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Episode 8

Malka Baran

“I remember hiding in a cellar, and we were very, very quiet as the German troops were entering the city. And a baby started crying, and there was a candle on the windowsill. The windows were closed. In order for the Germans not to hear the baby cry, the mother was stifling the baby. And then a candle burnt, went out, and people were beginning to say that there was no air. Obviously, we could not stay anymore, and we ran somewhere.”

                       

Malka Baran expressed her love of children by caring for a toddler hidden in the barracks of a concentration camp and teaching first grade at her DP camp. It was the start of her lifelong commitment to early-childhood education.

Photos and Artifacts

Malka Baran, born Mela Klin (back row, second from right), with seven of her peers, all wearing the Star of David, 1940. This is the only surviving photo from Malka’s childhood. Credit: Courtesy of Boaz Munro.

Malka Baran (back row, center) at a DP camp in Wegscheid, Austria, ca. 1946. At the time, Malka taught first grade in the camp. One of the children in the photo is
Harry Schneider, who was a neighbor of Moshe Baran, Malka’s surviving husband, in Pittsburgh. A few years ago, Harry showed Moshe the photo, telling him, “This is a picture of me as a child in the DP camp.” Moshe was shocked to see his late wife in the photo. Credit: Courtesy of Boaz Munro.

Moshe and Malka Baran’s wedding, 1952. Credit: Courtesy of Boaz Munro.

Page from a list of surviving Jews in Czestochowa, compiled by the World Jewish
Congress after the war. Malka Baran’s birth name, Mela Klin, appears in row 1187. Credit: Czestochowa-Radomsko Area Research Group, via Yad
Vashem.

A 1940 list from the Czestochowa Council of Elders showing Isaac (Icyk) Klin, Malka Baran’s father, on a list of Jews registered for forced labor. Malka’s
father and younger brother were both put to work building a railroad; they were shot under unknown circumstances during forced labor. Credit: Czestochowa-Radomsko Area Research Group, via United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Malka Baran reading to her grandson Boaz Munro, ca. 1989. Credit: Courtesy of Boaz Munro.

Malka and Moshe Baran dancing at Moshe’s 80th birthday celebration, Pittsburgh, December 2000. Credit: Courtesy of Boaz Munro.

Malka and Moshe Baran at Malka’s 80th birthday party, January 2007. Malka had terminal cancer by then, and the family decided to host a big celebration in the knowledge that she didn’t have much time left. Malka received her diagnosis with grace and acceptance and died peacefully on May 7, 2007. Credit: Courtesy of Boaz Munro.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

What stands out in Malka Baran’s testimony is her determination to emerge from the Holocaust with her faith in humanity restored by the decent actions of a few. As Malka’s daughter Avi Baran Munro remarked after her mother’s death, “She came out of the camps with no hatred. She blacked out a lot of her experiences, but she always remembered the few times people were kind.” 

Most survivors were justifiably full of bitterness and anger. These were feelings that they often worked hard to conceal because they learned through painful experience that people, especially Americans, preferred to hear stories with a happy ending, reassuring tales of human triumph over evil. Even close relatives who welcomed survivors after the war did not want to hear the truth—the ceaseless aching pain underneath a cheery and feisty exterior, the never-ending thoughts of murdered children who would always be four or seven, the sudden flashbacks and fear. Malka’s testimony, therefore, is as valuable as it is atypical.

Malka Baran, whose birth name was Mela Klin, was born in Warsaw on January 30, 1927. When she was one year old, her parents, Isaac (Icyk) and Bela Klin, settled in the southern Polish city of Czestochowa on the Warta River. Besides her parents, Malka also had a brother, Henek, who was four years her junior. Only Malka survived the war.

In 1931, Czestochowa, the site of the most revered Catholic shrine in Poland, was a city of 117,170 inhabitants, including 25,558 Jews. (Because of a large influx of refugees and expellees after the beginning of the war, this number had swelled to 40,000 by the time the Czestochowa Ghetto was established in April 1941.) Jewish political parties—including the orthodox Aguda, the Zionists, and the Bund—were very active in the city. There were several Jewish organizations devoted to culture, public health, and economic self-help.

Relations between Poles and Jews were fraught, and there were major anti-Jewish riots in 1918 and 1937. However, Malka, who lived in a Jewish neighborhood and had only Jewish friends, did not recall any overt antisemitism. Malka’s father was a printer, whose shop was directly below the family’s modest apartment. Malka described her family as “normal lower middle class.” Her childhood memories were happy. She attended an excellent Jewish school, where the language of instruction was Polish but Hebrew was taught as well. Families of modest means usually could not afford to enroll their children in such a school, but Malka’s parents received a discount because one of her aunts worked there. Malka also had fond memories of going to the movies (her father printed tickets for local theaters) and of summer visits with her mother’s sister in Warsaw. (This aunt, an opera lover, once took young Malka to see a production of Faust that she never forgot.)

Malka’s parents were not religious. Like many Polish Jews of his generation, Isaac  had had a strict religious upbringing, but he had rebelled when he became a teenager. He went to the synagogue once a year, on Yom Kippur, and his wife, Bela, lit candles on Friday night. But on Passover, when Jews were strictly forbidden to eat leavened bread, the Seder table was adorned with matzah—and bread. Yet, despite their lack of interest in religion, Malka’s parents imbued their daughter with a deep sense of Jewish pride and belonging. Indeed, entirely on her own, she developed the habit of “speaking to God” before she went to sleep at night.

Malka’s happy childhood was brutally cut short when the Germans invaded Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939. By Sunday, the German army had captured Czestochowa. They lost no time in terrorizing the Jewish and Polish population: on Monday, September 4, on the pretext that someone had shot at German soldiers, the Germans carried out a massive roundup of Jews near Malka’s home and shot 96 men and women. 

The usual persecutions and humiliations soon befell the Jews of Czestochowa: roundups for forced labor; the mandatory wearing of an armband; frozen bank accounts; the burning of synagogues. All Jewish businesses were taken over by Germans. Malka’s father lost his print shop and had to perform backbreaking manual labor. Malka and her brother also had to work menial jobs. Malka’s school was closed, though for a time the children met illegally at their teachers’ homes and continued their lessons.

As in all Polish towns, the Germans appointed a Jewish council (Judenrat) to transmit orders and keep the Jewish population in line. The Czestochowa Judenrat, led by Leon Kopinski, did what it could: it helped organize relief, started soup kitchens, and collected money to pay the repeated German “fines” that were impoverishing the Jewish population. But the Judenrat found itself in a hopeless situation—humiliated by the Germans and, like the Jewish police, eyed with suspicion and dislike by many Jews. 

In April 1941, the Germans forced the city’s Jews into the newly established Czestochowa Ghetto. Since the ghetto encompassed the neighborhood where Malka and her family lived, they did not have to move.

Life in the ghetto was marked by a desperate battle against hunger and disease. Yet, Jewish doctors and nurses did their best to combat epidemics, teachers set up day-care centers, and political parties held secret meetings. There were many cultural activities; the Jews did their best not to give in to depression and despair. In 1942 Zionist youth organizations, as well as Bundists and Communists, began to plan an underground resistance movement and started raising money to buy weapons. 

Malka had few memories of daily life in the ghetto, but she vividly recalled Yom Kippur 1942. That’s when the Germans suddenly descended on the ghetto and began the mass deportations to Treblinka. Between September 22 and October 7 the Germans sent 30,000 Jews to the death camp in trains that were crammed with more than 100 people in each car. The first day of the deportations, Malka and her family were subjected to a German “selection.” Malka’s mother was sent to one side—she later died in Treblinka—Malka, her father, and her brother, Henek, to another. Isaac and Henek were forced to work on the railroad. One day, they failed to return from their labor assignment; they had been shot along the railroad tracks. Malka was now alone. The only keepsakes of her parents she held onto were a heart-shaped pendant and a gold chain.

Malka and the other remaining Jews were now herded into the so-called Small Ghetto. In January 1943, she recalled, two Jewish members of the resistance organization opened fire on a German officer. Her memory was correct. On January 4, 1943, Mendel Fiszlewicz, a member of the resistance, pulled out his pistol and shot SS officer Felix Rohn. He then stabbed a policeman with his knife. In retaliation, the Germans immediately shot 25 Jewish men and sent 350 Jews to Treblinka. Miraculously, Malka again survived. 

In 1943 Malka and most of the other surviving Jews in the Small Ghetto were sent to HASAG-Pelcery, a labor camp on the outskirts of Czestochowa, to work at one of the city’s several HASAG plants. HASAG (Hugo Schneider Aktiengesellschaft Metallwarenfabrik) had become a major producer of ammunition for the German war machine, and had taken over many Polish munitions plants after the Germans occupied Poland. HASAG’s ruthless director, Paul Budin, an avid Nazi, had been able to convince the SS to let him use thousands of Jewish slave laborers in HASAG plants all over occupied Poland, including Skarzysko, Kielce, and Czestochowa. 

Conditions in HASAG were appalling. Malka became seriously ill with boils and typhus. She suffered from malnutrition. But she lived. She stated in her testimony that she did not adopt any particular strategy to survive; rather, what helped her carry on were some unexpected moments of human warmth and bonding. She and other women at the camp helped conceal a Jewish toddler whose mother had smuggled him into HASAG. Malka held the boy and sang to him—it was a precious human connection. Amazingly, the boy survived; when a German foreman discovered the toddler, he decided to let him live. 

Malka also owed her survival to the bonds of solidarity that developed among the women in the camp. She made close, lifelong friends there. There were also some decent Germans who now and then gave the prisoners some extra food.

Despite the horrendous conditions in the camp, HASAG-Pelcery was not the worst of the German labor camps. Jews who landed in HASAG-Pelcery from the Lodz Ghetto and from HASAG-Skarzysko considered themselves fortunate. Perhaps the biggest stroke of luck was that when the Russians launched their major offensive in January 1945, the Germans did not have the time to evacuate the prisoners. The Red Army liberated 5,000 Jews at the HASAG camps in Czestochowa, including 1,500 from the city itself.

Now that Malka was free, where would she go? She and her friend Shoshanka encountered a kindly Jewish man from Leningrad who was a supply officer in the Red Army and who wanted Malka to join his family in the Soviet Union (a plan that ultimately fell through). As Malka and Shoshanka traveled with a Red Army unit to meet up with the supply officer, they found themselves all alone on a dark night with dozens of soldiers. They expected the worst. But to Malka’s surprise, an officer watched over them, covered them with a blanket, and protected them. This evidence of human kindness touched her deeply and helped her begin her emotional recovery.

The road back to life was not easy. Malka returned to Czestochowa for a while, then made her way to a displaced persons camp in the American zone of Austria. In the DP camp she met her future husband—Moshe Baran from Horodok (in present-day Belarus), who was a partisan during the war. Malka and Moshe went to Israel, arriving in the middle of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948. While Malka wanted to stay in Israel and make a life there, Moshe’s mother, who had survived and immigrated to the United States, wanted the couple to join her there. After some hesitation, they did. Malka and Moshe settled first in Brooklyn, New York, and then moved to the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens, where Malka worked as a preschool teacher. She later earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees and went on to become the director of the preschool where she taught. After Malka and Moshe retired, they moved to Pittsburgh to be near their daughter Avi and four of their grandchildren.

Malka Baran died in Pittsburgh on May 7, 2007, at the age of 80. She was survived by her husband, two daughters, and six grandchildren.

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Additional readings and information

Malka’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/collections/5/collection_resources/1641.

Karay, Felicja. Death Comes in Yellow: Skarzysko-Kamienna Slave Labor Camp. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic, 1996.

Willenberg, Samuel. Surviving Treblinka. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1989.

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