Chapter 2. A Lost World
My parents were born in Brest-on-the-Bug, a village close to Brest-Litovsk, located in what was formerly eastern Poland. Today, Brest-Litovsk, re-named Brest, is part of Belarus with a population of about 300,000. I know little about their youth. Like most Jews in that region, my parents grew up in a ghetto. The Malmed and Blum families were neighbors. As children, they played daily with each other.
My parents Chana and Srul Malmed, 1936
My paternal grandmother was called “Boubé,” the Yiddish word for grandmother. Her name was Rywka Malmed. She was born in 1880 in Brest-Litovsk. Szyja Malmed, my grandfather, died of typhus in his mid-thirties. My grandmother was thirty years old at the time, and they already had eight children. My father, Srul, born on May 13, 1906 was the third oldest among the six boys and the two girls.
As a widow, Boubé baked bread to earn money to buy food. All the children helped daily with the bakery. Some of them were too small to reach the tabletop. They stood on bricks to knead the dough. For the most part, the work was done at night since Jews were not allowed by law to own a business. Boubé made sure—I don’t know how—that the oven chimney did not smoke excessively to avoid attracting the attention of the authorities. Life was very difficult for Jewish people. The underground bakery was often visited by the authorities and arbitrarily closed. Because her bread was good and the community depended on it, the Christian population would immediately ask the local authorities to reopen the bakery, which they did most of the time.
The children delivered the bread each morning to both Jewish and non-Jewish families. Cossacks also came regularly to get their bread, but most of them refused to pay. They claimed that Jews should not own a business and certainly not become wealthy at the expense of Christian people.
Winters were bitterly cold. The family, when the baking was done, slept in the basement close to the oven, which was always on. The Blum children stayed with them too, as they could not afford to keep the fire going all night in their home. Both families were very poor.
Their homemade wooden-soled shoes, tied to their feet with leather straps, hardly provided any protection from the snow and the cold. My Aunt Sarah Blum once told me a frightening story that took place one winter. One morning, she and my father were walking across the frozen river Bug, to deliver bread on the other side of the river. Suddenly, twelve-year-old Sarah broke through the ice. My father grabbed her by her hair and managed to pull her out of the icy water. Life was hard and precarious in those days.
Jews have lived in Poland since the twelfth century. Prior to World War II, there were three million Jews in the country, about ten percent of the population. Today, there are less than 20,000. 2.9 million were exterminated during the war. Despite the fact that they were living in Poland for close to eight hundred years, they were forced to live apart from the Christian population. The authorities made it difficult for them to get an education. Jews had to pay exorbitant fees to attend college.
For centuries religious teachings had spread lies about Jewish people, contributing to strong anti-Semitic feelings. Among other things, Jews were accused of killing Christ and of using human blood to make the traditional matzos for Passover. Yet, interestingly, Jews were allowed to vote. During election campaigns, persecution and harassment were put on hold. Candidates, promising major improvements, campaigned in Jewish neighborhoods. Cossacks, always on horseback, were more tolerant in the pre-electoral times. Usually, they took pleasure in hitting people with their whips as they galloped by. As soon as the campaign was over, conditions returned to the pre-election state with no improvements whatsoever.
I can only imagine the hopelessness and the laborious lives of my father and his brothers and sisters, Zelman, Ida, Meyer, Joseph, Sarah, Eizik, Nathan, and their mother Rywka. There are no remaining survivors of that time. My Aunt Sarah Blum, the last one of that era, passed away in 2002.
Today, these ghosts of an almost forgotten time of history are just faces on the few photos, yellowed by time, that survived the World War II disaster. In a picture taken in 1928, my father is sitting in a Polish uniform, unsmiling. In another photo he is with handsome and smartly dressed friends. Two of them wear an elegant hat, one a boater, tilted to one side.
Charles (Calel) Blum (my mother’s brother), a friend, Meyer Malmed (my father’s brother), Srul Malmed (my father), 1931
It seems that in those days people did not smile when they had their picture taken. Jews especially had little reason to. Children, too, stood like statues, seemingly petrified. Looking at them now, the photographs reflect the dark times in which they lived and the foreboding of the horrors that lay ahead. Each photo reflects a black-and-white world of grave-looking people, alive but already brushing death.
I have never been to Brest-Litovsk. Most likely I would find no trace of my uncles, aunts, cousins, parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. As far as I know, the government of Belarus has never expressed a desire to redress the wrongs that were done to its Jewish citizens.
My mother, Chana Blum, was born in 1911. The exact date is unknown. She lost both her parents when she was nine years old during a typhus epidemic. She had five brothers and two sisters. Her older brother Calel (Charles) managed to take care of his siblings. After emigrating to France, my Uncle Calel married Sarah Malmed, my father’s younger sister.
Uncle Zelman, the eldest son of the Malmed family, emigrated to France in 1923. He settled in Saint-Quentin, a town located about one hundred miles north of Paris. There, he worked as a tailor in a clothing store. Before leaving Poland he married Sarah Blum, my mother’s sister who was born July 13, 1900. The couple had three children, Jacques, Ida, and Sonia Malmed. A tragic end awaited two of them.
Left to right: Sarah Malmed, my aunt; Chana Blum, my mother; “Boubé”, my grandmother; Meyer Malmed, Salomon’s father, my uncle; Jean Gerbaëz, son of Ida, my cousin; Abraham Gerbaëz, Ida’s husband, my uncle; Ida Malmed, wife of Abraham Gerbaez, my aunt; Hélène Gerbaëz, daughter of Abraham and Ida, a cousin, and Srul Malmed, my father, 1928.
Life became increasingly difficult for Jews in Poland. Food was scarce. There was “not a single piece of meat in the pot,” Aunt Sarah Blum remembered. In their quest to escape poverty, persecution, and famine, Charles Blum, my mother’s brother, emigrated to France in 1929.
A year later, Srul along with his sister Sarah and their mother, Riwka, emigrated to France as well. Zelman, my uncle, helped them financially. They arrived in Saint-Quentin after a long, tiring trip. Completely lost and penniless, they ended up in Paris at the “Gare du Nord” train station, one hundred miles past their intended stop in Saint-Quentin. A generous woman felt sorry for these strangers who spoke no French and had no French money. She bought them a train ticket from Paris to Saint-Quentin. Aunt Sarah Blum recalled that this Good Samaritan walked them to the platform where their train was to depart and waited until the train left. Coming from Poland where the non-Jewish population hated them, it was hard to believe that a stranger would help people who were badly dressed and did not even speak French.
My father and mother had known each other since childhood. They dated before emigrating to France. Both my mother and father left Brest-Litovsk at about the same time. Shortly after their arrival in France, a friend of the family, Joseph Epelberg, who lived in Paris, came to Saint-Quentin to visit with the Malmed and Blum families, but mainly to court my mother. My mother was a pretty woman. My father was furious with him and practically dragged him to the train station, ordered him to leave on the next train and never come back. “Chana will be my wife!” he told him. My father and mother were madly in love. They married in Saint-Quentin in 1931. Several years later, Joseph Epelberg and his wife Suzanne became very good friends of my parents.
Wedding of Srul Malmed and Chana Blum, 1931
Aunt Blum often talked about Uncle Charles, her husband, owning only one pair of pants and two shirts for the first couple of years in France! He made a living by pulling a small trailer behind his bicycle, loaded with socks and men’s underwear that he sold door-to-door.
Aunt Sarah worked for a textile company where they processed cotton. It was a sweatshop with long hours and unsanitary working conditions, which eventually burned down.
Their oldest daughter, Rachel, was born in 1932, followed by her sister, Madeleine, in 1937. Aunt Sarah quit her job in the textile plant to work with her husband at the open markets. By this time, Uncle Charles had replaced his bicycle and trailer with a small van. Whatever the season, their day began at 5:00 a.m. to allow time to get to market and set up the stall.
For most of the Malmed and Blum families, emigrating to France was to have been temporary. One of the Blum sisters, Rose, moved to the United States in 1922 at the age of 17. It was hoped that she would bring the members of the Blum and Malmed families to America, but immigration quotas were very limited and Aunt Rose did not have the financial guarantees the government required to bring the family.
As time passed, those who had emigrated to France began to take root and adapt to this welcoming country and its lifestyle. Couples married and children were born. Everyone was learning French. New friends were made. Life was relatively easy. Few wanted to move again to another country, struggle with a new language, find a way to earn a living and essentially start all over.
Meanwhile, two Malmed brothers, Nathan and Eizik, remained in Poland. Unfortunately, they were exterminated along with the other 2.9 million Polish Jews.
In 1933 my parents moved to Compiègne to work with Uncle Zelman. Compiègne was a small town of about 18,000 people located about fifty miles north of Paris. Uncle Zelman owned a store in a modest, three-story building, close to the bridge crossing the Oise River leading to the nearby train station. Uncle Zelman and his family lived on the first floor above the store, my parents on the second floor and Uncle Joseph on the third floor.
My father worked as a tailor for his brother, and my mother as a seamstress in a clothing factory in Compiègne. Uncle Zelman wasn’t an easy man to work for. He was hard on his employees, my father included. He was a chain smoker until the day he died despite the fact that he suffered from asthma and had trouble breathing. I can still remember the yellow paper he used to roll his cigarettes. It was believed then that yellow paper was not as harmful as the white paper. His difficulties breathing caused him to make strange faces, which made all of us children laugh.
A sign hung above his boutique: “The tailor of Roubaix, suits for 280 francs” (equivalent to $180). A few people in Compiègne still remember that he would give away prized gifts like small knives to customers to thank them for their loyalty. He was a very well known tailor and had many loyal customers. His business was so good that he could not find enough qualified employees in Compiègne. He sent trunks filled with material to subcontractors in Paris.
Everyone in the family spoke Yiddish at home and French outside. My parents learned French rather quickly. They were happy in France. They had run away from the misery, the pogroms and the hateful environment to a country where they could work freely, without fear, and send their children to public school without having to bribe someone.
My sister, Rachel, was born on April 29, 1932. I followed five years later on October 4, 1937.
My parents Srul, and Chana Malmed with Rachel, 1935