The Day She Should Have Died

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Filed under: Featured — John T. Ward @ 12:40 pm

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After the Nazis shot her father, Moments in Time author Fay Malkin nearly lost her life at the hands of the very people who were caring for her.

BY JOHN T. WARD

The more the adults in the pigsty’s loft implored her to be quiet, the more the little Letzter girl cried. Her tears were understandable, of course. Two nights earlier, amid the hysteria of an imminent Gestapo aktion in which all Jews would be either shipped out to death camps or killed on the spot, five-year-old Feyge (pronounced “FAY-guh”) Letzter had slunk out of the ghetto of Sokal, in the Ukraine, along with her mother, Lea, and her grandmother, an uncle and four other adults and children. But their furtive, two-mile trek, including a dash across a bridge on the Bug River, did not end with deliverance; it ended with a climb up a ladder to a hayloft above a pigsty, where a family of four was already living. After two years of deprivation and unprovoked murder, including that of her own father, Feyge learned that her home for the foreseeable future was a cramped, reeking, windowless space she’d have to share with 12 other people. She’d been crying since she got there.

Under other circumstances, the girl’s despair might have been more easily tolerated. But filling the silences between the bursts of distant machine-gun fire and exploding grenades in the crowded cellars of Sokal—the aktion in progress—Feyge’s unrestrained sobs were a threat to the lives of everyone at the farm. Just one neighbor or passerby hearing her—that’s all it would take for them all to end up dead at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainians or the Germans who’d overtaken the region two years earlier. And Francisca Halamajowa (pronounced “hah-lah-my-OH-wah”), the Gentile who owned the barn, would likely be the first to get a bullet to the head.

Malkin, in 1939, with her mother

Hoping to drown out Feyge’s cries with the sounds of squealing piglets, Halamajowa and her daughter, Hela, spent hours whipping the animals. But they couldn’t keep that up indefinitely. Something had to be done about the girl.

That’s why the adults in the loft decided to kill Lea Letzter’s only child. The intended victim of that plot now goes by the names Frances, or Fay, Malkin. She remembers only so much about the 18 months she spent in that awful place, and her memories are, like those of any witness, spotty and sometimes at odds with the recollections of others present. She recalls the loft as a low-raftered space in which she could stand up, but David Kindler, a local physician who had taken refuge there with his family, could not. She remembers the rank odor, the dust and the torture of what her family called fleas, though she is now convinced they were lice. Oddly, perhaps, she doesn’t recall extremes of hot and cold. She retains vague memories of playing chess, and a clearer one of watching the adults lower the body of her 20-something aunt, Chaye Dvora, through the trapdoor down to Mrs. Halamajowa for secret burial after she died of tuberculosis.

Today, Malkin lives in a handsome, cedar-sided condo built into a carefully landscaped hillside in West Orange, N.J. Her home is a place of vaulted ceilings, skylights and bold colors. And here, at a sunlit kitchen table covered with sepia-toned photos and books about Sokal, 70-year-old Malkin talks about the late-life awakening that has impelled her to re-examine her Holocaust experience after decades of putting it out of her mind. Forgetting was behavior learned from relatives who avoided discussion of what they’d been through—except to tell and retell the story of “the miracle child” who’d survived their efforts to kill her.

Malkin’s efforts to come to terms with her past began about eight years ago, when, answering a yearning she couldn’t quite articulate, she signed up for the Leave-a-Legacy Writing Program for Holocaust Survivors at Drew’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. In the halting process of getting her memories down on paper for the 2005 book the center published called Moments in Time: A Collage of Holocaust Memories—“I’m not a writer,” she says—she relied on and supplemented the efforts of her late uncle, Moshe Maltz, who kept a contemporaneous diary of the family’s life in the pig barn, a collection of notes that was finally published in 1993. Though it led to her becoming a member of the center’s board, the long-overdue process of reopening the door to her past has hardly been a joyous one, Malkin says. Yet it has been necessary, as she tries to comprehend the horror that nearly consumed her family, and did consume an estimated six million Jews. “It’s like I’m trying to make a new life for myself,” she says through a nervous grin that she acknowledges is her nearly constant mask.

Before the world exploded,” as she puts it, Malkin’s mother’s family had been well-to-do cattle traders; her father’s family owned a lumber yard. As newlyweds, Eli and Lea Letzter ran a candy shop in Sokal. Their daughter, born in the spring of 1938, was a happy, high-spirited girl.

Now a part of the Ukraine, Sokal was then in a region known as Eastern Galicia; between the world wars it had briefly been part of Poland, but was ceded to the Soviet Union shortly before the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. As the Germans overran the Sokal region in June 1941, many of the locals embraced them. Fed by a nationalist zeal and momentarily unshackled from the Kremlin, they unleashed decades of hatred in trying to scour their country of all traces of Judaism, both present and historical. They were glad to help sort out Jews for slave labor and eradication.

Shortly after the invasion, the Ukrainians, under the aegis of the Gestapo, ordered a roundup of Sokal’s Jewish men, ostensibly for labor assignments. Four hundred—professionals, businessmen, unskilled hands—showed up in the town square, where the Maltzes had for generations bought and sold cattle. Then they were marched out of town to an old brick factory, where they looked into their own freshly dug graves before being shot. Fay’s father, Eli Letzter, was among them, one of several hundred thousand Jews believed to have been slaughtered in this manner in the region.

Left: Halamajowa saved half of the 30 Jews who remained in Sokal during the war; Malkin’s parents in their candy shop before the war.

Two years later, as rumors of an aktion flew around town, the Maltzes and Letzters knew it was really coming—Lea’s brother, Shmelke, deemed necessary to the Gestapo effort, had been allowed to keep his job at the railroad depot, giving him access to key information. While many other Jews arranged to hide in cellars and elsewhere in town, Fay’s maternal grandmother paid a visit to Francisca Halamajowa, whom the family had been acquainted with for some years. A Polish Catholic in her late 50s, she’d lived in Germany and spoke perfect German; she’d also married a Ukrainian, but threw him out of her house when he declared himself a Nazi. Halamajowa agreed to hide as many family members as she could in the loft, and even passed them a key to the trapdoor so they could let themselves in during the night.

Halamajowa was cryptically casual when Fay’s grandmother asked why she would take such a risk. “Why not?” she is said to have replied. “I look at her picture now, and I think it was defiance” that drove her to risk her life, Malkin says. “Not so much against the Nazis, but against the Ukrainians.” A local Ukrainian official had long coveted the house beside the Bug River.

After the war, the Letzters, Maltzes and Kindlers would learn some almost incomprehensible things about their host. All the time she was hiding them, cooking for them and smuggling correspondence for them, she was hiding three more Jews, a family named Kram, in one of her two cellars. And toward the end of the war, she also hid, in the other, a German army deserter. Fay’s cousin, Judy Maltz, a journalist born after the war who has just completed a film about her family’s time in the barn, says one man who knew Halamajowa described her as “a sucker for anyone in trouble.” A hard-drinking, tobacco chewer, Halamajowa “was quite a character,” says Maltz, who titled her film No. 4 Street of Our Lady after the address of the Halamajowa homestead. “To pull this off, you couldn’t be a simple person. She was feisty, audacious.” Apparently she also possessed nerves of steel since she was ordered to board German soldiers at the same time that Jews were stashed in every corner of her property.

As the war was nearing its end, Sokal reverted to the Soviets, and Fay and her family were able to return to their home. Ukrainian communists arrested Halamajowa—they believed the German soldier she’d hidden was a spy—and planned to hang her. But they briefly let her go after Fay’s uncles persuaded them that the young man was, in fact, just a deserter. Still, the Soviet secret police came looking for Halamajowa again the next day with plans to interrogate her. When they arrived at the farm, she’d departed for Poland. She never returned.

Fay Malkin remembers crying, crying those first few days until finally even her mother, broken with grief, acquiesced to the consensus that Dr. Kindler should silence her so that the rest of them might live. In his kit bag, along with a supply of aspirin, cough syrup, sleeping pills and other remedies, Kindler had brought enough vials of poison for each person present to commit suicide should they be discovered.

Malkin, who married Milton Malkin C’49, is on the board of the university’s Center for Holocaust/Genocide Study. Photo by: Bob Handelman

On May 28, 1943, the day she should have died, Malkin remembers telling the adults who were holding her down, “I’ll be good! I’ll be good!” She remembers having a pill forced into her mouth; her uncle’s diary says it was a liquid that she repeatedly spit out until they at last got enough into her to quell her. She relies entirely on Moshe’s account, and family lore, for the rest of the story. Kindler pronouncing her dead. Her mother telling her brothers, Moshe and Shmelke, that she would forgive them if God did also. Halamajowa appearing at the foot of the ladder two hours later with a burlap sack in which Feyge’s body should be buried under the cover of darkness. Kindler lifting the child’s limp body and detecting faint signs of life. Halamajowa agreeing, in one breath, that “it must be God’s will that this child should survive,” and saying in the next, “I can assure you I won’t allow her to cry again.”

After the war, stricken by tuberculosis as the family spent three years moving from one displaced persons camp to another, Malkin was rejected by her own family, she says—literally shunned as a health threat, but also rejected in ways that Fay today finds difficult to describe. The upshot, she says, was a sense of isolation worse than the Holocaust itself had been for her. “Miracle child”—it’s a term that chafes; they didn’t treat her like a miracle child, she says.

The Letzters and Maltzes arrived in the United States in 1949. Feyge, almost 11 years old, adopted the name Frances and was enrolled in the first grade. But she caught up quickly, and graduated from Newark’s Weequahic High School at 18.

In America, the talk of the past was minimal among the surviving members of the Maltz and Letzter clans. “Nobody spoke about it,” Malkin says. “It wasn’t something you felt proud of, I think.” There was shame over not having put up a fight; even in Israel, she notes, there was a lingering contempt for the Holocaust survivors, who were often derided as sheep. But anyway, the war was over, and what was the point of looking back? “They did the best when their lives were on the line,” Malkin says of her elders. Afterward, “the spirit was knocked out of them. ‘Don’t make waves’ was their attitude.”

Always “Feigele” to Lea, Malkin said she and her mother “didn’t get along well,” and she began putting as much emotional space as she could between herself and her mother. She married, had a daughter, got divorced and remarried and would “lose myself,” she says, in work as a commercial real estate broker, trying to escape her mother’s fatalism. “That’s one of the things about being a Holocaust survivor—you’re waiting for catastrophe to happen when things are good. My mother used to say when I was running and laughing as a kid, ‘Don’t run too hard, don’t laugh too good, because you’re going to cry.’ It was that kind of feeling, waiting for the next tragedy.”

Lea Letzter died in 2003 at age 98. Malkin did not attend her mother’s funeral in Israel, but not for spite; her own husband, Milton, had died the same day and was to be buried here in America.

Had her mother and uncles been alive, they’d have been “hysterical” with rage hearing Fay talking, in 2007, about returning to Sokal with her cousin, Herby Maltz, Moshe’s son, who had also hidden in the barn. They were part of a rare minority, Fay and Herby: Fewer than 11 percent of Europe’s prewar population of Jewish children survived—one-third the survival rate of Jewish adults. Like pregnant women and the elderly, Jewish children were routinely sent straight to the gas chambers on arriving at concentration camps. “You can’t go back there, they’ll kill you,” Fay imagines Moshe and her mother saying. And in fact, to this day, graffiti swastikas are not uncommon in Ukrainian cities. Holocaust historian Omer Bartov says that the Ukrainians still refuse to acknowledge as a people that tens of thousands of Jews were murdered at their hands or even in their midst. Friends, also Holocaust survivors, urged Malkin not to open that door, more out of concern for her emotional, than physical, safety.

But Herby’s daughter, Judy, was making her film, and Malkin felt a compulsion, like the one that had led her to the Drew writing program. She felt a need to cross into the world of those sepia-toned photos and see where her father had been murdered. “I had to go,” she says. “I don’t even know why.”

And so she did, and walked the streets of her childhood, some paved with what had been Jewish headstones. She visited the crumbling prewar synagogue, and the vestiges of the Halamajowa house; the original pigsty was gone, but Herby recognized the tree that Chaye Dvora was buried under. “And the worst part was I saw, for the first time, where my father had been killed,” Fay says, recalling the eeriness of the brickworks. “It had a terrible effect on me.”

There’s no happy ending to her journey so far, she says, adding frankly that her life “is not in a good place.” Unlike her elders, she cannot shut out the past, yet neither can she find a way to come to terms with the enormity of the Holocaust’s malice. She sees its echoes in news from places like Darfur. Still, she harbors no anger toward her relatives or Dr. Kindler for trying to end her life, or toward her late mother for letting them try. “They were not wrong,” she says, still smiling her nervous smile. “You were living in a world of death—life, death, destruction. This was normal.”

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