born 1932, Bialystok, Poland
Family Odyssey: Leo Melamed was a young boy when he fled from Poland after war began in 1939. He remembers the time as a great adventure, despite the many different languages he had to learn along the way to his final refuge in the United States. He credits his father with making critical choices which saved them from the terror and deaths suffered by loved ones in the Holocaust
Leo Melamed was growing up in Bialystok, Poland....
In Leo words: ...Well, I grew up actually with two languages, almost simultaneously. My first was Yiddish, of course, because that was what my parents spoke and my family spoke and the Jews that we knew and lived with, in the community spoke. But, the language outside was, of course, Polish and so I was learning simultaneously the Polish language and I could converse, uh, Polish as Polish kids did on the streets. But the alphabet we were learning in school was the Yiddish alphabet. This was a Yiddish school and we were learning to write and read. And, of course, in kindergarten you get your first, um, tastes of the alphabet,
...when the Germans invaded, Leo' father, an alderman, fled with other members of the local government, fearing that they would be imprisoned or killed...
LEO: I was seven years old. My mother woke me in the middle of the night to tell me that I must get dressed; she's taking me to say goodbye to my father. The city was being bombed, and you could hear the air raid sirens and the "Aak aak " of anti-aircraft guns echoing through the buildings as we ran. My father embraced me, not knowing of course whether and when he was coming back and I of course knew nothing. And to leave us behind, not knowing what would happen, was the most difficult decision of his life.
My father called, and said that it was imperative for my mother and me to take the train out of Bialystok to Wilno, that very night. My mother hurriedly packed a small suitcase with just enough for a few days, because that's all she thought we were going for. The train station was a madhouse. It was the last train out of Bialystok, and the whole family -- my grandmothers and my aunt -- came to the vokzal [train station] to say goodbye. But everyone knew that it was just a temporary thing. This was until things straightened out and we would be right back. We never came back. But about a year later, the entire family -- both my grandmothers and my aunt -- together with some 500 other Jews were crammed into the Grosse Shul, the big synagogue of Bialystok. The entire building was gasolined and torched, and they all died.
The very first thing that my parents did the minute they were together again and we were living together again was to enroll me in school. You know I began life with two languages, Polish and Yiddish, but entering a Lithuanian school of course you learn Lithuanian. So the third language came into my being. Subsequent to that, the Russians came back, and that school that I was in changed like overnight into Russian, so that now I was learning my fourth language, which was Russian. It wasn't until Japan that I was enrolled in a Japanese school for my fifth language, Japanese. And then finally when I got to the United States, where my sixth language was English, I was a pretty mixed-up kid.
What my parents tried to do is to keep life as normal to me as they could and kids forget some of the other things that go around them and play games and meet new kids and go to birthday parties. Actually there's just a very few of the kids around that table that made it out. The rest of them perished in the Holocaust.
This rumor about getting a visa to Japan as the only escape route left forced my father to enter incognito to Kovno to do this, so he took the chance to plead for transit visas to Japan. My mother used to say to me that we were like a troupe of actors moving between countries and across borders, scared that we would be arrested. Any moment something could happen to derail our escape, but for a child this was an adventure of immense proportion.
When we reached Japan, it was like a fairytale. Strange people with funny-looking eyes, and everybody smiling. And I could feel the relief my parents felt. My mother said to me that it was the first time she took her breath.
Our whole odyssey, from the beginning of the war until we reached the United States was an odyssey based on a great deal of good fortune and a great deal of my father's good decisions. At any juncture the wrong move would have meant an entire different destiny