As a former French teacher with an enduring passion for the French language and culture and a devout cardiac Jew (Jewish in my heart), I had to attend Monsieur Léon Malmed’s talk Feb. 19 on his survival during the Holocaust in Compiègne, France. The 80-year-old was silent regarding his wartime experiences for 60 years, but finally decided to write his autobiography, “We Survived … At Last I Speak,” published in 2013.
Speaking at the Jewish History Museum/Holocaust History Center, Malmed said he considers World War II, which resulted in the death of 72 million people, the most barbaric period in the history of mankind.
Preceding his talk, Malmed showed a 15-minute documentary, “The Promise,” which gives an overview of his life during that time.
Then he told his story, beginning with his family’s arrival in France in 1930. In a cruel twist of fate, his parents, Chana and Srul, had left Poland to escape rampant anti-Semitism. With his older sister, Rachel, they eventually settled in Compiègne, 40 miles north of Paris, where Léon was born. Hitler invaded France in 1940 and restrictions soon began, followed by deportations.
One fateful Sunday in July of 1942, there was a knock on their door at 5 a.m. Two French gendarmes (police) came to arrest Srul and Chana, who were seen as untermenschen (subhumans) by the Nazis simply because they were Jewish. The children’s screams awakened downstairs neighbors Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau, who assured the parents, “Ne vous inquiétez pas (don’t worry). We will look after your children until you return.” How could little Léon and sister Rachel (ages four and seven respectively) have imagined that they would never see their parents again?
For the next three years, the Ribouleaus kept their promise to care for the children. They also continued to pay the rent on the Malmeds’ apartment, hoping the family would eventually return.
Food was scarce. Malmed remembers, “Many nights we went to bed hungry after a ‘dinner’ of a glass of milk and ‘bread,’ a combination of wheat flour and sawdust.”
He and his sister had several close calls with capture by the Nazis, but through a combination of quick thinking and good luck evaded the S.S.
At the beginning of World War II, there were roughly 600 Jews in Compiègne. By the end, two Jews remained — Léon and Rachel.
After the war ended, an aunt and uncle living in Saint Quentin, a nearby French town, wrenched the children away from their loving second parents, “Papa Henri” and “Maman Suzanne,” in the belief that they should not be living with gentiles.
In 1948 Rachel, age 15, was sent to New York to live with another aunt, uncle and their three children. Léon was not allowed to go with her because the New York family felt that they could not take on the care of yet another child.
Léon remained behind with his aunt and uncle and was finally reunited with the Ribouleaus in 1950; he remained with them until he was drafted by the French Air Force to fight in the Algerian war in 1959.
It would be 13 more years before Rachel Malmed Epstein and her husband, Izzy, would have the funds to bring her brother, his pregnant wife and their son to New York. Malmed was 27. Fortunately, with a degree in engineering from France, Malmed found work right away.
In 1978, Rachel and Léon arranged for Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau to be awarded the honor of Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Israel. A tree was planted there in recognition of their heroism.
In 1982, Malmed was recruited for a position in Silicon Valley, where the high tech industry was off to a booming start. He retired in 2000, having worked with companies that created components used in today’s computers, tablets and iPhones.
Why did Malmed keep his story bottled up for 60 years after the war? “It was too painful,” he says. By 2009, he felt it was time to “uncork the bottle” and began work on his autobiography in French, “Nous Avons Survécu…Enfin Je Parle.” The English translation was published in 2013, followed by a Spanish edition in 2015. All three are available on Amazon. Proceeds from the books’ sales are going to an organization that helps poor Jewish survivors of the Holocaust in the Bay Area.
At the Jewish History Museum, a member of the audience questioned how he was able to persevere in spite of living through tragedies most of us can only imagine. He answered, “It is my nature to keep going even if others think circumstances are too hard or impossible.”
Today Malmed, also a survivor of prostate cancer — which he considers a walk in the park compared to his experiences as a child of the Holocaust — enjoys the good life with his second wife of 37 years, Patricia, their children and grandchildren. He bicycles, sails, participates in Zumba and also volunteers in many philanthropic endeavors.
Frequently asked why he continues to tell his emotional story, Malmed always replies that he hopes each person who hears it will be inspired to make this a better world.
Barbara Russek, a local freelance writer, welcomes comments at Babette2@comcast.net.