WEST ORANGE, NJ — Roosevelt Middle School students were mesmerized by the gripping story of Holocaust survivor Feyge “Fran” Malkin on May 15. Malkin, now 79, is a longtime West Orange resident. Her cousin, Judy Maltz, a filmmaker who worked on “No. 4 Street of Our Lady,” a documentary of the family’s ordeal during the war, was also present.
The Holocaust studies program at Roosevelt Middle School is part of the curriculum of language arts reading teacher, Jay Wecht. Wecht welcomed students and guests, telling the poignant tale of a chestnut tree planted at the Clinton Library in Little Rock that was grown from a seed from the very tree Anne Frank saw from her Secret Annex window.
“Today we’ll hear Fran’s story and become not unlike the chestnut tree outside Clinton’s library, as we are duty-bound to create a future that does not allow history’s atrocities to become more than that — history,” Wecht told the students.
Born in 1938 in the town of Sokal, Poland, to candy store owners Lea and Eli Letzer, Malkin and her family were thrust into World War II with the invasion of Poland by the Nazis in 1939. They were uprooted and forced to live in a ghetto until Ukrainians, under the authority of the Gestapo, rounded up Malkin’s father and other prominent men in the Jewish community. Years later, the family learned he had been executed outside town after being forced to dig his own grave.
“Remember, it was not just Hitler that committed these atrocities,” Malkin said. “Germany was a cultured, civilized nation.”
The Letzers and other family members, 12 in all, arranged to be hidden in a dark hayloft above a pigsty owned by a feisty Roman Catholic named Francisca Halamajowa and her daughter, Hela. It turned out they hid another Jewish family of three in their basement as well.
Just 4-years-old at the time, Malkin cried uncontrollably and it was feared she would give away their hiding spot. Dr. David Kindler, a local physician who had taken refuge with the family in the loft, fed the young girl poison to silence her after the family agreed it was necessary. Incredibly, she spit out the poison and survived and, at the age of 6, the Russians liberated Poland and the family was able to leave the hayloft.
A series of moves and stays in transitional survivor camps, where Malkin contracted tuberculosis, followed, until they contacted relatives in the United States who sponsored them for immigration to Newark in 1949. Malkin learned English, graduated high school, and eventually married and had a daughter. There are 100 descendants of Malkin and her relatives alive today.
“Our sense of normalcy was destroyed,” Malkin said. “People had dreams, they had plans and were killed only because we were Jewish.”
To this day, Holocaust survivors can struggle with a fear of the catastrophic, of impending disaster and doom.
Malkin began the journey of reconciling her past in 2001 and used her uncle’s diary to publish “Years of Horror, Glimpse of Hope: The Diary of a Family in Hiding.” She then traveled with family members and the daughter of Hela Halamajowa back to Sokol to film “No. 4 Street of Our Lady” in 2007.
“The only way to defy the Nazis was to survive,” Malkin said. “It was the best revenge.”
When a student asked how do you cope with these experiences, Malkin responded, “Things happen to people … you can’t let it define you and you can’t let them win.”
Principal Lionel Hush concluded the assembly by commenting, “We need to be about the change in the world, how you treat one another and yourselves. Be that change.”