Michael Edelstein was headstrong and independent, a self-described mamzer. He was 10 years old when he rolled under the barbed wire and escaped the roundup of the Jewish townspeople of Skala-Podolsk on the morning of Sukkoth 1942....
Now, in his twilight years, Edelstein finally relates his full life history. From his Holocaust ordeal in the forests and bunkers, to the purgatory of post-war Poland and Germany, to his early years in the U.S. as a Korea-era GI and self-made small businessman, to his ultimate successes in real estate and philanthropy, Edelstein fills his narration with richly remembered details and characteristic Yiddish outlook.
Reviews and comments by early readers of Live Another Day
Michael Edelstein’s tale of his experiences under Nazi persecution and his subsequent immigration to America, where he became a real estate mogul, makes a compelling read.
Walter Ruby and Dan Ruby listened attentively, researched extensively and captured not only Edelstein’s story but also his voice.
Edelstein survived the Nazi onslaught by his wits and sheer luck, enduring the hardships hour by hour and day by day.
Michael always had the ability to create the greatest outcomes out of the worst circumstances.
Edelstein's insight—that the same ability that assisted his survival during the Shoah contributed to his business success in America—is profound and worthy of further empirical investigation amongst Holocaust survivors generally.
All in all, a solid contribution to survivors literature.
A blog on the historical context of Michael Edelstein's life story, by co-authors Walter and Dan Ruby
The trajectory of Michael Edelstein's life is framed within a separate journey to remember and make sense of it
Readings from Live Another Day, performed by Yiddish actor Avi Hoffman
Called out as a zhulik
Uncle Itshe volunteers
A mother’s gift
Encounter with Artur Engel
My first food missionLebn andern tog
Tateh is drafted
Deception at the emigration office
Set straight in Bytom
Crossing on the General Langfitt
An incident in Kitzel Park
Assigned to cooks school
Edelstein & Sons
Taking the long viewParnoseh: Making a living
Foundation of support
More than 200 selections from Live Another Day, organized by chapter
They were struggling to grasp how they survived when the great majority of our people had not? And there was the other big question: Where was God?
“Loyf meyn kind.” Run, my child. “Maybe you will be the one of all of us who makes it out alive.”
If you drive around the neighborhoods of Brooklyn today you can still see some Edelstein & Sons Roofing signs in various places.
Feivel said the Jews of Skala had been sent to a place called Belzec. Nobody came out of Belzec, he said
Less than two weeks after our deliverance, the military situation turned. News spread through town that the German division had broken out of Kamenets and was advancing directly on Skala.
I opened the Chumash textbook to today’s lesson and set to work hand-copying the Hebrew words of the text.
I began in life as Munye Epshteyn—devoted son, mamzer, Jew. I survived to become Michael Edelstein—proud American, family man, Jew.
One of my most thrilling moments in philanthropy came on July 7, 2009, when we were honored guests of the Israel Air Force at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Edelstein Auditorium at the IAF Center in Herziliya.
At that moment, it hit home that this war was not just about hardship and privation but literally life and death.
Toward the end of July, the bridge was reopened and the Hungarian Jewish refugees were driven eastward in the direction of Kamenets. We found out later that they didn’t get far.
One day Sroel came in with a tape measure and took my measurements. A few days later he presented me with a suit jacket and pants made from an old bedcover. It was the first suit I ever owned.
After that, there was a renewed frenzy of bunker building in the ghetto. Every basement and attic was a hideout.
We serve the public good by providing decent, affordable housing for lower and middle income families in New York City. I take pride in being able to help so many people obtain shelter while also doing well for my family and employees.
I was little more than a child but was becoming something of a macher in our small community.
Repatriation, they called it. But we were not going home to Poland, the country in which we had once lived. To the contrary, we were leaving the only home we had ever known.
There is a direct line from my own resistance to the Nazis in the forests of Ukraine and the present-day mission of the Israel Defense Forces to protect the lives of Jews.
The Chortkover and Vizhnitzer communities each retained its own religious functionaries—rabbis, ritual slaughterer, shammes, mohel—so there were two of everything.
Abe and I looked at a few buildings and eventually decided to go in together on what was called a “taxpayer”—a one story commercial building with a row of stores.
That was the same day that I told Herbie and Sheila that I planned to marry Florence, although I didn’t say it to Florence for fear of scaring her off.
From the beginning, I wasn’t one for following rules or instructions. I was curious, independent, and already street-wise.
There was a Jewish man working in the government office whom I had seen around town since the time of the liberation. He was hard to miss since he was tall and walked with a limp. This was Max Mermelstein.
I thought that the barber had been the informant, and his wife had been picked up but not killed on that day all for show, to deflect suspicion from the true source of the information.
By working together, the Peckers and I were making a living. Each of us played a part, and my part was as important as anyone’s, maybe more so.
I didn’t see the train leaving town with the condemned Jews of Skala. What I did find was a scene of devastation.
More than 100 friends and family celebrated our wedding: friends of ours as a couple, her Bronx enclave community members, some Army pals, some friends from our years in the DP camps, and even a few from Skala.
Borki-Wielke was one of many so-called arbeitslager—work camps—that the Germans established throughout the region. They were really prison camps.
An advanced mobile unit of Hungarian troops arrived in Skala and took up positions around town and in the old Polish barracks recently evacuated by the Soviets.
The melamed’s implied compliment to my ingenuity helped give me resolve to resist the inevitability of my imprisonment
I was sickened but struggled to keep a straight face. I told her I did not have the tools to extract the gold fillings, and preferred to deal only in jewelry.
It was hard to make money in areas with stable populations. You needed to be in neighborhoods where apartments were changing hands—with older residents moving out and new people coming in.
I proudly can claim to have realized the American Dream beyond anything I might have imagined. Yet with all that I have achieved during more than eight decades on this planet, I am first and foremost a survivor.
The Beitar squad leader talked me out of my plan to join a military brigade bound for Palestine. There would be other ways to contribute to the Jewish state. My father needed me more.
I gazed upon the the famous Statue of Liberty with hope and inspiration. The crossing had taken 12 days, but my journey from Skala to America had lasted more than five years.
Ultra-fashionable Fifth Avenue is a long way from Skala-Podolsk, or for that matter East Flatbush.
Instead of greeting me as the son of a friend, Dymchuk flew into a rage, chasing me away with curses and an admonishment to never come back.
This Jewish-American mishpocha is our miracle of Jewish renewal. It is our most precious legacy and bright hope for the future.
And when it was over, many of us felt driven to find and marry fellow survivors, following the word of the Torah to be fruitful and multiply.
Our training as military interrogators mainly amounted to role-playing. One of us would play the Russian captive and one the interrogator. Then we would switch hats and do it again the other way.
He shoved the gun under my chin. “I should shoot you at once you little urchin, especially with this stupid stunt.
The survival skills I honed during those terrible years—my street smarts, intuitive sense of human nature and ability to make shrewd decisions—were the same skills that helped me to navigate my postwar personal reinvention.
It was a big deal when we had weddings in the camp, in the same way that my bar mitzvah in post-liberation Skala had been important for the Jewish survivors of Skala.
Looking through the half-shaded window I could see two men sitting inside with Viktor, one in a familiar shabby captain’s uniform. It was Rambocha, apparently alerted by Viktor and lying in wait.
Our steamer trunk was forwarded to the new address and we never had any further contact with NYANA after that. Even though we would have been eligible for assistance, we never took a penny after our first three weeks in the U.S.
“Noch ein tog,” he would say at the end of every day.
It wasn’t like we stuck out our hands and the dollars fell from the sky. Ours was an overnight success that took decades of blood, sweat and tears to achieve.
Because of my life experience, I am able to relate to others who are having a tough time. I know what it is like to go hungry, or to do what is necessary to beg or steal a piece of bread.
These tellings and retellings meant a lot to the children, as they gained explanations for the dread they had lived with all of those years.
My postwar reinvention began with convincing my reluctant father to emigrate with me from Soviet Russia, and then taking actions to make that happen. I learned then to take ownership of a problem and solve it for myself.
I have learned not to judge harshly our elders on the Judenrat, who acted as honorably as was possible under terrible circumstances.
We would do one job for a customer, and that turned into additional work on the customer’s other buildings. One owner would refer us to another, and that one would tell two more.
Goldberg said that if I would volunteer to take training to become a kosher cook, he could get me into an upcoming course that would extend past the date I could be sent to Korea.
A Yiddish-speaking U.S. Army officer interviewed us about our origin and migration. He put us at ease that we were eligible for entry to the camps.
Every transaction, in business and in life, should bring value to both sides. You must always look out for your own interests, but those are best served when both parties are satisfied with the agreement.
From grandmother’s apartment, I collected table cloths, candlesticks, her dishes and flatware. I took the seder plate. I made piles of clothing,
Nikolai pulled the wagon to a stop at the ghetto checkpoint. A guard with a clipboard gave a cursory glance, seeing just a delivery man and peasant boy, his son.
The roof was constructed with crossbeams of saplings laid over with thatched grass, leaves and dirt. Ventilation was no problem and even a little light filtered through the covering.
The key to success in New York residential real estate is to understand how the system works, and then to work within it to one’s best advantage.
Not only had I managed to stay alive during the darkest days of the Holocaust, I had somehow at the same time come into my own as a man.
By noon, the cattle cars filled with my family members and townspeople were rolling out of town to the west.
At this time in my young working life, I knew a lot about tin. But now I was about to get an education in a more valuable metal, gold.
Mikhail replied that in the great Soviet Union all businesses must serve the people. From now on, he said, this would be a “people’s tin shop,”
Between the roofs of two houses I glimpsed the turret of a tank entering the town square. Emblazoned on its side was a bright red star.
Major Zionist figures came to camp for speeches. I remember seeing Ben-Gurion in 1948, a few months after he had declared the establishment of the State of Israel and become its prime minister.
Another problem, as my former boss had predicted, was getting customers to pay what they owed us. This was so especially with some of the Orthodox Jewish building owners.
Whatever challenges lay ahead—and there were bound to be many—I knew that I had overcome infinitely more difficult circumstances in the past.
Whatever the job, up I went on those bitter mornings to the icy rooftops, taking extra care not to misstep. I was always careful but never fearful.
Once I thought that I was covered over by the hay, I laid still and tried to listen. The main thing I heard was my own heart, which was beating like crazy.
Florence was also my indispensable partner in the business, which never in a million years would have succeeded without her active involvement.
For every compassionate Ukrainian who was willing to open the door to an unfortunate Jew in the dark of night there were ten times as many who turned Jews away or, worse, informed on them.
We exited through the doors to the reception hall and found ourselves on the ground in the United States of America.
in 1958 or ‘59, we went to hear David Ben-Gurion when he came to speak at a synagogue in Brooklyn. I couldn’t afford a chair for the prestigious event so I sat on the stairs.
I don’t know what Tateh did to draw Engel’s menacing attention but I saw the fearsome tyrant stride up to my father, demanding to see his work papers.
I am in real estate as an investor and property manager. It is not something I do for fun or charity, so I can be hard-nosed when necessary. But I operate on the up and up.
Ukrainian residents of Skala had greeted the Germans occupiers with flowers a few years ago. Now they were staying tightly holed up in their houses.
After my split with Abe, I proceeded on my own as an Edelstein family enterprise, buying real estate for Florence and my children as well as for myself.
I am happy to say that I followed through on the commitment I made during my 1999 return trip to Skala. In 2004, these Olenka Kovaleshyn and Nicolai Getman were formally recognized in Jerusalem as Righteous Among the Nations.
Back in Skala in the 1930s, you could find in every Jewish home a little metal box with a slot into which we would deposit coins to help those even poorer than we were.
The yells of “Halt” came immediately from several directions. I ran headlong forward toward the church while guards came at me from left and right.
What a wonderful break! We had not yet even met a vocational counselor and already, almost out of nowhere, Tateh was already set with a job.
There was a lane with a row of small houses there. I knew the first house on the corner was that of Voyke the Nachsteller, who drove a wagon for luggage at the depot.
Hundreds of ghetto residents were herded across town to the cemetery, where they were gunned down into open pits.
Our second building was also not a big money-maker but it gave me an education about managing residential properties. Any work that was necessary—plumbing, plaster, paint—I did it all myself.
I learned my cunning in the bunkers in Ukraine where you needed quick wits to survive. Now I meant to use my street smarts to overcome any barriers to success that I encountered in this free and wonderful country.
Tateh manifested a will to live so strong that he could seemingly withstand all hardships. Instead of giving in to our apparent fate, he was able to fix his mind on a steadfast goal of staying alive one day at a time.
I remember that pot with its braided wire handle because during the following weeks Olenka handed it to me many times—always filled with a double-thick layer of her delicious mamaliga.
One key to my management philosophy has always been to hire managers from within the community we serve. As a result, most of our non-family employees, are from Hispanic backgrounds.
My hearing became super acute, able to register and interpret acoustic signals, even when shut in behind sound-muffling walls.
I jumped up right away and almost shouted with excitement. “I know where the bunker is. I know the exact place!”
Under Rembocha’s grip, she glared in my direction and I flushed with the realization that she might be thinking I had snitched her out.
Our original immigration submission was among the documents that showed up years later when I reviewed our HIAS file in preparing this book.
As the groups were being readied, an Army staff car rolled up and several officers and managers from the Liegenschaft emerged to consult with the Gestapo officers.
Guards shoved people through a few at a time—men to one side of the enclosure, women and children to the other. A fence down the center divided the camp into halves.
My friend Herbie had another bit of advice for me. “You can’t call yourself Munye here. You need an American name.”
Just as I had learned tinsmithing from watching my father, I now had the satisfaction of teaching my own sons the basics of the roofing trade.
I was called by my Hebrew name Moshe, the son of Shulem. I recited the verses that I had memorized, and afterwards received congratulations all around.
More than a million young men across America were called to serve during the Korean War, including plenty of Jewish new Americans. It gave me some pride to know that I was to be a part of a national cause.
From around the bend, two Ukrainian polizei suddenly came upon us with pistols drawn. It was a trap. The peasant men were working with the Ukrainian cops, acting as decoys.
Now I have reached the tender age of eighty-six, I feel blessed and ready to undertake my personal heshbon ha’nefesh. I have written this book as my way of accomplishing that.
Counting my Engelbach, Epstein and Melamed relations and Florence’s Storch family from Zamósc, more than 50 members of our combined family perished in the Holocaust.
Outside it was bedlam. A stream of townspeople flowed down the street, shoved along with rifle butts and rubber truncheons.
I brought my children into the real-estate business, and helped them to spin off property-management companies of their own. We have done it together as a family, every step of the way.
The four o’clock hour that the Nazi invasion began always stuck in my mind because later there was a song popular among the Russian troops that mentions the bombing of Kiev and the outbreak of war.
For the next hour, we pulled nails and snipped edges until we had a big sheet of roofing tin free and clear.
We were the surviving remnant of a once-great Jewish civilization—thousands out of millions—rolling into an unknown Poland and an uncertain future.
I take from Judaism what is valuable to me, and I always try to give back more than I take.
First came the Judenrat, the arm bands, the confiscations and forced labor. Then came ghettoes, roundups, selections and death camps.. Our fate was predetermined—only we didn't realize it yet.
“Noch eyn tog,” he said over and over. “One more day. Maybe this madness soon will be over.”
I signaled the guard over and asked if I could pass a note to a prisoner. He gruffly said no until I produced a packet of papierose.
Tateh opened the hidden hatch and I saw that there were several large storage compartments inside, originally a larder for food staples and storage for kitchen supplies.
As far as I know, I am the one person in Skala who was in the initial roundup who made a successful escape from the holding pen.
I could not yet articulate what it was that I didn’t like about the Soviet system, but I already had a instinctive feeling that life would be better for us somewhere else.
To get anywhere in the market I had to give as good as I got. So the next time a woman insulted my buckets, I countered that “they’re good enough to carry that gravel you call flour.”
We dressed in our standard-issue khaki pants or shorts with loose white shirts, already resembling the typical Israeli pioneers that many camp residents would soon become.
The war was all but over in Skala and they were still killing little children.
We owed it to our martyred loved ones—and to all the murdered Jews of Skala—to make it through alive.
After all these years, I have finally returned to the place that shaped the person I survived to become.
After all we had been through, what good could it possibly do for people to be pointing fingers at each other? Yet here was a fellow Jew falsely accusing me!
I must have been looking at him in amazement. “What, you didn’t know the Russians are coming? It is true. The Germans are beaten—kaput.”
We were given a choice. We could remain as Soviet citizens in Skala, which together with the rest of western Ukraine had been annexed by the USSR, or we could relocate to a new home in the western part of Poland.
Back in the desperate days when I was wretched and cold and watching people die around me, I turned to God and asked him how he could allow it to go on. I confess I didn’t get an answer.
“You should not be playing with the Polish and Ukrainian kids. Do you know what that makes you? A zhulik,”
There is a thread connecting the shtetl way of life practiced by my ancestors in Skala to my grandchildren’s “up to the minute” American lifestyle. The thread is Florence and me and the lives that we led.
When I look back at these events from more than 70 years’ distance, I can't help but wonder, “Was that really me who did all of that?”
The days and nights ran together for me, with only occasional moments of wakefulness. I was wracked by terrible dreams and visions.
Lonye said Rambocha had a network of snitches who fed him information about Jews in hiding.
The gush of water I pumped into the pail did not collect there but leaked through the seam around the bottom rim. My bucket did not hold water.
My mother gave me so many blessings before she was taken, but no gift was as important as her willingness to let go of me when I announced my intention to escape on the day of the roundup.
Once a week we would go to Katz’s Delicatessen on Houston Street, which was not yet as famous as it is today. We had never heard of foods like pastrami and corned beef in Skala. But, oh, was it good!
When I try to analyze what were the qualities I possessed that served to prolong my life, the first thing I come up with is common sense. You relied on your street smarts to make calculated decisions.
I started my career as a roofer with a $200 loan to buy a beat-up panel truck. Twenty years later, I was now embarking a new phase of life as a full-time real-estate operator with a portfolio of properties already worth in the millions.
Bytom’s old Jewish cemetery was in tidy order, as if a local shames like my grandfather were still tending to the dates and names of every resident. Would that it were so!
Dunning delinquent customers wasn’t fun, but either we nudged people to pay what they owed or I would have to go back to being a wage slave.
The Banderovtsy Ukrainian militia, which was anti-Soviet and bitterly anti-Jewish, had taken to the forest was conducting guerrilla warfare under its cover.
I feel again like my young self, rushing even faster as my family members straggle behind. I wonder, will the barn still be standing after more than half a century?
Fortunately, after that first breakdown, the truck ran fine for the next couple of years, and proved to be a workhorse for carrying tools and materials to my roofing jobs.
Those of my generation who made it through had within us the tools to accomplish exceptional things. We applied the same skills and strategies we had used to outwit the Nazis.
“Congratulations, Comrade Epstein,” he said. “I am here to enlist you in the patriotic Red Army.”
He had me over a barrel. Sometimes you just have to pay a premium price if the thing is important enough to you. I gave him the pick of my jewelry items in exchange for the stockings.
When I mention Israel Bonds, I should say that at the beginning it was an Israel Bond—just one bond costing $100, and the truth is that we didn’t have the money even for that.
We were taken by Brichah from the Polish city of Szczecin into the Soviet zone of occupation and then to Berlin, which was by then a divided city with separate U.S., British, Soviet and French sectors of control.
In Germany, Florence’s mother met and married a man who had a brother who was already in America—in a small town in South Carolina, of all places. This is where Florence’s family was sent as well.
Our biggest operation comes during the High Holy Days, when the Edelstein Family Food Bank distributes thousands of food baskets to poor families and individuals with special needs around Israel.
I was one of about 80 Jewish survivors from Skala—80 of about 1600 of our landsmen who lived there before the Shoah.
The melamed walked around and watched over our shoulders. If you made mistakes or worked too slowly you could expect a jab in the ribs or a rap on the knuckles.
Tateh went outside first and we heard his encounter with a Ukrainian policeman. “Go to the barracks,” yelled the cop. “Everyone must go to the barracks. Now!”
The feared security services—the SS and Gestapo—were commanded from a regional headquarters in Chortkov. Kelner, chief of the Gestapo’s “Jewish section” for the region, was the master manipulator.
That night, we told all our friends that we were engaged, and there were drinks and toasts. Many of our friends were getting engaged and married around the same time.
I made $40 a week, enough to cover my rent and food and also put some money aside in my new bank account. Saving was important. I was starting at the bottom of the ladder in America but it was my goal to move up a few rungs.
Florence and I agreed that it was important to leave each child not just with an inheritance but with the ability to make a living. Otherwise, you just spend your wealth.
Each year, the children got a new pair of shoes from the Stride-Rite at Georgetown Shopping Center.
As a father, you want to protect your children from harmful words and actions but you also want them to know the ugly reality of the world they live in.
Representatives of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) were coming to Eschwege to help Jewish DPs apply for immigration to the United States. Now the question we had discussed in the abstract come into sharp focus. Palestine or America?
When I am written in the Book of Life, I will be remembered as someone who survived the Nazis, who lived his life as a mensch and who was able to make a lasting contribution.
Olenka lived alongside our little creek, the potik. I took a walk and listened to the burbling water. Wildflowers were budding.
I guess a 10-year-old boy is supposed to be too old to cry over his problems. But I cried anyway—big heaving sobs—until I finally fell asleep.
In 1999, Ukraine has entered another era. It is an independent state with western ambitions but still beset by ingrained tendencies toward corruption and superstition.
The colony we returned to regularly was run by the Kasimoff family. Just like at home, our bungalow unit was on the second floor.
There is a time and season for everything. It all goes in cycles and there are always opportunities to make something out of nothing.
I remember I went to the Ripley’s menswear store on Pitkin Avenue to buy my first good suit of clothes. You could get a sharp-looking suit at Ripley’s for $35.
Whoever said that it is better to give than to receive knew what he was talking about. I can tell you it feels really great to give tzedakah, especially when you remember what it was like to have had nothing.
My last name at birth was given as Engelbach, which was my mother’s maiden name, apparently because my parents were married within the synagogue but not under Polish civil law.
Our buildings provide decent, affordable apartment living, but they are not luxury housing. There are no doormen.
In the Rynek you could get almost anything—for a price. I saw people buying and selling everything from sacks of flour and sugar to gold and jewelry to packs and cartons of American cigarettes.
I pushed down on the heavy iron latch and was surprised to find it wasn’t secured. I could open the door from inside.
Tough luck for him. He started it. I was satisfied that I had shown him, and others like him, that bullying Jews can be bad for your health—even if I had to lay low for a while afterwards.
Jacob had worked for many years in the sheet metal trade in New York and was now the president of the United Hebrew Trades Sheet Metal Union.
By this time during the war, I had witnessed physical abuses and I had heard about people who had been killed. But this was the first time that I watched a brutal murder with my own eyes.
In the twilight, Miroshka takes me to Olenka’s gravesite, where I pay my respects and speak to Olenka in her grave, explaining my decision to have her honored in Jerusalem.
"You’re, what, thirteen or fourteen years old, but you have the chutzpah to come here and tell me about your shmattes. I won’t worry about you, my boy."
The murdered men were those I had known at the estate and worked beside at the quarry. It didn’t matter what kind of permit or protection they may have thought they had. In the end, the Nazis got them all.
Track key locations from the book narrative. Visual index to people and places
Book excerpts about the people, places and events mentioned in the book.
The authorities tried to isolate the contagion within the Jewish ghetto
The same barn where Munye hid from the Nazis is still standing a half-century later
Shulem's younger brother who took his place at Borki-Wielke
The author's stern Hebrew school teacher
Educator and philanthropist who published her Skala survival memoir
He fired Edelstein & Sons from a roofing contract
Colel Chabad Is Israel's oldest charity
Michael entered into the American zone of occupation
Michael and his father were smuggled out of the ghetto on the eve of its liquidation
Black market customer who hoarded Jewish relics
Where Munye was held before his perp ride
Ukrainian police official who brutalized Jews
Yiddish scholar who introduced Michael and Florence
U.S. Army base where the author served
One of many Israeli PMs with whom Michael met
Munye's closest companion in the bunkers
Friend from Eschwege and Brooklyn who advised Munye to change his name
Brooklyn union leader originally from Skala helped Shulem Edelstein find employment
The second of three displaced persons camp where the author was housed
Displaced Persons camp where the author first resided
The author's grandfather was a prominent figure in Skala
The author's partner in life and business
The author's father, a tinsmith by trade, was also a survivor
Ukrainian livery driver who smuggled Munye and Shulem out of Borshchow
Ukrainian townswomen of Skala who provided sustenance for Munye, Shulem and Lonye
Skala survivor and community leader who passed away in 2018
Nazi extermination camp where most of Skala's Jews were murdered
Michael's childhood home until Skala was declared "Judenrein"