their homemade green screen, located behind their dining room table. (Photo: Shaked Karabelnicoff/Unpacked)

“It’s not easy, but I know I can do it. I want to do it. I have the energy,” explained Lev, acknowledging that it is often difficult to retell his most painful moments.

As the population of Holocaust survivors shrinks every year, he explained, it feels more important than ever to share his story and make sure the horrors of the Holocaust are never forgotten.

“Today, I’m more committed than ever to try having the tiniest effect on our society, to make this world a better place,” he said.

“All I would like people to remember about me is that there was this crazy old guy who took the trouble to say things from his heart and meant them and is living them. That’s me.”

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