Holocaust Survivor Shares Her Harrowing Story with Fordham Law Students


Fordham Law students taking a class exploring legal and ethical issues around reparations got a rare opportunity to hear from someone personally impacted by a historic atrocity: a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor.

Ilse Melamid was invited to speak at Prof. Gideon Taylor’s class, “Human Rights: Coming to Terms with Historical Justice Through Reparations.”

The course provides students with the opportunity to review how the United States, other countries, international bodies, and organizations have addressed the issue of remedies for mass wrongs that affect a group in society. The class considered a broad range of American and global events including the Holocaust, slavery and the Jim Crow Era, the treatment of Native Americans, and the internment of Japanese Americans during the 1940s.

“In many ways, reparations is a meeting place for history, justice, philosophy and the law,” said Taylor. “It teaches us about difficult ethical decisions and forces us to address the complexity of translating principles into reality—a skill important for many legal frameworks. [This course] is, I think, the only law school course in the country that draws together these issues into one course in this way.”

Melamid, who now lives five minutes away from Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, recalled what it was like to reconnect with family in Australia in her late teens after the war ended and her experience living with a non-Jewish, childless foster family from the age of 11 to 14.

“I guess [the foster parents]had hopes that I would be the daughter that they wanted, but that didn’t turn out to be the case,” she explained. “They treated me first like a daughter and then, when my behavior didn’t match the expectation, they treated me more like a servant.

“I was very much shut up in myself … I was just kind of numb,” she added. “Basically what I lost in all of this was my childhood.”

Melamid also shared her personal perspective on reparations, which the students had been learning about all semester.

”The Austrians allowed me to contribute towards a pension, a sort of annuity, and I was in two minds about that,” Melamid said before explaining that her reparations were based on her father’s loss of income while he was in the concentration camp. “Now, that’s not very palatable, is it, to take a small sum of money that represents such a painful episode in someone’s life? But in the end, I was convinced that after all I would be paying into the fund. And so I have a small pension from Austria.”

She continued, “I don’t feel it’s a reparation, but it’s awfully hard to know what is enough and what feels enough to the recipient.”

With each passing year Melamid remains part of a dwindling population. She is one of approximately 245,000 Holocaust survivors still living across more than 90 countries—and one of 14,655 survivors currently living in New York State—according to the latest demographic reports conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, of which Taylor serves as President.

Concluding the semester with Melamid’s personal account as a refugee from Nazi Germany, gave students a deeper understanding of one of the worst moments in global history, according to Taylor.

“It wove together in a very direct and visceral way the threads of what the class had covered, which is very broad and wide geographically-, historically-, and legally-speaking,” Taylor said. “Some of those threads all came together with Ilse speaking with us. We are fortunate to have had that opportunity to connect to a witness to history.”

This was the second visit to Fordham Law by a Holocaust survivor this semester. As part of the inauguration of Fordham Jewish Law Students Association’s Living Holocaust Memorial webpage, the student organization was honored to have Holocaust survivor Toby Levy, 90, speak on campus. Levy recounted how her father built a wall inside a barn and a hiding place for nine people—where they survived on potatoes and bread for two years—until June 1944 when they were liberated by the Red Army.

A brief clip from Melamid’s talk can be viewed here:


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