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Holocaust survivor urges Oak Creek audience to 'leave the world better'

Howard Melton delivers message at Oak Creek Library

May 14, 2014

Oak Creek — In 1949, Karen Koepke saw an image in her newspaper she could not believe was real: skeletal figures clasping their hands around a chain-linked fence while wearing striped pajamas.

She thought it was an advertisement for an upcoming movie attraction, she said, and wept bitterly when she learned the photo depicted the realities of the Holocaust.

Koepke, an Oak Creek resident, was one of about 120 attendees last week at the Oak Creek Public Library to listen and react to Howard Melton's story of surviving the Holocaust. Melton, a Lithuanian Jew, survived two concentration camps, three ghettos and four labor camps before he was liberated from Germany on May 2, 1945. He was 14 years old.

"When I awoke on May 2, 1945, if I could write my own future, I don't think I could have done a better job, because life is just wonderful," said Melton, now 83, who currently resides in Glendale with his wife of 63 years, Evelyn. They have four children. Two of his sons run family-owned businesses in Milwaukee and St. Francis.

"I want to leave the world better," said Melton, "If you treat people the way you want to be treated, you won't have any problems."

Melton tells his story as many as three to four times a month. He is one of Milwaukee County's 50 remaining survivors who actively speak about their first-hand experiences with hate.

Librarian Sarah Corso invited Melton to speak because the library's latest book club for students focused on World War II. To the young people in the audience, Melton said: "I don't care what you look like or what you believe in. We are all born the same and all die the same. It's what you do in between that matters."

Melton was 10 years old when the war began. He, his mother, father and two sisters — one older, one younger — were immediately forced into a Lithuanian ghetto upon Nazi Germany's attack on the U.S.S.R. in June 1941.

In the ghetto, Melton's mother volunteered him to be shipped to a labor camp in Latvia, where he later volunteered to work on a farm.

"Unless you worked, the Germans would not keep you around," said Melton.

Melton and his father were the only members of the family to survive. Melton wears a suit for public speaking because "every time I speak about my family, I feel like I'm going to a funeral," he said.

Melton is motivated to speak by skeptics' claim that the Holocaust did not happen. To those people, Melton says, "Can you explain, then, what happened to my family?"

In the work camps, Melton met Albert Beder, now 86 and living in Bayside. Beder joins Melton in speaking engagements.

"I consider him my older brother," said Melton of Beder. I'm really happy to have him with me."

Melton and Beder were liberated during a death march from Dachau concentration camp to the Tyrolean Mountains. The two saw tanks with flags with white stars.

"We were getting our life back. I don't even have words to describe it," said Melton. "It was like being born again."

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