New NY laws concerning education, the Holocaust mean a lot to survivors

Andrew Freeman

September 26, 2022

Originally published in Spectrum News 1 on September 26, 2022.

Senator Kaplan is the author of the Holocaust Education bill

 A Holocaust survivor believes new laws in New York state concerning education about the genocide are an important step for the next generation.

With a line out the door, Lea Malek is proud of the success her son Roni has made for himself.

“If you tell anybody in Brighton, or wherever, Balsam Bagels, everybody knows," Lea said. "Business is good because the quality of the merchandise is good.”

Roni worked with her before she sold her bakery, and he says he learned a lot from her.

“Work was very important, and education was very important," Roni said. "She made sure we had everything. She came from nothing, and she wanted to make sure we had a better life.”

Lea Malek, 83, came to America from Israel with her husband in 1959. She briefly found refuge there after escaping from Soviet-occupied Hungary with her teenage sister at the age of 16.

“I couldn’t have books, so my step-father had to bribe some kids to use their books because they wouldn’t let me,” Lea said. “So I knew I had no future in Hungary.”

She’s also a Holocaust survivor. At the age of 5, she spent a year in two forced-labor camps during the tail-end of World War II.

“Seeing grown-ups completely naked, for a 5 year old,” Lea said. “And people would try to hide themselves and they would beat them because they just had to stand there until someone shaved them. This is engraved in my mind.” 

Her father was killed along with 6 million other Jews and millions of others by then-Nazi Germany.

“Nazis didn’t start it on the face right away; go to Auschwitz or another extermination camp," Lea said. "They did it slowly, the hate, they tried to do the hate.”

And today, Lea says she’s scared of what she’s seeing online and in the news, with a rise in anti-Semitic violence.

“It was always worse, it was just not so in to face. Now they’re hitting people, killing people.” Lea said

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she doesn’t want her residents living in fear, and this month signed a legislative package that bolsters support for Holocaust survivors in cultural and financial institutions. It also directs the Department of Education to make sure schools are properly teaching about the Holocaust, which has been mandatory in the state since 1994.

“This is important, very important,” Lea said. “Not because I’m Jewish, it’s just the history of what hatred can do to other people.” 

Lea said reading and education is the best way to stop hate and tyranny.

“Because you know what happens when you forget it. It’s going to repeat it," Lea said. "And it’s happened, and it happened again in Rwanda, it happened to other countries. It’s happening, the hatred, for no reason.”

She doesn’t want anyone to live in fear either, and especially wants younger people to understand the importance of empathy.

“My expiration date is coming,” Lea said. “I won’t be here forever, and I think I’m the youngest one in Rochester who are a survivor. “So it’s not because of me, it’s for the good of the country. To teach what hate can do.”