Elsie Levy

Elsie Levy in 2010. Photo: Mike Sherwin

Susan Fadem

Hundreds, perhaps thousands of area schoolchildren have walked past the “The Flame,” a picture-filled art quilt that hangs at the St. Louis Holocaust Museum & Learning Center. A memorial to the victims of World War II, the quilt was designed by the late Roz Flax and hand-sewn by Elsie Levy, herself a Holocaust survivor. Levy left Germany in 1938, shortly before Kristallnacht. On the “Night of the Broken Glass,” as Nov. 9-10, 1938, came to be known, German Stormtroopers damaged or destroyed thousands of synagogues, Jewish businesses and homes, and also murdered 91 Jews and arrested many thousand others, sending them to concentration camps.

Two months earlier, Elsie Levy had departed from her native Buttelborn, near Frankfurt, taking her sewing machine with her. Sadly, her father’s illness had delayed his visa. His wife would not travel without him. Leopold and Johanna Hirsch were subsequently taken to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. A photo of the Hirsches, transferred to fabric and sewn, is one of the numerous pictures of individuals and families who Levy interspersed with the depiction of a flame, a symbol of both destruction and hope, in her quilt. Building on the skills she learned in Germany, she worked “months and months” to complete the design, also inserting stuffing in each photo and flame, in order to add depth and dimension.

With the “Shema” prayer, an affirmation of Judaism, stitched across the top, the quilt was formally dedicated at the museum here in 1998. “It is really one of my proudest accomplishments,” Levy says. The designer, Roz Flax, passed away three years ago.

“Elsie quietly works very hard to accomplish something. … The quilt reflected some of her own feelings,” says Norm Flax, Roz’s widower.

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The quilt and its message continue to emotionally stir Dan Reich, curator and director of the St. Louis Holocaust Museum. “You can see not only the details and the precision that went into creating the quilt. But at some intangible level, and because the quilt is a memorial to Elsie’s parents and other victims, you can feel the passion and power in every thread and stitch,” he says.

Suicide attacks upon the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, again prompted Levy to sew as a way to reinforce memories. This time she needlepointed small American-flag pins, which she sold for $10 apiece. Some people insisted on paying more. Levy collected more than $500, which she donated to St. Louis’ Jewish Family & Children’s Service. “I do these things in the memory of my parents,” she says.

Levy’s actions scarcely surprise her daughter, Irene Randall. “‘Strong-willed’ is a pretty good word for my mother,” she says. “She’s very independent. She doesn’t like to ask anybody for anything.” But in search of no recognition, she enjoys doing for others, whether supplying refreshments when her girlfriends or fellow members of the Hidden Children of the Holocaust group gather, or sewing to help herself and others remember.

Elsie Levy

AGE: 92

FAMILY: Widowed with three children (Irene Randall, and twins Ronnie and Ralph, 65), three grandchildren and 3 ½ (one is on the way) great-grandchildren

HOME:  Olivette

OCCUPATION:  A retired seamstress and fitter for department stores

FUN FACT:  Planting flowers makes her happy.