On Thursday, April 16, Holocaust survivor Jean Malkischer spoke about her own experiences as part of Vassar’s recognition of Holocaust Remembrance Day. Malkischer’s talk was one of several events organized for Yom Ha’Shoa, the Jewish holiday to commemorate those affected by the Holocaust.
Born in Austria in 1930, Malkischer and her family attempted to flee when the country was annexed by Germany in 1938, but were turned away at the Swiss border. In 1942 they were sent to Theresienstadt, a concentration camp, before being sent to Auschwitz. Malkischer reunited with her parents and sister after the war, and in 1951 they emigrated to the United States.
Malkischer explained that she was lucky to have survived the Holocaust, and even luckier to have found her family alive as well. “Very few people survived,” she said. “And I don’t know [why] we did. Having found my parents was unusual because very few people were able to.”
After working in New York City at Mt. Sinai Hospital, Malkischer’s husband got a job in Poughkeepsie and the couple relocated to Hopewell Junction, where Malkischer still lives. She spoke of her own survival and her life in the United States, how fortunate she feels to have made it to where she is now. “We have had a happy life,” she said. “We never imagined life would be like this after all we’d gone through.”
Malkischer credits her sister with giving her the will to survive throughout their experience. “We shared so much,” she said. “Without my sister I don’t know if I would have been alive because that relationship was so important.”
For Kira Greenberg ’15, this sisterly bond was especially poignant. “One thing about her story that really stood out to me was her focus on her relationship with her sister and how that essentially saved her life,” she wrote in an emailed statement. “This really resonated with me because of the relationship that I have with my sister and just think it’s incredible that Jean had hope all of those years because of her sister…”
President of the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU), Jeremy Brick ’15, described a moment from Malkischer’s talk that stood out to him. “…She was describing the people she met during her experience in the various camps she was sent to,” he wrote in an emailed statement. “Describing them, she assured us that they were all very good, kind people, and the sense of comradery in the various places she spent time in was incredible. The vast majority of the people she met were killed.”
The extreme trauma and hardship that Malkischer endured left her with the desire to help others, as Ian Snyder ’17 explained. “She later went to medical school but did not finish- she told me personally after the talk that her experience in the Holocaust was a major catalyst for her desire to attend medical school,” he wrote, in an emailed statement. “She wanted to help people after realizing the value of human life and its transience.”
For Jason Goldman ’18, Malkischer’s resilience was particularly striking. “Her unbelievable maturity and resourcefulness at such a young age was truly inspiring, especially when faced with the most destitute and barren livelihood,” he wrote.
He went on to say, “Ms. Malkischer was asked by one of the students if she ever went back to Auschwitz, and I was shocked at first when she said that she could never go back. That really helped me understand how incredibly life-altering that experience was for her; that it would simply have been too overwhelming for her to see it again.”
In fact, Malkischer explained that even returning to her hometown of Vienna was complicated. “Vienna was never a place that I could call home anymore after what they did to us,” she said. “Vienna is a beautiful city, but it’s not my home. My home is here.”
Snyder explained that he was shocked by Malkischer’s account of the brutality she endured. “Ms. Malkischer’s talk was extremely honest and revealing,” he commented. “I was surprised by how detailed her accounts were of her horrific experiences. I’ve heard Holocaust survivors talk before, but few have been willing to disclose the inhumane brutality that they were subjected to in such detail.”
Malkischer was appreciative of those who came to hear her speak, and directly addressed the audience to thank them. “I’m so glad you all came here and you’re all interested in the Holocaust because some think that it didn’t exist,” she remarked. “I was there and I told the truth.”
Greenberg recounted her own experience with Malkischer, who emphasized the need to tell stories. “I went up to her to talk to her afterwards,” she wrote. “I thanked her for sharing her story, told her that I had been to both of the camps that she had been in (Theresienstadt and Auschwitz) and that I had family who perished in the Holocaust. She took my hand and told me that I had to continue learning and sharing these stories, and I started to tear up.”
In previous years, the VJU has hosted vigils for the event in which students shared their thoughts and written pieces about the Holocaust. This year, the VJU hosted a vigil on April 15 and decided to organize an additional event as well.
Goldman explained his own interest in bring Malkischer to speak. “Jean Malkischer’s talk was definitely a unique change from previous years,” he explained. “When I took my position as Bayit Intern for the VJU, I knew I wanted to do something about Holocaust education, as survivors are a connection that is quickly fading away as they get older and older.”
He went on, “Personal stories really help you realize that this event, which can seem abstract because it was so long ago and so many people perished, was real and affected people beyond just the numbers you see and hear about.”
Greenberg also spoke to the fear of losing remaining Holocaust survivors and reiterated the important role of storytelling. “The Holocaust is becoming a more and more distant memory as time goes by, and soon we will not have any survivors left,” she wrote. “I think it’s important to hear the stories of survivors while we still can to prevent it from being just another world event in history books.”
Snyder echoed, “It is imperative to continue having these talks so that we may not forget and may not repeat. In a few years there will not be any survivors left and it is important to hear their stories before they pass away.”
He continued, noting that Malkischer ended her talk with a focus on the future. “Ms. Malkischer emphasized the necessity for tolerance in order to avert these disasters, which are still occurring in parts of the world today…”
Malkischer explained her own definition of tolerance and what it meant to her. “Tolerance: that’s the big word I think,” she said. “To be tolerant of people who don’t think like you do or are different than you are—you don’t have to kill them. You have to be tolerant and accept other peoples’ opinion. Tolerance is the thing.”
Goldman described Malkischer’s perspective on tolerance. He wrote. “Ms. Malkischer said that she believed the most important thing to do in our world is tolerate others,” he wrote. “She said that tolerance is paramount, and that she continues to tell her story even at her old age in order to ensure that everyone understands how horrible intolerance is and how hatred and violence manifest from the actions of intolerant groups.”
Goldman continued, explaining the place for tolerance in the context of the Holocaust and the need to keep the memory of it from fading.. “Holocaust education continues to be important for many reasons,” he wrote. “Principally, genocides happen today that go unnoticed or quickly forgotten about. The Holocaust reminds us that intolerance and violence because of hatred and perceived otherness has no place in our world and must cease to exist.”
Brick also remarked at the importance of remembering the Holocaust today and the significance of holding events for Yom Ha’Shoah. “For someone who is Jewish, like myself, I feel that I do not have the luxury to be able to not take this official day of mourning to remember my six million Jewish brothers and sisters, as well as the five million other victims (homosexuals, Romani, and many other groups who did not fit the Nazis definition of human being), who were slaughtered at that time in history. So I do feel that for Jews around the world, there is a specific meaning and reason for why these events must continue to happen.”
He continued, “I think that it is easy for people today to forget the past horrors of anti-semitism…how having an identity of ‘Jewish’ has meant being an ‘other’ time and time again with the Holocaust being the most recent large scale, mass violence example. If we forget it, then I believe that it is bound to happen again, because violence comes in cycles.”
Malkischer explained that she cannot help but remember the Holocaust, even if she tries. “This is something that cannot be forgotten,” she said. “You try to live a normal life, try not to think about it but it’s with you all the time…”
Yet she also explained the positive outlook she has, and what she chooses to focus on in her remembrance. “I think it made me a strong Jew. It gave me a lot of pride and strength…I’m happy to be a Jew.”