‘That image just stayed all my life’: Separation from parents left scars, Holocaust survivors say
By MARCELLA CORONA | Reno Gazette Journal | Published: August 31, 2018
RENO, Nev. (AP) — Leon Malmed's childhood fear came flooding back when he read about President Donald Trump's "zero tolerance" immigration policy in the newspapers.
He still remembers the day his parents were taken from him.
"That is the only memory that I have from my childhood," Malmed, now 80, said as he sat on his living room couch at his South Lake Tahoe home. "I remember hanging on to the dress of my mother and crying.
"That image just stayed all my life, and that was 76 years ago."
Malmed and his sister, Rachel Epstein, are both survivors of the Holocaust. They lost their parents, Srul and Chana Malmed, nearly two years after the start of World War II.
In recent months, Trump's crackdown on those illegally crossing the U.S.-Mexico border led to the separation of nearly 3,000 children from their parents.
Although most of the families have since been reunited, Malmed worries about the impact it will have on the children.
"Just to think that these children would be separated from their parents," Malmed said. "Even if you are 4 or 12 or 16, you're still separated from your parents without knowing what's going to happen to you."
"I said to myself, I have to talk about it."
Malmed was only 4 years old when he last saw his parents. His sister was just 10.
At about 5 a.m. on July 19, 1942, five French police officers knocked at the door at the Malmeds' apartment on 17 rue St. Fiacre in Compiegne, France.
"They asked our parents to accompany them to police headquarters without telling them why and how long they would be detained," Malmed said.
He said the French police had received orders from the Germans to pick up every Jew born outside France. Their parents had immigrated from Poland to escape the anti-Semitism brewing there.
"And for 11 years, they lived in France," Malmed said. "They had a very, very good life."
Epstein said her father, who was about 35 years old, was a tailor and would often work on the uniforms for the local police department.
"So, my father opened the door," she said. "He thought they came to bring some work for him."
By that time, the rest of the family awoke from the commotion. And their Christian neighbors, Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau, stopped by to investigate. The officers then told Malmed's parents they were under arrest.
So, they packed a suitcase.
"Our parents didn't know what to do with us," Malmed said. "And at that time, Henri Ribouleau said a sentence that saved our lives. They said, 'Do not worry Mr. and Mrs. Malmed, we will take care of your children until you return.'
"They were taken away and we never saw our parents again."
Epstein said that by the end of the war, she and her brother were the only Jewish survivors from Compiegne.
"There were about a couple hundred Jews in town," Epstein said. "But the other Jews came from different parts of the country, and those Jews were arrested two years later.
"It was really awful," she said. "After the war, people told us that my father was going to the police station screaming and pulling his hair out of his head. He kept saying, 'My children, my children.'"
Malmed and Epstein lived with the Ribouleaus and their two sons for five years. Eventually, they were adopted into their family.
"They took us in without thinking what can happen to them," Epstein said. "They knew what could happen to them because if you harbor Jewish people, it was death. They could've been arrested and their children, their sons (then 17 and 19), everybody could have been killed. But they didn't think.
"These two people were just unbelievable people. I don't think there's another couple like that that exists."
Two years later, Malmed and Epstein had another encounter with the police. This time, they were there to arrest the children and every Jew who was left in town.
"My brother was staying home because he wasn't feeling well," Epstein said of Malmed, adding the Ribouleaus' sons took turns staying home from work to watch over him.
The youngest son was heading to the apartment to have lunch when he saw a German truck.
"So, he knew what was going on," Epstein said. "He ran home as fast he can and he said, 'I hope the truck hasn't come yet.'
"If the truck had come to the house, my brother would have been gone."
Malmed said he later learned they escaped death due to a coffee spill.
"And the reason is that the driver, who was to go to each house to make the arrest, could not read the first address because someone had spilled coffee on it," Malmed said. "And he arrested everyone else."
That included their younger cousin, who was 5 years old. He was eventually sent to Auschwitz, along with more than 200 children. Malmed said none survived.
Epstein said she remembers her adoptive father ushering her out of the apartment after she had arrived home from school.
"We all ran to a little (nearby) town," Epstein said. "It was like going from Reno to where my brother lives (in South Lake Tahoe)."
Malmed, Epstein, and their adoptive father and his youngest son contacted an acquaintance and hid in her home. They stayed there all day, until Henri Ribouleau decided to go back to the apartment.
The truck was parked outside, Epstein said. The Gestapo, the secret police of the Nazi state, had figured out the address.
"And who does he see going inside the truck? He sees his son, his oldest son, arrive to the house together with the truck."
Epstein said the officers questioned Ribouleau's oldest son in the truck.
"Inside the truck, all the Jews were there," Epstein said. "And they knew him. Thank God, they never talked to him or said anything. They ask him the questions, and he said he didn't know anything. So, (the officers) let him go.
"Meanwhile, his father, from the bottom of the street, sees all of that happening."
That was the last stop the Gestapo made at the apartment. It was the end of the war, and Malmed and Epstein were the only two Jewish survivors left in Compiegne.
"Everybody that was in that truck went directly into the oven," Epstein said. "There were children. There were mothers holding babies, infants. Nobody survived from that truck."
Epstein said they lost 30 family members during the Holocaust. Her aunt and uncle were the only other relatives who survived.
"Right now, we don't have anyone," Epstein said. "They all died now. But we're very, very close to this Christian family."
Sixty years after the war ended, Epstein and Malmed learned their parents were deported to Auschwitz 10 days after their arrest.
"Our mother was not tattooed on arrival," Malmed said. "It meant that she either died during the transport or she was gassed or killed on arrival."
During the Holocaust, prisoners taken to the concentration camp in Auschwitz were issued serial numbers for work, which were tattooed on them. Those who were sent directly to the gas chambers were never registered or tattooed.
Their father died just a few months before Auschwitz was freed by the Russian army.
"I had expected our parents would come back at the end of the war," Malmed said.
Epstein said she believes her father was kept alive because he was young, spoke four languages and worked as a tailor.
"We knew they went to Auschwitz because I have their death certificates," Epstein said.
Malmed said he never fully recovered from that experience.
"This is what happened to me," he said. "I remember, it took me a long time to trust adults. In fact, to this day, I probably do not fully trust adults because of what they had done to me."
Malmed said the feeling of losing his parents lingered, and he never felt any closure.
"Being separated from your parents is a horrible, horrible feeling," he said. "It's really difficult for anyone who hasn't gone through that to understand."
Malmed said he thinks about his parents almost every day, especially now after reading reports about Trump's "zero tolerance" policy.
"It was hard to believe it," Malmed said. "It brought back all my memories when we were separated. My sister and I were not put in cages as they are doing today. We stayed with people who loved us and we learned to love. So, it was very different.
"To me, it's equivalent to kidnapping. To me, it's equivalent to crime against humanity."
Epstein, who is a Trump supporter, said it isn't fair to compare the Holocaust to the recent wave of family separations.
"When we were taken away from our parents, it was very different," Epstein said, adding she doesn't agree with the "zero tolerance" policy. "Those children went to death."
She said she doesn't believe a similar event could ever occur in the U.S.
Still, both Malmed and Epstein said it was important for them to share their story with others. They said they didn't want people to forget the Holocaust, so they spoke at churches, in schools and at other events.
Malmed wrote a book about his life, and the siblings have been interviewed for various documentaries, including Steven Spielberg's and Daniel Meyers' documentary, "17 rue St. Fiacre."
"We would never do that," Epstein said of the U.S. "Nobody here would ever do that. There's no Hitler. There's nothing like this. When the children were taken away because of Trump, of course they suffered for being taken away from their parents. It's a horrible thing. But they weren't put to their death.
"Those children were put in places where they were taken care of. To me, there's no comparison."