Richard S. Levy, who grew up to become one of the nation’s foremost experts on the history of antisemitism, first experienced it as a young boy.
He was about 5 when a nun at the Catholic school he was attending shushed noisy students with a comment that prompted his parents to pull him out of the school the next day.
“One of the nuns said, ‘I want you to be quiet. The last one talking is a Jew,’ ” his brother David Levy said.
Mr. Levy, a history professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago who taught for nearly half a century on the Holocaust, antisemitism and German history, died of prostate cancer June 23 at his Lake View home. He was 81.
At 11, “One of the kids in class was having a birthday,” said his wife Linnea. “The mother talked to her son about inviting all the kids who were standing around playing baseball. But Richard heard her whisper to her son, ‘Not the Jew.’ He told me about that story and how it hurt.”
After graduating from Morton High School in Cicero, he got his bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago and a master’s and doctorate at Yale University, then taught at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
His dissertation became the ground-breaking 1975 book “The Downfall of the Anti-Semitic Political Parties in Imperial Germany.”
“There was a tendency to say antisemitism was in the air of this country,” said Peter Hayes, a retired Northwestern University history professor. “Richard said ‘No, it’s more complicated.’ He makes the argument that there were more effective structures to fight antisemitism before 1918” in Germany.
In addition to many articles, translations and contributions to books, Mr. Levy edited the two-volume 2005 book “Antisemitism: A Historical Encyclopedia of Prejudice and Persecution.”
“It was a huge international undertaking, where he got a large number of very important professors and scholars to contribute,” said Kevin M. Schultz, who chairs UIC history department. and said the encyclopedia “has sort of become the first stop for anyone wanting to study the history of antisemitism.”
Mr. Levy’s 1996 book “A Lie and a Libel: The History of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” explored the persistent and widely circulated conspiracy theory that proclaimed Jewish people were preparing for world domination.
Though he spent part of his childhood in Cicero, his parents Roy and Helen were heartsick when violence was directed at Harvey E. Clark when the Black CTA driver and World War II veteran tried to move his family to the west suburb in 1951. Thousands rioted, and the Levys decided to move to Berwyn, his brother said.
Mr. Levy’s father liked discussing history at the dinner table and took his sons on a trip retracing the path of the Union Army, stopping at battle sites including Gettysburg and Antietam, said David Levy, a retired history professor at the University of Oklahoma.
Their father had applied for a job with the Chicago Daily News on Feb. 14, 1929 — the day of the St. Valentine’s Day massacre. The paper had a scoop on the gangland bloodshed that turned a Clark Street garage into an abbatoir and, to prevent a leak, “They locked the doors of the Daily News,” David Levy said, keeping everyone inside until the paper hit the street. “My father reported saying to himself, ‘This is a very exciting place to work.’ ”
The father was hired as an ad salesman. His specialty was movie ads.
“That’s part of the reason Richard developed such a love of movies,” his brother-in-law Jon Randolph said.
Mr. Levy’s UIC office was decorated with a German poster of the Charlie Chaplin film “Modern Times.” If a student professed interest in movies, he’d give them his list of Hollywood classics, which always included the Marx Brothers.
Every semester for about two decades, he advised more than 100 history majors and another 50 or so students with minors in history.
As a result, Schultz said, “Every day, there was a line of students waiting outside for him, and they would go over their schedules and make sure they were doing everything they needed to graduate.”
His class on the history of the Holocaust was always the first to fill up at registration time, Schultz said.
“He was a mentor,” said Linnea Levy, who was married to him nearly 54 years. “He had the gift of being kind without being condescending.”
At home, Mr. Levy made delicious baguettes and pizzas. He and his wife “cooked for each other every night,” Randolph said.
His family said he was a cutthroat Scrabble competitor and a skilled pool player who played at Chris’s Billiards on Milwaukee Avenue, where scenes were filmed for the 1986 Martin Scorsese film “The Color of Money.”