Holocaust Survivors Living in Westchester County: Melvin Federbush of Scarsdale, NY

“I Really Wanted to Live”
Melvin Federbush, Scarsdale

photo by Toshi Tasaki

Melvin Federbush

On September 11, 1939, Melvin Federbush’s family took refuge in an open field when German soldiers began bombing Ryki, a village to which they had moved temporarily after the Germans began bombing their nearby hometown of Deblin, Poland. They had no idea the Germans would soon be attacking the field as well. Melvin, then 16, was asked by his mom to run back to their house to retrieve a “precious sewing machine that belonged to my aunt.” Federbush, now 88, says. “I survived only because of that.”

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Amidst the panic, his two brothers, Henry, 13, and Sidney, 12, had also run in different directions and, when the three returned, life as they knew it had changed forever. “It was a terrible sight. We saw our parents and sisters lying where we left them, dead, along with hundreds of corpses.” When the bombing stopped, the orphaned brothers returned to their home in Deblin. A year later, they were forced to move to a Jewish ghetto and work in several slave-labor camps. “It is difficult for people to understand what it was like in the camps for all those years,” Federbush says. “A dog had more rights than the Jewish people. There was no value to our lives. A German soldier would shoot and kill a Jew at any time, like stepping on a cockroach.”

In 1945, they were transported to Buchenwald, one of the largest concentration camps in Germany. A few weeks later, Federbush was separated from his brothers and transferred to Triglitz, another German concentration camp, still rarely noted in histories. “We prisoners would walk for miles to the work site and then, all day long, we would dig tunnels,” recalls Federbush, who was 20 at the time. “All we were given to eat all day was a four-inch square piece of bread and watered-down soup. Every night, we’d carry dead bodies back to the camp. I thought it might be better not to wake up at all some days. But I really wanted to live.”

After a few weeks, Federbush was forced on a train with thousands of other prisoners from Triglitz to yet another camp, Theresienstadt, a way station to Auschwitz. On the way, Federbush made a decision that saved his life.

“Hundreds of prisoners died on the train every day. It had to be twenty degrees below zero. We would get off the train, break through the frozen ground with shovels and picks, and bury them. A Russian prisoner and I decided to jump from the open cattle car when the train slowed down.” They tumbled down a hill and ran into a forest, where they hid. “We were just trying to stay alive.”

Still on German soil, he and his fellow escapee found refuge at the home of a German woman. “She didn’t even ask any questions,” Federbush remembers. “This is the marvelous thing about her that I can’t forget.” The two changed into the clothing of her husband, who was away. Keeping his Jewish identity a secret, Federbush eventually found work on a farm along the countryside. Before long, he heard about Hitler’s suicide and the war’s end over the radio.

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“I began to walk as a free man,” says Federbush, whose exaltation is still palpable. “I will never forget what it was like to be truly liberated, without having to look over my shoulder. The sun shone brighter, the air was sweeter, and I saw colors again. I was reborn.”

When he returned to Buchenwald to search for Henry and Sidney, he discovered that only Sidney had survived. He learned through his cousin that Henry had been horrifically beaten when Nazis spotted him breaking into an ammunition depot for the anti-Nazi underground movement; he died two days after the war ended.

Along with 200,000 other refugees, Federbush made his way to Switzerland via the Swiss Red Cross, where he began his new life, mastering the art of manufacturing frames, and continuing his education, which had stalled at junior high school. Setting his sights on America—“I wanted to come to the country that loves freedom and fights for freedom”—he learned English in 1950, when he was 26, and immigrated to the United States. He launched a highly successful frame and European oil paintings importing business in Hempstead, Long Island. Six years later, while buying art in Europe, he took a detour to Israel, where he met his wife, Elsa, another survivor, originally from Czechoslovakia, who managed to make it through a year at Auschwitz and the death marches at the end of the war.

They have lived in Westchester for 48 out of the 54 years they’ve been married, for the better part in Scarsdale, where they raised a family. Their son, Greg, was named after Federbush’s father, Godel, while his daughter, Tina Suzanne, was named after his twin sisters, Toba and Sheindel. “I love kids,” he says. “We lost a million and a half of them.” The couple today has five grandchildren.

Forgetting their history is about as possible as ignoring the Auschwitz identification number still tattooed on the inside of Elsa’s left forearm. “Never in history has a government like Hitler’s Nazi government enforced a legal policy to eradicate a nation to this extent,” he says. “I came face-to-face with the most horrific human beings ever to walk the face of the earth, but I never lost faith in people. I have enjoyed my wife, children, and five grandchildren. I found a new life here in this country that I really appreciate.”

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