Update, Nov. 24 at 12:59 p.m.: This article has been updated to include that Los Rios Student Trustee Cameron Weaver said in an email that he could not attend the college hour featuring Leon Malmed due to “academic obligations.”
Students, faculty and staff gathered in a packed music hall at American River College on Tuesday to listen to the harrowing story of a Holocaust survivor and the couple who risked their lives and the lives of their children to save him and his sister.
Leon Malmed, now 78, was only four and a half years old when his parents were taken into custody by the French police at the command of the Nazi Germany. Malmed recognizes this as his “first memory” of childhood and “the only memory” of his parents.
Malmed and his sister Rachel were taken in by their neighbors in the northern French town of Compiegne. The Ribouleau family refused to give the two up, despite the “24/7 mortal danger” that they faced.
Leon said that he was soon able to call the Ribouleaus “mama” and “papa.”
“I’ve never stopped thinking, to this day, of my parents,” said Malmed. “But, I found that it was possible to love two sets of parents.”
Aside from the constant fear of being captured, Malmed said that they encountered several other troubles during their time in hiding — including a lack of food, which was scarce and rationed during the war.
“Rachel and I were not supposed to exist,” he said. “So, there were only four ration cards that only gave you about 400 calories a day and we had to share those four ration cards between six people.”
World War II ended in 1945, but Malmed said that it wasn’t for many years that he was able to accept that he would never see his parents again.
Following the war, the torment for Leon and Rachel was not yet behind them.
“For people who have lost their parents at an early age, it’s just a terrible catastrophe that you cannot get away from for all your life.” — Leon Malmed
Against their own will and that of the Ribouleaus, Leon and Rachel were forced, after a lengthy legal battle, to live with their aunt and uncle, whom they did not know.
Two years later Rachel was sent to live with an aunt in America and Leon would not see her again for 13 years.
Malmed said that, at the time, he was “mad at the world” and wondered how many more loved ones he would lose.
After two more years and with the help of the local Jewish community, Malmed was allowed to return and live with the Ribouleaus. He said that finally, at the age of 12, he was at peace.
Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau were bestowed the title Righteous Among the Nations by Israel in 1977 for their protection of Leon and Rachel. The title honors those who though not of the Jewish faith, risked their lives to help Jews during the war.
Malmed recounted his story in its entirety in his book “We survived … At last I speak.”
When Compiegne was liberated by the Allies, Leon and Rachel were the last two Jews alive in the small French town.
When asked about Los Rios Student Trustee Cameron Weaver’s remarks on Sept. 16 casting doubt on whether the Holocaust actually took place, Malmed addressed the topic of Holocaust skepticism.
“The Holocaust happened. I was there. I lost my parents. … For people who have lost their parents at an early age, it’s just a terrible catastrophe that you cannot get away from for all your life,” said Malmed. “When General Eisenhower was in Poland, he said ‘Take pictures, take pictures, take pictures because in 20 years from now, in 50 years from now, people will not believe it happened.’
“There are those deniers but it’s mostly people who pretend it didn’t happen; those are the pretenders. It is not possible to deny it.”
ARC President Thomas Greene was responsible for bringing Malmed to ARC and said that it was a presentation that he’d “seen and listened to” before.
“Leon provided the same presentation when I worked at Lake Tahoe Community College,” said Greene. “I thought it had value for the students, faculty and staff at this college.”
Greene wouldn’t say whether Weaver’s comments, which gained national media attention, were a reason behind the invite.
Weaver did not attend the college hour. When asked why Thursday, Weaver said that he would respond to an email. Weaver said in the email that he could not attend “due to academic obligations.”
Student Senate President David Hylton, who defended Weaver’s comments, did not attend the college hour. When asked why, Hylton said that he wouldn’t respond to any questions he couldn’t approve in advance.
She had suggested in an Oct. 1 email to members of ASB and the Current that ARC ask a Holocaust survivor to speak and provide “a Brave Space workshop on the WWII Holocaust.” Jones said that she “didn’t know” that Malmed was speaking on campus.
Clubs and Events Board President Justin Nicholson, who defended Weaver’s comments and voted against an effort to recall him, said that he couldn’t attend due to work.
“Personally, I was working,” said Nicholson. “I don’t think the board had a chance to formally send anyone (to the presentation).”
Many in the audience, including ARC student James Dillion, were touched by Malmed’s presentation.
During the question and answer session at the end of the presentation, Dillion asked Malmed if he had an optimistic or pessimistic view of the world following his experiences during World War II.
Malmed responded by saying that he was optimistic because good defeated evil.
“(He was) powerful, moving,” said Dillion following the presentation. “I feel very good (about his answer to my question). If he has hope, after what he’s been through, then there will always be hope.”
Deborah Van Ells, an adjunct professor of history, said the presentation made her cry and that it’s “very courageous of him” to tell his story.
“I think that what I’m taking away is that there really are good people in this world,” said Van Ells. “The people who hid him and cared for him sort of renew your faith in humanity when things are pretty bad.”
Throughout the presentation, Malmed stressed to the audience that discrimination is still a very real thing and that all of us our responsible for coming out against hatred.
“We live today in, still, a very tumultuous word and unfortunately we are again witnessing a repeat of history,” said Malmed. “Let all of us speak and act against racism, hatred, anti-Semitism, injustice and, the worst of all crimes — the one whose name should make us shudder — genocide.”
John Ferrannini contributed to this report.