SENIORS | Memoir a tribute to couple who saved siblings from Holocaust

Until recently, Leon Malmed could not talk about his childhood in Nazi-occupied France.

For decades he rarely mentioned how, as a 4-year-old, he witnessed the local gendarmes arrest his parents, who later perished in Auschwitz. The reason he kept silent was simple. “Men don’t cry,” Malmed says, “and I just didn’t want to break down.”

He went on to a happy life as a family man and high-tech engineer in Silicon Valley, though he eventually reached a point where he needed to talk about the past.

Malmed, 75, recounts his harrowing tale in a newly published memoir, “We Survived. At Last I Speak,” which he wrote in French, followed by an English version.

Leon Malmed

The memoir is in large part a tribute to Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau, the kindly non-Jewish couple who lived in a downstairs flat. They promised to watch the two Malmed children after the SS seized their parents in July 1942. Little did the couple know the promise would last until the end of the war and beyond.

“[The Ribouleaus] probably did not realize at the time that it would be a danger to their lives,” says Malmed, now retired in South Lake Tahoe. “However, it came out quickly afterwards. There were fliers everywhere saying you could not hide Jews.”

The Israeli Holocaust center Yad Vashem later saluted the Ribouleaus, adding them to the list of Righteous Among the Nations in 1978. A plaque in their honor hangs on the street in Compeigne, France, where Malmed grew up.

Unlike other Holocaust memoirs, which often recount scenes of brutality, starvation and physical suffering, Malmed’s story is deceptively placid. He and his sister, Rachel, went to school and played. The Ribouleaus, along with their grown sons, kept the Malmed children fed, sheltered and loved.

But the perpetual fear of discovery and the anguish of separation made the war years a living hell. More than once, the SS came by to arrest the children. If not for Henri Ribouleau’s cordial relationship with the local Nazi commander, the Malmed children surely would have died.

The Dickensian nightmare continued after the war when Malmed’s aunt and uncle — themselves survivors — succeeded in ripping the children away from the Ribouleaus, who had by then become beloved surrogate parents.

“They were Jewish and they couldn’t think of us living with a gentile family,” Malmed says of his Polish-born aunt and uncle. “They came from another world where gentleness was not known.”

They sent Rachel off to America to live with a relative. Malmed did not see his sister again for 14 years.

In addition to suffering the loss of his parents and, for many years, his sister, Malmed was robbed of his Jewish identity — at least for several decades. The Ribouleaus, understandably, could offer nothing of a Jewish life to the children, and into his adulthood Malmed felt ambivalence about being Jewish.

“I never knew what Jewish was,” he recalls. “I grew up in a Christian family for three years, and we never talked about the Jews. But I always heard the news. I thought [Jews] must have done something really bad that these people wanted to kill them. The word ‘Jew’ was really scary.”

Leon Malmed (second from right) next to his sister, Rachel, with the couple who took them in as children, Suzanna (seated) and Henri Ribouleau (right), along with Rachel’s husband, Izzy Epstein (left), in 1975.

He also endured snide anti-Semitic comments from co-workers early in his career in France as a mechanical engineer. That prejudice was one reason Malmed followed his sister to the United States. Though it hurt to leave the Ribouleaus, he sailed to America with his wife and young children in 1964.

“I came to this country and started to work in environments where there were many Jews,” he recalls. “Everyone worked together, and never did I hear a negative word.”

He worked his way up the ladder, went through a

painful divorce, then found love again with his wife of more than 30 years, Patricia. Before moving to Tahoe, the couple were longtime residents of Pleasanton.

His sister, now 81, remains active and happy as well. Both kept in close touch with the Ribouleaus until their deaths, and worked hard to gain them the recognition they deserved.

Malmed say the Ribouleaus never saw themselves as heroes.

“We had to tell them and tell them, until the day they died,” he says. “To them [what they did] was something normal. They were our neighbors. They wanted to help.”

Malmed will donate all profits from his book to the S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services’ Holocaust Survivor programs.

Though far away from it now, he worries about resurgent anti-Semitism in France, fomented mostly by radical elements in the country’s booming Muslim population. The bad signs there today remind him of the dark days 70 years ago.

“A lot of people ask me if I have forgiven those people,” he says of the French collaborators who stole his parents’ lives. “I cannot. I will never do this.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.