By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
SLIPPERY ROCK —
What's in a name?
A lot, when you're trying to hide your Jewish background during the Holocaust to escape certain death.
"We had very little chance of surviving," Robert Melson said of his family as he spoke to a crowd Thursday at Slippery Rock University's annual Holocaust Remembrance Program.
Melson's first-hand account of living through the Holocaust with his parents, titled "Hiding in Plain Sight: A Jewish Family Survives the Holocaust," focused on how his mother took it upon herself to essentially steal another family's identity so the trio could escape before being rounded up for the ghettos in Warsaw, Poland, and later, concentration camps.
"I had no memory of being Jewish," Melson said of how his parents kept that a secret from him to protect him until the war ended, when he was 8.
He read passages from his book "False Papers: Deception and Survival in the Holocaust," which was published in 2000 by the University of Illinois Press and based on his 1978 interviews with his parents, Willy and Nina.
While living in Stanislav, Poland, their only hope for survival was to get false papers and impersonate Polish Catholics, inventing new lives and pasts.
Melson didn't look Jewish. He had blond hair and blue eyes, and his mother was a beautiful actress and singer who could take on any persona. His father had straight black hair and fancied himself as handsome as Humphrey Bogart or Clark Gable.
"But they were living in fear," Melson said as he showed formal, black and white photos of his parents, who didn't reveal a trace of worry.
The family survived the horrors of World War II because Melson's parents played their parts well, even while learning friends and family had been killed or committed suicide, he said.
"We were all condemned to death simply for being Jews," Melson said.
Before the war, his family had been friends with the Zamojskis, a well-known Polish Catholic family also living in Stanislav before the roundup of the Jews. The Melsons were in hiding with another friend by then, 1941, when Melson was 4.
Mrs. Melson asked the Zamojskis, a count and countess and their son, if she could have their identification papers and birth certificates to use as their own.
They turned her down because she didn't bring any money. She returned the next day and asked to inspect the documents and memorized them, like an actress reading her lines, and left the Zamojskis thinking she'd try to come up with the payment.
Mrs. Melson then dressed in her best clothes and visited the Polish Catholic church, passing herself off as Countess Zamojski and easily convincing the priest her family's documents were confiscated by the Russians and they needed new copies right away or they'd be deported.
And it worked because she was able to recite all of the necessary information from memory, and before her husband and son knew it, they were Count Jan Zamojski, Countess Janina Zamojski and little Count Bobi.
They left Stanislav since the real Zamojskis were still there and ended up in Krakow, Poland, living next to a Gestapo officer who loved to come over for dinner with his fellow officers and share stories about how many Jews they had killed that day.
"His mission plain and simple was to murder Jews," Melson said of the Gestapo, also known as the secret police of Nazi Germany.
All the Melsons could do was listen and act like normal Germans, but it wasn't long before their neighbor sensed something wasn't right and they moved again, ending up in Prague, Czech Republic.
Melson's father, a businessman, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1944. Mrs. Melson vowed to get him released and in the meantime placed her son with a woman who didn't have kids of her own but was undergoing fertility treatments.
Mrs. Melson, who was able to later free her husband, didn't know where the woman lived and didn't want to know in case the Gestapo tried to come after her son.
She later saw the woman and Melson was sent home by train but the boy feared for his life when a very thin, old man seemed to be following him through the train station.
He rushed to his mother and was then swept up by the man, his father, who had been beaten and starved in prison.
Shortly after the war ended in 1945, Melson overheard his parents talking, calling each other names he had never heard before: Willy and Nina. He questioned them and it was then, at age 8, he learned he was a Jew and how they had lived under a stolen identity.
"I was confused, but also relieved," he said of how certain things didn't seem right while growing up.
They moved to New York in 1947 and he attended Hebrew school to learn about Judaism.
"I took to it very readily," he said of living in the United States.
SRU's College of Humanities, Fine and Performing Arts and the political science department co-sponsored the lecture.
Published May 4, 2013, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201 A Erie St., Grove City.