Renee Alevas, a Holocaust survivor who was hidden in a French convent school by nuns as a child and came to Long Island after the war, later becoming a respected schoolteacher and Patchogue village trustee, has died. She was 90.
Alevas, who lived in Patchogue for 72 years but never lost traces of her homeland German accent, died Saturday at Bellhaven Nursing Home in Bellport after several years of failing health.
Alevas worked as a teacher for 23 years, all but two in the Bayport-Blue Point School District at Sylvan Avenue elementary and James Wilson Young middle schools. Earlier, she taught in Center Moriches. She retired in 1990.
“Because she had so much hardship in her life and lost her parents, she was very sympathetic to children with personal or learning problems,” said Rosanne Giarracco, a longtime friend and fellow teacher. “She made a difference in a lot of kids’ lives. Many of them stayed in touch with her into their 30s and 40s.”
Alevas also served as an Albany aide to Democratic Assemb. Paul Harenberg of Bayport. She then ran for office herself and was elected to three terms as Patchogue's first woman trustee, serving from 1983 to 1995.
“When she was on the village board, she was the voice of reason,” said Mayor Paul Pontieri, who served with her. “She understood conflict in ways the rest of us didn’t, because of what she went through … she was a unique person.”
Pontieri said Alevas chaired the village’s 100th anniversary celebration and has a plaque on a rock in Shorefront Park to honor that work. Alevas also started a program to plant trees on village side streets, Pontieri said, a program "that continues to give back to the village.”
Alevas herself once told an interviewer she “became a village trustee because I felt I was paying back Patchogue … in a small way for being the community that embraced me.”
The ordeal of her escape from the Nazis molded her. She was born in Berlin as Renee Kazenstein in August 1929. Her parents tried to flee Germany in the aftermath of Kristallnacht, a period of Nazi violence and destruction against Jews in November 1938. Encountering difficulties in their escape, the couple placed their daughter at a French convent school with false papers indicating she was from Alsace-Lorraine, which had ties to both countries, to account for her accent. Only the mother superior knew her true identity.
Their goal was to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain, recover their daughter and go to America. But their guide turned them over to the Nazis, and the couple later died in Auschwitz death camp.
Years later, Alevas dealt with the trauma of their death by donating children's books about the Holocaust to the Patchogue Library since "my parents had no grave, no marker anywhere the world."
Alevas remained at the school for four years until the war’s end. She came to Patchogue two years later at age 18 to join relatives who had been searching for her. She graduated from Patchogue High School in one year.
She married Gus Alevas, who worked for the Long Island Lighting Co., in 1951 and had two children, Deborah and Donald. When her children got older, Alevas, in her 30s, returned to school, graduating from Suffolk County Community College, then earning bachelor's and master's degrees from Adelphi University and embarking on her teaching career.
The couple separated in the late 1970s and divorced; her former husband died in 1995.
Alevas recorded her story in an interview with the The USC Shoah Foundation oral history project, which was created by movie producer Steven Spielberg. She said she was initially reluctant. "The experience was upsetting, but I realized that someday my grandchildren will be able to look at it," she said.
After leaving office, Alevas worked as a volunteer at the refurbished Patchogue Theatre, which the village board had helped restore as an early part of its downtown revitalization. She also spoke to school children about her Holocaust experiences and took part in ceremonies, speaking to new American citizens.
"She was always a role model for me," said her daughter, Deborah Zampariello of East Patchogue. "She was so involved in giving back. I've tried to emulate some of what she accomplished."
Other survivors include her son, Donald of Patchogue, a daughter, five grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
A wake will be held Tuesday from 3 to 7 p.m. at Robertaccio's Funeral Home in Patchogue. A service will be held at the funeral home at 10 a.m. Wednesday, followed by burial at Cedar Grove Cemetery in Patchogue.