February 25, 2021
This month we tell the story of late Holocaust survivor Leon Milch. Leon was born in 1932 in Podhajce, Poland, a vibrant town of 6000 people, of which half were Jewish.
Leon’s parents and uncle Buzio worked in their general store and life was good for Leon and his brother Barry. They lived in a two-storey house and the boys had a private tutor. They were a popular family and had many Jewish as well as non-Jewish friends, which was a key to their survival.
When World War II broke out in 1939, life in Podhajce became unbearable. Leon’s family was dispossessed of their assets, kicked out of their home and threatened with deportation to Siberia. At the age of 7, Leon’s formal education ceased and the family moved to a nearby town.
In mid-1941, the Germans arrived and Leon’s mother, Ethel, was summoned to work in one of the labour gangs. That morning, she draped her shawl over her shoulders and left the house, telling Leon and his brother to stay at home. This was the last time they were to see their mother.
The family miraculously survived the first pogrom in hiding before moving into the Jewish ghetto. Conditions were crowded, with around 8 people living in a room of about 10 by 12 feet. Food was scarce and danger was always present.
Leon’s father, Abraham, was unable to make it into hiding during the second pogrom in late 1942, and the boys never saw him again.
Leon’s uncle Buzio took it upon himself to care for his two nephews and arranged for a non-Jewish lady outside the ghetto to hide the family. When that night came to escape, in April 1943, everyone was praying for a cloudy evening. No such luck. Fortunately, there were sufficient shadows for the family to make good their escape. With a family of 5 in the basement, conditions were difficult. They stayed there until the Russians liberated the town in April 1944.
For the next 6 years Leon and his brother moved from town to town in Eastern Europe to stay safe. At times they were placed in orphanages or displaced persons camps.
In 1950 Leon and his brother immigrated to Australia followed shortly by their aunt and uncle. After working as a labourer on the railways with no English, Leon became an apprentice jeweller, later opening his own successful custom design jewellery business, right next door to the Great Synagogue in Sydney.
Leon married his wife Sharon in 1963 and had two children. In 1987 Leon celebrated his bar mitzvah, the initiation into Judaism that he should have passed through as a Jewish boy at 13.
In 2016, the entire family of 16 returned to Poland for Leon to show them where he came from and to seek closure from darkness to light.
In this photo, Leon holds a Chanukiah, one of the few objects he has that belonged to his father. He restored it as a gift for his son’s bar mitzvah.
To read more from our Survivor Portraits blog series, click here.
To explore the personal stories and anecdotes of Holocaust survivors, click here for our first online exhibition.
Photograph by Katherine Griffiths.