Mark Levi, a Holocaust survivor who later led Jewish liturgical music and prayers as a cantor in several synagogues, died Dec. 28 at a nursing home in Gaithersburg, Md. He was 103.
The cause was cardiac arrest, said a son, Ron Levi.
In his day job, Mr. Levi was an embroiderer, which consisted mainly of stitching names, emblems and initials on clothing. But he was known in Jewish congregations in Hyattsville, Md.; Rockville, Md.; and Boca Raton, Fla., for his renditions in a “vibrant baritone voice” of the ancient liturgical rituals that for some evoked poignant memories “of their long-gone shuls in Europe,” a friend, Sam Gilston, said in his eulogy for Mr. Levi.
Mr. Levi was born Aug. 15, 1914 — the summer that World War I began — in Diviciorii Mari, Romania. He was the youngest of 10 children, and he grew up in a small Jewish community where the family home was also a grocery store, farm and chadar, where village children went to school.
During World War II, when Romania was controlled by a Nazi-aligned government, Mr. Levi was arrested and sent to a forced labor camp for three years. When he returned after the war, he found his village had been burned to the ground. His parents died in a German concentration camp, his family said, but eight of his siblings survived.
In 1947 he married Otilia Vainer, who had grown up in Bucharest and, while living in France during the war, served with the underground against the occupying Germans, her family said. She was shot in the chest but survived, the bullet remaining permanently lodged near her heart.
The Levis emigrated to Israel in 1950, where Mr. Levi worked in a wholesale fish market. His wife would remember for years how she hated his smell at the end of a workday. In 1953, they came to the United States under the sponsorship of two of Mr. Levi’s brothers who had survived the Holocaust and were living in America.
He learned the embroidery craft in New York and moved to Hyattsville in 1958, setting set up his own business, American Monogram Co. His clients included President Richard M. Nixon, for whom he embroidered presidential windbreakers and towels; he also embroidered ribbons for Nixon’s daughters, Julie and Tricia, The Washington Post reported. His other work included helping make emblems for the uniforms of some NASA astronauts, his family said.
His hobby was making embroidered portraits of celebrities such as Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.
Mr. Levi joined Beth Torah Congregation in Hyattsville and began singing in the choir, where his voice and his familiarity with the traditional music and prayers he had learned as a child in Romania were soon noticed, and he was asked to become cantor. In 1964, he became cantor at congregation Beth Tikva, a new congregation in Rockville. (The congregation has since merged with another to form Tikvat Israel.)
A large, broad-shouldered man, Mr. Levi projected an image of strength, said Joseph Chornock, a friend who remembered his chanting and singing at Beth Tikva 50 years ago.
Mr. Levi retired in the 1980s and moved to Florida, where he became cantor at Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, while continuing to work as an embroiderer. He and his wife returned to the Washington area 12 years ago.
Survivors include his wife of 70 years, of Gaithersburg; two sons, Ron Levi of North Potomac, Md., and Allan Levi of Annapolis; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Mr. Levi spoke no English when he came to the United States from the Romanian region of Transylvania. Invariably, people he met had mental images of Transylvania as the home of the vampire Dracula, stoked by movies. This puzzled Mr. Levi at first, but eventually he learned to cope.
“I am not a vampire,” he told new acquaintances.