Recently, after giving a talk at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Kingston, Ont., Robert Melson, 74, was asked why and where he’d been in the city. He neglected to mention the location of his talk.
“I didn’t want to identify myself as a Jew,” he said. “So I just said that ‘I gave a talk here in Kingston.’ The fact of the matter is there’s a slight…fear. And I’d rather not be recognized as a Jew in public.”
Melson, a childhood Holocaust survivor born in Poland, spoke at Centennial College’s Progress Campus last Thursday.
He recalled that “on Oct. 12, 1941, most of the Jews in Stanisławów, a mid-sized town in Poland (his hometown) were massacred by units of the SS. My parents and I survived because we went into hiding. Later, my mother was able to acquire false papers of identity that enabled us to impersonate a Polish-Catholic family until the end of the war.”
Melson’s family lived in apparent safety as non-Jews during their escape from Europe, but Melson, who was four years old at the time, recognized his vulnerability even though he couldn’t fully understand it.
“(My parents) felt threatened every minute of the day, from 1941 to 1945. Fear was part of my growing up,” he said. “I didn’t know why they would … blanche when there was somebody on the stairs, when the knock was too loud.
“Finally, when my parents began to explain to me all of this craziness it dawned on me…They were essentially pointing at this 800-pound gorilla in the room [which] was our being Jewish during the war, and we could have been killed at any moment.”
Thanks to the Hebrew Immigrant’s Association, the Melsons eventually settled in New York in 1947.
Still, Melson insisted that while the 800-pound Gorilla became “a smaller splinter” over the years, it represents a fear that remains with him today, demonstrated in part by his inability to face the images of the Holocaust commonly seen today.
“I don’t go running to Holocaust films (or) to read the Holocaust memoirs. I find them very disturbing,” he said.