Leah Kaufman, an orphaned child Holocaust survivor who went on to become a noted
educator and author, riveted an audience of adult Jewish studies students
Tuesday afternoon with stories of a past defined by inhumanity and loss, which
resulted in her strengthened Jewish identity.
The lecture, held at the
Jewel School – a Jewish learning program for women between the ages of 19 and
30, located in Ramat Eshkol – was attended by over a dozen students, many of
whom alternately wept or wiped away tears during Kaufman’s tragic, yet
Kaufman, who was born in Romania and subsequently
made aliya from Calgary in 1999, is the co-author of Live! Remember! Tell the
World! The Story of a Hidden Child Survivor of Transnistria, which details her
dystopian childhood as a young Romanian orphan during the Shoah.
years I didn’t talk about my experience,” said Kaufman. “I didn’t know much
about the Holocaust – I knew about my Holocaust. But there are no words to tell
what terrible things human beings are capable of doing.”
was nine years old when Romanian Jews in her community were forced on a death
march to Transnistria – located between the Dniester River and the eastern
Moldovan border with Ukraine – during the depths of winter.
thrown out of Romania in the most inhumane possible way,” said the retired
teacher, who taught Yiddish and Hebrew after earning an MA in Canada years after
the war. “The night we fled was the last time I was with my family as a
The daughter of a merchant and a midwife who also studied
alternative medicine, Kaufman said she had an idyllic childhood in Romania
before the war. However, she noted that she was only nine years old and in the
third grade at a Jewish day school, “when hell came on me.”
“I saw the
Nazis rape young girls in front of their parents and family and throw them away
like garbage,” she recounted. “If you were a baby born to a Jew, Hitler wanted
you uprooted from the earth.
“It was a miracle that he was stopped,” she
The youngest of seven children, Kaufman said she was unable to
speak of the trauma of her childhood for decades, until 1995, when she said the
claims made by Holocaust revisionists and deniers compelled her to come
“When they came out and said it never happened, I had to speak,”
she said. “I had no other choice.”
“Those who died or were killed were
the lucky ones,” she said. “Believe me, it was the easiest thing to die. To live
Still, Kaufman said survival became paramount to her so
she could one day tell her story to a once apathetic world.
“We had to
live and sanctify God’s name and tell them what happened,” she
During the death march to Transnistria, Kaufman recounted
seeing all the students of an area yeshiva, naked, outside the school, forced to
dig their own graves by Nazis during the frigid winter.
“The Nazis asked
one of them to say a prayer before they killed them, and the instructor said, ‘I
thank God we are not killers like you,’” she recounted. “They were then shot
dead into the graves and [the Nazis] did not even bother to bury
Shortly after witnessing the massacre, Kaufman found her mother
dead, lying naked on the floor of the room they were imprisoned in
Kaufman said she sold her remaining possessions to buy a
blanket to cover her mother’s corpse.
“During the weeks before she died,
my mother commanded: ‘Leah you must live!’” she said. “You must remember! You
must tell the world!’” These words became the name of her autobiography, written
with Sheina Medwed in 2005.
Indeed, despite contracting malaria and being
surrounded by death and disease, Kaufman survived and was liberated in 1944,
only to be placed in an orphanage.
“It had no windows or doors and
children there died by the thousands of tuberculosis – all the world was a
hell,” she said.
“We sang the hatikva and told each other that if we
survived we must tell the world what happened to us.”
subsequently forced to live as a Christian for a year for her safety, before
being moved to an Austrian displaced persons camp.
A gifted linguist, she
adeptly learned multiple languages, including Yiddish and Hebrew, which she went
on to teach in Canada for over 50 years.
Kaufman married and had three
sons who she raised to become Orthodox. Today she has 22 grandchildren and eight
“I want to show you my revenge,” she said as her
lecture came to an end.
Kaufman then took a photo album of her family
from a bag and proudly displayed pictures of each of her family members. “This
is my revenge,” she said.
“Now I’m one of the last of the survivors to go
around and talk to [students] to tell them what happened,” she
Following the lecture, several students expressed admiration and
respect for Kaufman’s legacy.
“After the Holocaust the survivors in my
family moved away from Judaism, and hearing Leah talk made me feel a sense of
purpose to be observant,” said Jenifer Bound.
Rebecca Moghaden said
Kaufman’s words helped her reconnect to her Jewish past.
connected me to the roots of my heritage and added significance to understanding
where I come from,” she said. “Hearing what she’s gone through truly gave me a
sense of what went on.”
Shayna Lurya described Kaufman’s embracing of her
Jewish past, despite her profound hardships, as “inspirational.”
gave me a really unique perspective – and everything she did to hold onto her
Judaism saved her,” Lurya said. “The heart of Judaism is learning, and she
inspired us today.”
Asked by one of the students why she eventually made
aliya, Kaufman had a ready response: “Because this is my home.”