After fleeing the horrors of Nazi Germany, Rutgers alumnus Richard Levy led a successful scientific career despite his childhood’s traumatic events.
By Elizabeth Sudit
A few months after Kristallnacht—the terrible spate of anti-Jewish violence that shook Germany in 1938—Richard Levy RC’50 left his home in Leipzig for good. Only nine years old at the time, he was saved from almost certain death when his family put him on a Kindertransport train that would eventually take him and hundreds of other Jewish children to England. He arrived not knowing if he would ever see his father, mother, and sister again.
Despite having his life turned upside down, Levy would go on to thrive in his adopted country, especially after his mother and sister joined him on the eve of World War II. His father, however, died a few weeks after Levy left Germany.
“My father was very ill. It turned out he had stomach cancer. And he had to cope with that for several years. He was arrested during Kristallnacht, beaten up badly, and put in prison,” says Levy. “That hastened his death.”
Reflecting on these traumatic events, Levy says his mother helped him maintain hope. “She lived through the beginnings of the Holocaust, having lost her husband, having seen me go to England, leaving her with a little baby, having to start the immigration process all over again, and then finally coming to England,” Levy says. “But despite all of that, she said to me, ‘There is nothing in life that is so bad, that some good doesn’t come from it.’ And I internalized that.”
Becoming a Scholar
After immigrating to the United States, Levy pursued a bachelor of science degree in chemistry at Rutgers. A course taken during his senior year profoundly influenced the direction of his academic life. It was in biochemistry.
“The application of chemistry to living systems made it more meaningful and appealing to me,” says Levy. “Professor Jay Roth taught biochemistry and his enthusiasm for it affected me.”
That year Levy also entered a senior honors program to conduct independent research. He found it exhilarating to make his own discoveries and wanted to continue doing so. This, together with the enthusiasm of his professors and the rare opportunity to learn biochemistry led Levy to a 40-year career as an academic biochemist.
In 1956, he earned a Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Chicago, followed by post-doctoral research at the Ben May Laboratory for Cancer Research. While working in one of the best biochemistry laboratories at the time, he became passionate about the world of enzymology, a subject he would go on to extensively research, study, and teach at Syracuse University, as that institution’s first biochemistry professor.
Activism and Teaching
While in Chicago, Levy met and married the love of his life, Betty Samuels. At the time, interracial marriages were banned in much of the United States, but Richard and Betty happily defied that narrow-minded mentality and married in 1960. They remained together for 59 years until Betty’s death in 2019.
As the Civil Rights Movement built momentum in the 1960s, so did the couple’s involvement in it. Shortly after arriving in Syracuse, they joined a series of marches protesting the demolition of Black neighborhoods in the city’s fifth ward to install a viaduct for the interstate highway running through town. The Levys were arrested during the protests as the project went on to destroy homes, displace families, and force the closure of several Black-owned businesses.
In addition to teaching biochemistry and his specialty, enzymology, at Syracuse, Levy taught a course on dilemmas in contemporary medicine for students pursuing medical careers. He also conducted research into the mechanisms of action and regulation of enzymes. This research, which was funded with federal grants for most of his career, led to over 80 publications.
“I am passionate about teaching. I enjoy interacting with young people and seeing them light up,” says Levy. “I like to convey my enthusiasm and to get them enthusiastic, too. I owe an immense debt to teachers, who were able to see in me my potential, and then were able to draw that out. And I think that’s one of the joys of being a teacher.”
A Time to Reflect on History
After retiring, Levy started work on his autobiography, Recollections and Reflections from My Life in Nazi Germany, Wartime England, and America (Epigraph Publishing, 2022) in which he shares memories of childhood, marriage, and academic life in detail.
When it comes to addressing the ongoing threats of antisemitism and racism, Levy advises that we remember our own history and the history of the people who came before us.
“Know your own history, and be proud of who you are,” he says. “Know that you came from incredibly strong people, incredibly strong families. Know that the bonds that held us together will continue to hold people together. We who are still alive can inspire those that come after us to maintain their ideals, know who they are, and fight for what is right and what is just.”