Sylvia Melamed was one of the rapidly dwindling number of Holocaust survivors to have stood before Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz “angel of death.”
With a nod of his head, the notorious doctor sent prisoners to one of two lines. One meant death, the other a chance at hard labor — and life.
She slipped from the line of captives marked for death and lived.
Mrs. Melamed told her story to the USC Shoah Foundation, which collects Holocaust survivors’ stories. There’s a chilling moment in her video when she describes seeing Mengele at the concentration camp.
She draws up taller. Tilts her head back. Folds her arms in front of her. For just a flash, she conjures the imperious Nazi.
She and her husband Leon survived the camps thanks to luck, resolve, loyal friends and their tailoring skills. They made gloves, Nazi uniforms, anything that made them useful.
“According to my mother, there were two things that kept you alive,” said her son, Stephen. “You had to be strong enough to survive the hard labor, or you had to have a skill.”
After the war, she and her husband immigrated to the United States and made a new life in Skokie.
Mrs. Melamed died Oct. 8 at her apartment in Vernon Hills. She was 98.
When she was liberated by American troops, she weighed less than 80 pounds.
An only child, she’d grown up Sylvia Weisberg in the Polish town of Radom. Her father was a merchant. Her seamstress mother taught her how to cut patterns and make gloves.
She and Leon Melamed married at the beginning of the war. But the Nazis sent him to Buchenwald. He escaped but was captured and taken to Dachau.
Mrs. Melamed recalled being held in a vermin-infested jail awaiting transport to Auschwitz. “Between the cracks of the wooden floor, lice came out, and we were covered with them,’’ she told the Shoah Foundation.
At Auschwitz, she felt as if she’d entered an open-air asylum. “We saw naked people running, heads shaved.”
At the center was Mengele.
“Mengele picked me to go to the other side,” she said, “to go to the gas chambers.”
But she had girlfriends who’d passed Mengele’s inspection, “girls that stuck together like glue,” Mrs. Melamed said. Food would get rolled into camp in 100-liter barrels, and, “That day, my friends volunteered to bring it in because holding onto that barrel, I could get back into the barrack.” They motioned her to join them.
“They were going like this, like ‘Come, come,’ ” she said, “and I was always very timid.”
But a surge of strength came over her, “like somebody would have pushed me, and I walked out from that march” to the gas chambers. She said a Nazi struck her on the head, but “somehow I ran over to [her girlfriends] and went back into the barrack.”
In December 1944, she and her girlfriends were sent to work in an ammunition factory where conditions were marginally better, but “there was no fear of being gassed because there was no crematorium.”
In March 1945, the Nazis marched them for three days toward Bergen-Belsen. “We heard bombs falling, and they told us….we had to lay with our face down and be quiet. . . . It got awfully quiet, and we didn’t hear anything.” The Germans had disappeared, fleeing the approaching American liberators.
With the help of the Red Cross, she reunited with her husband, whose 10 brothers and sisters all were killed in the Holocaust.
In 1948, the couple immigrated to the West Side, where Leon Melamed had relatives. He landed work as a pattern-maker on Michigan Avenue at Pucci, the swirly pinnacle of couture. Later, he designed Wilson Garment Co.’s Youthmore clothing line. Mrs. Melamed did private tailoring.
They raised Stephen and another son, Harvey, in Skokie, where she’d soothe her husband when he woke with night terrors from the war. He died in 1993.
Stephen Melamed said his parents spoke Polish, Russian, German, Yiddish and Hebrew. If they discussed the horrors they’d seen, “They would jump from language to language in the same sentence so we could not follow what they were talking about.”
In her later years, Mrs. Melamed became a surrogate grandmother to Justin Dobo, one of the “Lost Boys of Sudan” who found refuge in Chicago in his 20s. The Melameds helped him acclimate to America and earn his GED. At 34, he works as a mechanic and maintenance worker in Fargo, N.D., which has a sizable Sudanese population. When she told him her story, “It reminded me of what I [went] through during the war in southern Sudan,” Dobo said. “She was a real good woman.”
And, Stephen Melamed said, “she dedicated herself to going to elementary and high schools to share her wartime experiences and express her desire to the younger generations that it’s now their responsibility to ensure ‘never again.’ ”
She is also survived by four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Services have been held.