Two-thirds of the city’s 2.5 million residents would be dead within 900 days. Eleonora Poberezhskaya recalls walking the streets of Leningrad (now restored to its original name of St. Petersburg) as a young child. It was a modern city, a cultural and scientific center with museums and universities, and Russian royalty’s favorite hangout. Eleonora clutched her mother’s hand tightly as they sidestepped corpses. She recognized some; others were strangers, yet they became a part of her. They died by the thousands. There was no escape from it. She feared the siren that would shatter the stillness at any moment, warning of yet another air raid. The shining city of the czars lay in ruins around her.
Exactly 78 years after the Siege of Leningrad began—exactly 78 years after her father, a 24-year-old Soviet soldier, was killed resisting the Nazi advance that threatened his home and his family—Eleonora sits elegantly beside her husband, Valeriy Kupershteyn, wearing a neat white blouse and pearl necklace. They are not alone. To her right is Holocaust survivor Semen Malamud and his wife of 57 years, Nellie Malamud. To her left is spunky Magda Schweitzer, whose father was taken away to a labor camp and whose mother gave her away to save her life. They are among the 103 Holocaust survivors living in Northeast Florida, and they’ve gathered to tell their tales.
Each offers a piece of the puzzle of the Jewish experience before, during and after the Second World War. They’ve gathered at Jacksonville’s Jewish Family & Community Services (JFCS) for a round-table discussion with Folio Weekly. JFCS Director of Jewish Services Hilary Rotenberg and Executive Director Colleen Rodriguez join the conversation, alongside Case Manager Marina Gardner and Care Manager Allison Ginsburg. The survivors share stories of perseverance, strength, pain and loss. Here’s what they want you to know.
Semen Malamud’s formative years were spent in a concentration camp. Born into a family of eight (three brothers, two sisters) in Yampil, Ukraine in 1937, he was only four years old when the Nazis occupied his hometown. “When the war started, it was very aggressive. A lot of bombs,” he recalls in Russian (translated by Gardner). “My first brother was killed because they were not ready to fight with the Germans. That’s why he was killed so fast. He was young and he was taken to the war and never learned how to fight, how to be a soldier.”
Yampil was first occupied by Romanian and Italian forces. Then the Germans arrived, and life quickly went from bad to worse. “Germans put all Jewish people onto streets and put fence around the streets and they called this ghetto. All Jewish people lived there. [One day], they called all Jewish people on one square and called [126 people] in front and killed them as a warning.” From that point, the family lived in constant fear.
By fall 1941, the mass killing of Ukrainian Jews had begun. By the end of 1944, approximately 1.5 million would be dead. The Malamud family was forced to march for three weeks to a labor camp in Ladyzhenka, now Esengeldi, Kazakhstan. They were interned there until 1944. “Every day, people worked in the quarry,” Semen recalls. “White stone, they sent it to Germany to build houses or something else. People died. People were killed who couldn’t work.”
Magda Schweitzer was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1943. Now 76, she wears her hair short. Today she’s in a red shirt as bold as her personality. “Thank God that my immediate family—meaning my mother and my father and both my grandmothers, not my grandfathers—survived,” she says. “My father was in a labor camp and my mother was a very resourceful Jewish lady. My immediate family survived. Not so the aunts and uncles and cousins. We lost 43 family members. Some of them by their neighbor’s hand, some of them by the Germans, some of them by the Hungarian Nazis, some of them in labor camps, some of them in concentration camps.”
“They had to give me away,” she recalls. “Another family actually took me because my mother said, ‘Whatever happens to us, at least I can save her.’ Knowing what my mother had to go through and some of my family to save us children, I would never bring a child into this world. I don’t know if I would have had the resolve to do the same thing. I was born in March; they took me in November. It was a year and five months later when the city was liberated, and again my mother went through hell to come and get me. I did not want any part of it. I didn’t know her. I was two years old and I hadn’t seen her since I was nine months. She was a total stranger to me … Growing up with all this, and three million other stories, I didn’t want to go through possibly the same thing again. Yes, we all came from different places, and everybody went through their special kind of hell.”
The end of the war was a relief, but it could never signify a return to normalcy. What is normal when your country has been bombed to oblivion and your family is dead? When Semen returned home to Yampil, Ukraine, in 1944, he found his family home destroyed. His mother and father never quite recovered from the hardships they endured. His father died in 1946, quickly followed by his mother in 1947. Semen was sent to a Moldovan children’s orphanage, where he was separated from his sister and where he would live until 1952, when his brother eventually located him and brought him to live and attend school in Kaliningrad.
This is not a group of quitters. Not one of them accepted the hand they were dealt. Each forged a new life in a changed world. Some found comfort in marriage; others chose to stay single.
Semen enlisted in the Soviet military and became an electrical engineer. He met his future wife, Nellie, while working at a factory in Uzbekistan. A career woman employed by the Soviet government, Nellie had lost her father in the Holocaust. They have a daughter together. Semen was able to track down his surviving siblings and salvage family ties shorn by the Nazis. He and Nellie immigrated to the United States in the early 1990s.
Eleonora continued to experience anti-Semitism after the war, but she refused to let it stop her. “I couldn’t study in the medical university. I tried three times, but because of my nationality I could not be a student. It was almost everywhere.” In the Soviet Union, all religious expression was prohibited and Judaism was considered a separate national identity. Our survivors likely didn’t grow up practicing Jewish rituals. Nor could they fall back on the comforts of faith to get them through the horrors of the Holocaust. Eleonora persevered, eventually becoming a dermatologist and finding love along the way. She married radio engineer Valeriy Kupershteyn, whose family survived the war by fleeing their native Ukraine to Kazakhstan. The couple raised a daughter and a son. They moved to the United States in 1994. Despite life’s difficulties, Eleonora maintains a positive outlook: “The Holocaust and my nationality didn’t make me angry or hateful. I enjoyed life after the war and now, even though a lot of people in my family were killed.”
Magda’s journey to freedom didn’t end with the war either. She’s a risk-taker and proud of it. “Needless to say, I’m not exactly a fan of the Nazis, right?” she chuckles. “But I wasn’t any more a fan of the Communists either. And by the time I was old enough and bright enough to realize I’m not willing to build a socialist country, on January 1, 1968, I skipped. What would have happened if they caught me? I would have gotten five years behind bars without questioning.” She arrived in New York at the age of 24 with limited English language skills but plenty of determination. She built a career as an insurance adjustor in New York and was transferred to Jacksonville in 1975. Magda never married.
As overwhelming as they are, the numbers—more than 6 million Jews exterminated—can’t communicate the full scope of the devastation. Statistics don’t give voice to the lives shattered, entire family lines erased from history’s ledgers. “How can a supposed human being do anything like that to someone? That’s what I have a problem with. Whatever else has happened, I just can’t get over it,” Magda says. “I think that the worst part of this thing [is that] those people cannot be brought back.” Like many survivors, she fears the Holocaust will be forgotten with the passing of her generation.
Anti-Semitism was not born with the Second World War, nor did it die on VE Day. In recent times, it has resurged across Europe and North America. Magda believes that most who subscribe to this philosophy do not truly understand what they preach. “The anti-Semitism never, ever died down,” she says. “It is not necessarily the same, because I am entirely convinced there are an awful lot of anti-Semitic sentiments being shouted and if you ask them, they have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. It’s just stylish that we hate the Jews again.”
The survivors believe in the power of storytelling, yet they also realize that the horrors of what they experienced may be hard to stomach—and hard to grasp for those raised in peace and plenty. “You try to tell these horrible things to people, do you actually believe that a person can do this to another? Is it really believable to you?” Magda questions. “Can you imagine a young mother holding their baby and a guy taking the baby out of your hands and throwing him under a train? Can you actually imagine a man doing this? How are you going to convince a 20-something-year-old kid that people did this to other humans?”
Nearly half the schoolchildren who visit JFCS’s Frisch Family Holocaust Memorial Gallery don’t know of the Holocaust. The number of adult Holocaust deniers is growing. Eyewitnesses are dying. They survived so much. Hatred and prejudice destroyed all they knew. Murder went unchecked, the world turned a blind eye for too long, and history threatens to repeat itself. This is what happens when a powerful nation creates scapegoats for its problems. For our sake, we must recognize the Holocaust as a cautionary tale.
For their sake, we must recognize the survivors and lend a helping hand. The United States provided blessed refuge and a second chance to these people, but they will never get back the families and futures they lost. And, for many, the present is precarious. Stateside, half the Holocaust survivors live at or below the poverty line. They continue to fight for survival. Organizations like JFCS provide assistance: case workers, social activities, transportation and food. They can never have too much support, and not just during Jewish American Heritage Month.
We cannot remain ambivalent. These men and women survived—others didn’t. They have an important story to tell, but they won’t be able to tell it forever. They lived to advocate against the hatred and villainy that shattered the 20th century, leaving 50 to 70 million dead in its wake. These survivors ask that you listen well and never forget. Hatred will not rest. It’s raw and it’s real. These survivors ask that you refuse to stand by quietly and watch hatred take root. They ask that you become their voice.