The Wisdom Project at Moment: Inspirational conversations with wise people who have been fortunate to live long lives
This week’s conversation is with Lusia Milch, 92, of New York City.
Her son, David, calls her “a remarkable individual in so many ways,” the latest example of which is her participation in an immersive art exhibit that honors girls and young women who perished in the Holocaust. All but one: Lusia Milch. The multimedia show, titled LEDI—“Lives Eliminated, Dreams Illuminated”—and supported by The Dr. David M. Milch Foundation, tells the girls’ stories in paintings, photos and LED screens with original music and narration. Lusia is its living spokeswoman, continuing her tireless commitment to Holocaust education and fighting antisemitism.
Born December 25, 1930 to Necha (née Rubin) and David Rosenzweig, Lusia (pronounced “Lu-sha”) spent her first 12 years in Skalat, Ukraine. Primarily an agricultural town, Skalat had a thriving and prosperous Jewish population of about 10,000. Her grandfather owned a large hardware store that sold farm implements. When Lusia was almost five, her father died from abdominal cancer. Her mother remarried Jacob Goldberg and gave birth to Lusia’s half-sister, Ginia, when Lusia was eight. Skalat valued its schools and newspapers in Yiddish, Ukrainian and Polish. The townspeople pumped water each day for cooking and cleaning.
Lusia’s childhood ended on July 4, 1941, the day Germans invaded and occupied Skalat. On June 9, 1943, during a Nazi “action” that almost wiped out the town’s entire Jewish population, Lusia’s mother and sister were murdered. She later learned that her stepfather was burned alive. Lusia was among only about 175 Jews to survive.
Her journey to freedom in America took her through three countries and a displaced persons (DP) camp before she arrived in Lakewood, New Jersey, to live with an aunt. At Foehrenwald, the DP camp outside Munich, in 1946, she briefly met the Polish man who would become her husband, Bernard Milch, after they met again six years later in New York City. They were married for 65 years before Bernard, an industrialist, died at the age of 93 in 2019.
They raised their two sons, David and Neal, in Lawrence, New York. Lusia taught literature and Russian at Hewlett High School on Long Island. She has three grandchildren. The family’s many philanthropic beneficiaries include New York’s Mt. Sinai Hospital, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yeshiva University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, Israel.
Moment visited with Lusia during the LEDI exhibit’s launch at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
Tell me about your childhood.
I divide my childhood into two parts. It was the happiest period of my life before it was the most catastrophic.
What made the first part so happy?
I had parents. There was a home. There was love and care. There was food on the table. There were extended families whose children were my closest friends and schoolmates. I enjoyed every holiday. I enjoyed getting new clothes for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and then for Passover. Happiness was being part of my home, part of my family, part of a place where I was loved and cared for deeply.
World War II began September 1, 1939. I was eight-and-a-half years old. I listened very carefully to the talk, petrified and panic-stricken. Little children were told never to speak in case the Germans came; even if we ran into a bunker, somebody might overhear a child crying. If the German or the Ukrainian militiamen who collaborated with them got you, that was the end of it. You were taken away by the police and chances were that you wouldn’t ever come back.
What stayed with you from that time?
To my sorrow, I have a very good memory. I would like not to remember certain things. My memories are difficult. The focal point of everything I say is our catastrophe. During the Nazi occupation, life was so precarious. The loss of life was expected every second. Those who had died before [Hitler], including my father, were called the “lucky” ones. They’d had the dignity of a Jewish funeral, of being buried individually in a cemetery. My mother used to say, “At least your father didn’t have to wait for the Germans to come and kill him.”
[Editor’s note: The next part of this interview contains graphic accounts of violence. To skip this section, please click here.]
What happened the day that the Germans entered your town?
It was July 4, 1941. We’d known the occupation was imminent; they were already in Poland. People had been coming to us, fleeing from towns that were already occupied. One woman came to my mother’s kitchen. She was infested with lice. She had hardly any clothes. She had a five-year-old child. She was starving.
She sat in my mother’s kitchen and the women in town gathered. They told her to wash up and throw away her clothes, and they would give her other clothes and something to eat. She said, “You’re looking at me, you think that there is something wrong with me. I was like you. I had a home. My husband had a nice business. He was caught and killed immediately. I’m running away.” The women asked, “Where are you running?”
“I’m going wherever my eyes will take me, and my feet will carry me,” she answered. “Don’t you understand? That’s what all of you should be doing. Why are you sitting here? Don’t you hear what I’m telling you?”
When she left, the neighbors said, “She is obviously not sane. She said her husband was killed, and the Jews were being persecuted, and she took a little child, and she’s running wherever her eyes will take her and her feet will carry her? She’s not normal.”
Except for one elderly Jewish neighbor, who said, “Just a minute. It is very possible that she knows what she’s talking about. We are deluding ourselves.”
The neighbors turned on her. “Please don’t try to spread panic. It’s bad, but not the way she says. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” Because it was impossible to believe that such a thing as she had described was actually taking place. It was impossible to accept the reality of what was taking place in the 20th century in the middle of Europe.
When the Germans came, they caught 300 men that first day. They were ostensibly being taken outside of the town to cut branches. They were executed. On that very first day.
Our town had four stone towers going back to the 18th century. The Germans took them to one of those towers where the dungeons were in the basement. They machine-gunned each and every one of them.
One of the men was not quite dead. They kicked him and he didn’t move. When they didn’t move, they were considered dead, so the Germans left. Two hours later, when it was dark, he crawled out and gave us an exact account.
The cruelty was impossible to believe. They made children, boys, walk up the narrow stairs to the top of one tower, where there were windows. They told the boys to jump, and as they did, the Germans on the ground shot them in the air.
They tortured and killed a rabbi. European men were usually stocky and on the short side but he was an exceptionally tall man with a very patriarchal, beautiful white beard. I thought that he probably looked like Moses. They beat him, then brought him to the water pump and hit him so severely that he begged them to kill him. They broke both of his legs and he couldn’t stand up anymore. They forced his mouth open, put it under the pump, and drowned him, oh, my God.
I wish I didn’t see those sights. That’s what happened. The child saw.
“I don’t have another 50 years to go. Please, people, listen to me. Do not sit on your hands.”
You live with them. They never really leave you.
How could parents protect their children?
The only thought that parents had was that their child should live.
How did you escape?
It was the second day of Shavuot in 1943. Each holiday, we knew we would get a present from the Germans. Inevitably they would make some kind of an attack. My mother got up very early in the morning, before 5 o’clock. All of us slept in our shoes and coats, because we knew when there was a sudden attack there would be no time to put on shoes, just get up and run. She puts on a shawl and takes me in one hand, my little sister in the other, and she says, “Come.” Slowly, we come to the edge of the ghetto, go outside and walk and walk. I didn’t know this, but she had earlier contacted somebody, a Gentile who lived outside of the ghetto in a former Jewish home, and gave him whatever money and clothing she had left. He said, “When the time comes you come to me and I’m going to hide you. I will have a hiding place in my house. When we go there, he opens the door. He says, “What the hell are you doing here?” It’s a horrible thing! And already you begin to hear shootings from the ghetto, dogs barking, attacking, jumping on frightened people, the prayers, the crying, the beatings, the dogs.
My mother said, “What do you mean? Don’t you hear what’s happening there? Hell is opened up.”
His wife comes with a little child in her hand, and another one running after her, and she keeps saying to him, “What is she doing here with the children? I want her out of here immediately.”
“I’m trying to tell her that she cannot be here. I don’t have a place for her.”
My mother takes one look at me. I was standing next to her and my little sister was on the other side. She gives me a desperate look with her eyes, trying to save me. Now he is quarreling with his wife. My mother’s eyes said, you go and you run.
I never saw her face again.
I step back. There were several doors. In a room for provisions, there was a small little area with a wooden bench away from the ground so the mice shouldn’t get to the sacks of potatoes, grain and flour. There is an opening in the ceiling. I stand there. I look up. It was the attic, except that there is no stepladder. I don’t know what to do. and I know any minute he’s going to come and look for me. I put my foot on the old-fashioned handle and grabbed the hinge with my hand. I was so desperate, I was so frightened. I wasn’t really acting rationally except to save my life. With the other hand, I dig my nails into the wooden part of the door and without thinking on the count of 1, 2, 3, I throw myself in the air and find myself in the attic.
Where do I hide? The attic is full of dust, full of straw. How preservation dictates! I think things that you would not think a child would be capable of thinking. I immediately remove my little coat, pack my two sweaters very, very tightly into a bundle. There was a chimney with a small metal door. I opened the door and I shoved that bundle in there with all my strength. Now I was light, not packed in. But there was no place to hide. I began to feel such panic setting in that I fell to the ground. As I fell, I saw there was an opening.
Through it, I saw beams that were about a yard apart. Between them, dust and dirt. But that little bit of an opening gave me the solution. That is where I have to crawl in.
Finally, I am in and completely covered up in that hole, except that I left a small little space for air and just to see what’s going on.
Not half an hour later, a German comes up with a flashlight because it was dark. He looks here and there. Nobody here. He leaves.
A whole day passes. I cannot move except to lie on one side. I get a terrible pain in my neck. That’s how I spend that day and night.
In the morning, the guy who pushed my mother and sister out, comes into the provision room and says in Ukrainian, “Who is here?”
And then I had to make a decision. Do I say it’s me or sit quietly and say nothing?
I made the instinctive, not rational, decision to say, “It’s me. I am here.” I begin to crawl out.
He’s standing there, holding an ax. He says, “You were here when the German made an inspection?” “Yes.” “I want you out of here right now. If you don’t leave, I’m going to kill you.” So, then I blackmailed him.
I said, “Listen, if you push me out now they will kill me, but they will also want to know who was hiding me. I’m going to have to say that you were hiding me.”
He says, “But that’s a lie! I didn’t hide you.”
I said, “I know but they will not believe me. They will think that you hid me. Don’t kill me, let’s make a bargain.” He says, “What?”
“Let me stay here while it’s daylight. As soon as it gets dark, I’ll leave your house.”
When it got dark, he opened the door and said, “I don’t want to have you in front of my eyes. Out you go.” And there I’m standing.
I don’t know whether to turn right or left. I don’t know where to go. I don’t know what to do. I decided to turn left because on the right side, I knew there were Gentile families living down the street and that the boys would grab me and bring me to the German police.
So I went to the left. There was a moon; because it was wartime, there was no electricity. I was begging God that the moon should not come out from under the clouds; that it stayed dark, and I proceeded to walk, pushing my back against the wall to stay hidden.
I walked toward an area where I knew there was a Jewish camp of men. They were driven out every morning to work in a stone quarry.
All of a sudden I see two men walking, one of them I recognize as a Jew. So I run up to him and say, “Mister, please take me with you.” He says he can’t, he has a permit to work for the Ukrainians. “If you won’t walk behind me, whatever happens, I am not responsible. But come behind me.” I said, “Will you please take me to the camp?” My stepfather was there.
When we got to the camp, they wouldn’t let me in. I didn’t give up. I go around the bend and see a very tall fence of barbed wire.
So I get on the ground and like a dog with my nails, I begin to pull away the ground. I managed to go under the fence and got myself into the camp.
What happened from there is a miracle. I had a year out in the woods and fields, sleeping in peasants’ barns. I was in orphanages. I crossed the Alps on foot in the snow from Germany to Bavaria to Italy. I survived.
How did you connect with relatives in America?
I knew my aunt, my mother’s sister, was in New York. It later turned out that they’d tried to send me papers three times but couldn’t find me until the third time. People from my hometown who survived sent an announcement to The Forward newspaper. A distant cousin who read it called my aunt and said, “I think there is a surviving child of your sister’s who is looking for relatives in New York.” Would you believe that?
How did you transcend the trauma you’d endured?
It never, ever, left me, never. Let me quote Samuel Pisar, a survivor of Auschwitz, who wrote about his experience in the book Of Blood and Hope. A reporter wanted to know “what is at the core of Samuel Pisar?” His answer was his Holocaust experience. It stays at the core of you even if you don’t speak about it every day. Even today I am unable to come to some kind of a conclusion that will make sense.
And yet you’ve lived a full life, finding happiness in love and family. When trauma explodes your world, how do you live in the world and go on? Is there any hope for a better world?
Those are two important questions and both are a matter of an individual reaction. As a young mother, I just did things automatically. When my child cried, I had to feed it. I had to change the diaper. When my husband came home, I tried to have a warm dinner ready for him because he was tired and I knew for how many years he didn’t have it. And so on.
Life demands that you should get up in the morning. Unless you are really completely incapacitated and in a hospital ward, you do the things that have to be done.
“Never, never do nothing. Doing nothing is not acceptable.”
As an adult, did you ever regain or come to experience a sense of safety?
Of course not. It’s impossible to feel safe. That’s why I, at the age of 92-and-a-half, am speaking to so many people about this. The nightmare that happened to us should have been expected. Hitler didn’t make any secrets about what he wanted to do with us. He started way before war was declared. People deluded themselves. And decent countries like America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and France didn’t say a word.
Are things different today?
I can’t believe what’s happening in America now. But we must believe it—look what the consequences were before, when people didn’t believe. I don’t have another 50 years to go. Please, people, listen to me. Do not sit on your hands. See and hear the horrific things that are already occurring—Neo-Nazis, people who are antisemitic, are in our corridors of power in Washington.
And do what?
Never, never do nothing. Doing nothing is not acceptable. Write. Appeal to your representatives. Listen, study, speak, agitate. Don’t be quiet and say, oh, we don’t know what to do. Oh, it won’t be so bad. Never do nothing.
It costs you so much pain to remember and recount the details of your Holocaust trauma. Why do you continue to talk about it?
Yes, even in memory, it’s extremely painful. I think of a German writer, Thomas Mann, to answer this question. He was one of those writers to whom writing didn’t come easily. He was a perfectionist. In his memoirs, he explained that he would write a paragraph or a page and then get back to it later and simply tear it up. Why did he write then if he went through such agony? His answer was, “because I don’t know how not to write.”
I don’t know how to be silent. I will take this with me to the very last day of my life.
What is your hope in sharing your story?
I would like my experiences to teach. Maybe they will warn. I don’t want anyone to have to live it. Let this be a year of peace, of security and of joy for all of us.