Oral History

Leo Melamed describes speaking several languages as a child in prewar Bialystok

Leo was seven years old when Germany invaded Poland in September 1939. Before the war, Leo's father was a mathematics teacher and member of the Bialystok City Council. Fearing arrest, Leo's father fled Bialystok for Vilna just before the German occupation. Leo and his mother eventually joined his father in Vilna. After the Soviets occupied Vilna, Leo's father obtained transit visas to Japan. The family left Vilna in December 1940, traveled across the Soviet Union on the Trans-Siberian Express, and arrived in Japan in January 1941. Leo's family obtained visas for the United States and immigrated in April 1941.


Well, I grew up actually with two languages, almost simultaneously. My first was Yiddish, of course, because that was what my parents spoke and my family spoke and the Jews that we knew and lived with, um, in the community spoke. But, uh, the language outside was, of course, Polish and so I was learning simultaneously the Polish language and I could converse, uh, Polish as Polish kids did on the streets. But the alphabet we were learning in school was the Yiddish alphabet. This was a Yiddish school and we were learning to write and read. And, of course, in kindergarten you get your first, um, tastes of the alphabet.


  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum
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