FORT IRWIN, Calif. — Leon Malmed was just four-years-old the last time he saw his parents. At the time, they lived outside of Paris, France, and he said two years after World War II was declared in September 1939, his parents were taken from him and to an Auschwitz concentration camp.
“Our lives were about to change forever,” Malmed said. We waited for the return of our parents…anytime, any day. It took a long time to accept that we would never see them again.”
The prisons are called death camps and the site in Poland was where Jewish and others perceived as enemies and subhuman were taken and used as slaves, tortured and killed.
“The Holocaust is the genocide of six million Jewish people perpetrated by Natzi Germany and its cooperators,” Malmed said.
His town of 20,000 people was bombed, destroying about 3,000 buildings.
At 81-years-old, Malmed has just recently started telling his story of being a Holocaust survivor and spoke to more than 100 guests at the “Days of Remembrance, Learning from the Holocaust” presentation at the Sandy Basin Community Center on April 24.
Malmed began by showing a 15-minute animated documentary film about his experience. He said film students at the College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita, California, interviewed him and brought his story to the screen. The film is called “The Promise” and is being presented at several film festivals.
He said he has three reasons as to why he waited until recent years to share his story.
“One, I couldn’t control my emotions and even today, it is still difficult,” Malmed said. “Two, I did not think that people would be interested in the Holocaust and lastly, I had bottled those emotions and that story so tightly, that I had a tough time to uncork the bottle.”
When Malmed’s biological parents were taken from him at four-and-a-half-years-old, a neighboring man and woman eventually became he and his sister’s new, adoptive parents by circumstance.
“The reason I speak today is mainly to recognize the courage and the heroism of a French, Christian family.”
He said Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau, gave them a home and family, helped them escape and protected them through subsequent roundups, threats, air raids, and the war’s famine.
“I was about five-years-old at the time and I started to call them my parents, ‘mama’ and ‘papa,’” Malmed said.
Malmed spoke about the day he and his sister were arrested when he was seven-years-old in 1944.
Malmed said his new mother risked her life to help them escape from the vehicle he and his sister were in, having only two minutes to do so, as the person who captured them briefly stepped away.
His five-year-old cousin was not as fortunate. He was deported to Auschwitz, along with 269 other children and Malmed said none of them survived.
“Archives show that before the war, there were approximately 600 Jewish people in our town and at the end of the war, my sister Rachel and I were the only survivors who had somehow remained for the duration,” Malmed said.
There was a German detention camp a half a mile away from Malmed’s home. He said 54,000 prisoners, including underground fighters, American and English prisoners and hostages, were held there.
“Out of 54,000 prisoners in that detention camp, only 2,000 survived and they were not Jewish,” Malmed said.
Malmed said his town was liberated on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 1944 at 4:40 a.m.
“I am here today with a huge thanks to the 28th Division of the American Army. I owe them my life.”
He said after that, homemade American flags appeared in everyone’s hands and every window in the town. The German soldiers had left and church bells were ringing loudly throughout the town, as Malmed remembers.
“A huge clamor of joy resonated within the town. We wanted to touch, we wanted to kiss our liberators for delivering us from the Nazi mad men murderers. I was seven-and-a-half years old.”
“Five, long years of misery, fear, starvation had passed. My sister was 13 and I was eight.”
Malmed was eventually drafted in the French Air Force during the Algerian War, serving from 1959-1962. He later immigrated to America in 1964 with his pregnant wife and their 18-month-old son.
He said he always stayed in contact with the people who saved his life—the Ribouleau’s– bringing them to the U.S. and visiting them, as well.
“Papa Henri and Maman Suzanne” were given a “Righteous Among the Nations” honor in 1977. That is the highest honor given by the state of Israel. It recognizes a non-Jewish person who has saved a Jewish person’s life at the risk of their own lives, without any monetary compensation.
Recently, Malmed and his wife said they got the courage to visit Auschwitz and he is clear on what he thinks of it.
“Auschwitz is the symbol of evil and crimes against humanity,” he said.
Malmed said Hitler and his followers are “demented” but said even with the most powerful Army in the world at the time, Hitler’s diabolic intentions failed.
“Fortunately for humanity, goodness triumphed over evil,” Malmed said. “During World War II, over 70 million people, soldiers and civilians lost their lives. 291,000 American soldiers died. 672,000 came back.”
Malmed said he is a living witness of the tragedy but sometimes wonders if people today have learned anything from history.
“Racism and hate are still present today. We cannot be silent. Our educators, religious leaders and leaders must remind us of the tragic events of World War II and its sequels. They must remind us of the catastrophes due to racism, anti-Semitism, religious hatred and wars that have brought havoc, death and misery to many innocent and their families for centuries.”
Malmed said after many years of silence, he wants everyone to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past and hopes his story can contribute to a better world.
“We shall never forget the brave soldiers and underground fighters who died to keep us alive and free,” Malmed said.
After speaking, Malmed sold copies of his books at a discounted rate of $10. It’s titled, We survived…at last I speak (also available in French and Spanish: Nous avons survécu. Enfin je parle and Sobrevivimos … al fin hablo).
The event was sponsored by the Fort Irwin EO/EEO offices, along with the Fort Irwin Dental Clinic Command.