Leon holds a Channukiah, one of the few objects he has that belonged to his father. He restored it as a gift for his son’s Bar Mitzvah. Now when he looks at it, the memories are good instead of sad.
“I was born in Podhajce, Poland, a vibrant town of 6,000 people, of which half were Jewish. The town supplied the neighbouring villages of farmers who lived in mud huts with straw on the floors. We lived a magical life. I was very close to my brother Barry. My parents and uncle Buzio worked in their general store in town. In 1939 the war started. We were occupied by the Soviet Union. The Polish Army was destroyed, our home and property confiscated. We were thrown out. We moved to another town. German troops invaded in June 1941. My father was grabbed in the street. My mother, whilst searching for him, was taken by Ukrainian police with other Jewish women and hacked to death after digging their own graves.
Back in Podhajce, the first pogrom took place on Yom Kippur, 1942. The Gestapo went around saying in Yiddish, ‘Come out Jews, the Messiah has come.’ We survived in a hiding place in my grandparents’ house. Soon after, my father was murdered.
Uncle Buzio, who was only 29 years old, carried the burden of the whole family. We climbed the ghetto wall and went into hiding. We lived like zombies: no change of clothes, no showers, no leaving the cellar for one year. There was little light. The only air supply came from a small cut-out which backed onto a dog’s kennel.
The Soviet Army liberated us in April 1944. An officer advised us to join a convoy of trucks going to Russia. In Kiev, Uncle Buzio sent us to a good orphanage. We were being Russianized, but then Aunty Kola came and took us back to Poland in May 1945.
Uncle Buzio was living well now. He bought new clothes for us, employed a teacher and said, ‘Don’t worry about algebra. Teach them what they need to know.’
I went into a jewellery workshop and eventually got my Master Jeweller’s Certificate, and in Australia started Leon Milch Jewellers.”