Fifty years after a raging house fire tore apart his Lynbrook family, Ira Levy still carries the loss that changed his life forever.
Levy, 70, was in the Army and stationed in Korea on Jan. 14, 1968, when his parents and three of his siblings were killed in the fire, with his only surviving sister tumbling out a third-floor window to safety.
Now, Levy and his sister are preparing for a special prayer service at Temple Am Echad on Friday, where an ark — a cabinet that contains the Lynbrook synagogue’s Torah scrolls — will be dedicated to his fallen relatives.
In addition to the dedication, Levy said he honored his family by making the most of his life.
“The way I could honor my family, the best way, was to be healthy and have a fruitful and productive life,” Levy said. “I wanted to do something with my life. It wasn’t beneficial and helpful to me for someone to put their arm on my shoulder and go ‘poor Ira.’ I was inspired to have a fruitful life.”
Levy was part of the 7th Medical Battalion in Korea when a priest broke the news a day after the fire.
The family was trapped inside their home on Bixley Heath when enough smoke and fire raged through to keep about 100 firefighters at bay.
Levy’s sister, Helena, 21 at the time, had been in an upstairs bedroom and managed to jump out of a third-story window, he said. The rest of his family was found dead in the home: his parents Leonard Levy, 50, and Ruth, 45, his brother Edward, 9, and his sisters, Jeanette, 16, and Barbara, 15. Investigators later discovered the cause was an electrical fire sparked by a faulty lamp, Levy said.
“It was much for me to understand, get my arms around and absorb it first,” Levy said. “I blocked out much of my feelings so that it really truly enables me to put one foot in front of the other and build a new life for myself. I got in touch with loss many years after.”
Levy said he came back from Korea and met with his surviving sister, who was a registered nurse at Bellevue Hospital and lived there as part of her residency program. Levy, meanwhile, lived with friends for six months until he could afford a place of his own in East Rockaway.
He later went on to work at the cleaning company his father had co-owned. Levy said he grew it into a successful cleaning business, later selling it to a competitor.
He’s now retired, living in Manhattan, the father of two grown daughters and four grandchildren.
Levy said that every year on the anniversary of the blaze, he says a prayer and reads the eulogy that was recited at his family’s funeral.
He’s made peace with the tragedy but said there are moments when the memories come flooding back.
“When my two daughters were born, I realized my parents and my sisters and my little brother weren’t there,” Levy said. “Each of my daughters have the blessings of two little boys. It’s a joy. And I realize how fortunate I am. What a blessing it is and how much my family missed out.”