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A local Holocaust survivor says she's haunted by images of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

Lea Malek 3.jpg
Max Schulte
Lea Malek in her Brighton home, where she raised three children. As a child, Malek survived the Holocaust during World War II with her mother and sister. Her father was murdered in a Nazi labor camp.

Images of the Russian war in Ukraine haunt Lea Malek.

They remind the Holocaust survivor of what she and her family experienced during World War II.

"The farther we get, it becomes like a distant history, and what happens when we forget it? It's going to repeat itself," said Malek, 83.

She was born in Hungary in 1939 and immigrated to the U.S. 20 years later. These days, Malek is thinking a lot about the years in between.

She last saw her father when she was 3 years old. He was taken to a Nazi labor camp.

"He got murdered there," she said.

Lea Malek 2.jpg
Max Schulte
Lea Malek points to a photo of her mother and father, top left, in a photo taken before World War II began. As a child, Malek survived the Holocaust with her mother and sister, but her father was murdered in a Nazi labor camp.

In 1944, Malek and the rest of her family were forced onto cattle cars.

The compartment carrying her grandfather, two of her aunts and some cousins continued in one direction.

"(They) went to Auschwitz and they got murdered immediately," she said.

The rail car that Malek and her mother, sister, and both of her grandmothers were packed into made a U-turn to Austria.

"Why God did that between us, who knows?"

The older children and adults were forced to work on a farm to produce food for Hitler's army. Malek remembers sleeping in a large barn and walking up to a fence to ask local farmers for food. Sometimes she got a carrot, or if she was lucky, a piece of bread.

They were there a year before they were freed and returned to Hungary.

Now, almost 80 years later, Malek sees a war tearing apart families in Ukraine.

"I don't want to watch it, but I have to watch it," she said. "I don't want to think about it, but I can't think anything else because comes back horrible memories ... horrible memories."

Most of those memories are from the post-war period during the bloody Hungarian revolution when the Soviet Union occupied Hungary. Malek calls that time "the second hell."

"I saw people dead in the street; people hanging in the trees," she said. "Ask anybody who left Soviet Union or Russian-occupied country, it's no exaggeration; it's under-exaggeration."

Today, some Ukrainians have been able to flee to safety in Poland.

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Max Schulte
Lea Malek points to a photo of her and her younger sister in a photo taken after World War II ended.

But in 1955, most Hungarians weren't allowed to cross their borders and would risk being killed by Soviet soldiers if they tried.

But that didn't stop Malek from boarding a train one night with her sister and some friends. She was 16.

When the ticket-taker came, Malek said she told them her parents died in the revolution and she was going to visit her grandmother in Austria.

"I told them the town which was closest to the border and they bought it," she said.

Lea Malek 4.jpg
Max Schulte
Lea Malek says it's important to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

Unable to immigrate to the U.S. at first, she eventually moved to Israel and got married. When she and her husband arrived in the U.S. in 1959, they lived in Omaha, Nebraska.

They moved to Rochester in 1966 with their two young children. For 26 years, Malek owned a kosher bakery at 12 Corners in Brighton.

For most of her life, she never spoke publicly about her Holocaust and post-war experiences. She assumed people didn't want to hear about it.

But in the last decade or so, she changed her mind. Malek is scheduled to speak at an online event for Finger Lakes Community College at 1 p.m. April 5.

She wants people to understand what happened because she thinks it could happen again.

"When I start to see more anti-Semitism come here and there, all over the world again, that's early sign," she said. "And anti-Semitism is not only about Jews, it's about hatred."

Beth Adams joined WXXI as host of Morning Edition in 2012 after a more than two-decade radio career. She was the longtime host of the WHAM Morning News in Rochester. Her career also took her from radio stations in Elmira, New York, to Miami, Florida.