Inside a mid-sized, ornate home in Glendale, Wisconsin lives Howard Melton and his wife Evelyn. They have a quiet life. Howard is semi-retired from his family-run business while Evelyn works at home to care for Howard after his recent heart and back surgeries. Howard remains in relative good health, cracking jokes with Evelyn and spending time with his four children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
“I’m 84-years-old and life is wonderful,” he says. “I could change people’s minds. Make them better. Make them more loving.”
But 70 years ago, Howard was told by doctors that he wouldn’t live past the age of 50. He weighed only 40-something pounds at the age of 14, when the average male would weigh 105 pounds, and had years of recovery ahead of him. That was 1945, and Howard had just been liberated from Dachau concentration camp.
Howard doesn’t know exactly how he survived the war. It could have been the brief moments of luck, like hiding potatoes for food or lying about his age to get work. Or it could be the relationship he forged with a young man in the camps – a friendship that still remains. It’s hard for a 10-year-old to understand a division problem, but it’s considerably harder for a 10-year-old to understand the division of cultures, and the loss of millions of lives. So how did Howard survive? He just wanted to live.
Howard was born on Feb 13, 1931, in Kaunas, Lithuania. His father Leib worked at a shoe factory and his mother Razel stayed home and cared for him and his two sisters, Rashke and Sara. He and his siblings went to secular school because their family was practicing Jews. Howard doesn’t particularly recall having fun as a child.
“Life was completely different than it was here,” he said. “It was simpler. It was harder.”
On June 22, 1941, when Howard was 10- years-old, he heard an explosion in the middle of the night while at summer camp. Germany had launched operation Barbarosa and invaded the Soviet Union, which Lithuania was part of at that time. Howard returned to his hometown, where many Jews began to flee knowing the Germans didn’t treat them very well. Howard and his family waited until the day after the attack to flee, thinking it would be safer, but it was already too late.
The Melton family and hundreds of others got 35 kilometers outside their hometown when the Germans caught them and began to strike.
“One day they were your neighbors,” Howard said. “And the next day, they robbed you, raped you and killed you.”
The German invasion of Kaunas brought about an array of anti-Semitic laws. By July 7, the same year, all Jews were wearing a Star of David on the front and back of their clothing. The Germans also encouraged non-Jewish Lithuanians to kill them.
“If they didn’t like the way you looked or the way you walked or the way you talked, they could just kill you. Without any repercussions whatsoever,” Howard said. “They tried to dehumanize us. And if we weren’t human, our lives would not mean anything.”
The Melton family was escorted into a ghetto on Aug. 15, 1941. There, they were forced to live in cramped, uncleanly conditions. Where the size of the ghetto could hold only 10,000, the Germans put up 30,000 people.
The family was fed 800 calories a day and was expected to work hard labor. The sick, crippled and aged were expected to work as well, resulting in many dying quickly. As Howard would describe it, “They literally worked you to death.”
Howard lost most of his family in the ghetto: his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. The Germans would form lines sending the able-bodied to the left to live and sending weaker or aged people to the right to die.
Those sent to the right, to die, were sent to a small ghetto overnight, and the next day were brought to the Seventh Fort, a defense fortification in Kaunas, where they, and thousands of others, lost their lives.
In October, 1942, the Germans asked for volunteers to be shipped to a work camp in Riga, Latvia. Howard’s mother volunteered him and his sisters to be sent, suspecting that her husband had been sent there months earlier. There, in the summer of 1943, many women were separated and sent to Auschwitz. That’s where Howard lost his mother and his sisters.
“I think the action that my mother took saved my life,” he said, “It didn’t save her life. It didn’t save my sisters’ lives. But it saved my life.”
At the Riga camp, the Jews and others were forced to work at the Spilve Airport or a nearby farm. Howard chose the work at the farm because the work was not as hard for a 13-year-old, but where he lied about his age to be eligible to work. The conditions at the camp were horrible, as illuminated by the yellow triangle (symbolizing Jew) sewn onto Howard’s unwashed uniform.
“The worst part of the camps was the way they treated us,” he said.
Something remarkable, though, happened to Howard in the camps. He met a boy named Albert Beder, who was two years his senior and used to go to school with his older sister. The two quickly became friends and stuck together for survival.
“Albert and I are more than brothers,” Howard said, “We slept next to each other, we almost died together, and we survived together.”
They both were sent to Stutthof camp by the Baltic Sea in 1944, followed by the notorious Dachau concentration camp, where approximately 30,000 people were executed by the end of the war.
At Dachau, Howard worked 12 hours a day, six days a week. He was fed soup twice a day, but as resources dwindled, the ration went down to one bowl per day. Howard recalls the bread they were given as being called “smoking bread.” It was so moldy that when you’d eat it, green smoke would come out of your nose.
Dachau resembled a sod-covered roof on the ground, with no walls and a ditch in between. The prisoners were given straw and blankets for warmth, and there were no sanitary outlets.
Because they were given showers only when they changed camps, many people died from disease and rampant lice.
“If you didn’t get rid of the lice, the lice would get rid of you,” Howard recalled.
In the dead of winter, Howard and Albert found some potatoes. In an attempt to keep them from freezing, they buried them deep under the dirt ditch near where they slept. Where the potatoes did not freeze, they did rot. The two young boys smashed the rotten potatoes into pancakes and ate them.
In April of 1945, the Americans got close to the camp, and the prisoners were forced to leave on a German-Shepherd guided, 10-day march to the main Dachau camp. They were starved, exhausted and cold. Howard thought this is when he would die.
“If you laid down, sat down, or fell down, you’d die,” Howard said. “Either you’d be shot or the dogs would get you.”
The morning of May 2, the prisoners awoke from a night of rest after over a week of marching to two feet of snow on the ground. The dogs and the German guards were nowhere to be seen. At 1:00 a.m., tanks with white stars came into view. They had been liberated. American soldiers greeted them with hamburgers and chocolate.
Many died by overeating, sickness, and injuries. Because Howard weighed half of what he should have weighed at this time, he spent two years in hospitals recovering.
“I honestly don’t know how I survived the war,” he said. “People ask me that all the time, and I just don’t know. I just really wanted to live.”
While in the hospital, Howard received a letter from an uncle living in Israel that his father had survived the war, and was in miraculous shape. Howard both visited his father in Lithuania in the 70s, and helped get his father a visa to visit him in the United States. They maintained a great relationship until Leib passed away in 1995 at the age of 93.
After his recovery, Howard got his driver’s license and drove socialites in Germany around until 1947, when he received a letter from his old friend Albert telling him to move to the United States. So he did. In August of 1949, Howard moved to New York City, where he began to take night school classes to learn English.
“I asked people where in America I should move to, and they’d say, ‘What language do you speak?’ I said, ‘I speak German.’ They said to me, ‘Well, if you speak German, you have to go to Milwaukee. Everyone speaks German there,’” Howard said.
Albert lived in Milwaukee as well, and urged Howard to come.
“I told him I’m a little peeved at him because he should have told me to go somewhere else like San Diego, Arizona, or Florida where it’s nice and warm,” Howard chuckled.
In Milwaukee, Howard worked, enlisted in the draft for the Korean War, and eventually met the love of his life in 1950. Howard and Evelyn’s first date was at The Eagle’s Club where Howard immediately professed his love, despite Evelyn being steady with another boy.
She ultimately returned the feeling and they got married, later having four children.
It’s now 2015, and Howard lives a life of peace, preaching tolerance by telling his story to local schools and community forums. Albert still lives in Milwaukee, and the two see each other often.
Where Howard doesn’t see something as horrifying as the Holocaust happening again, his heart does break thinking about the hate that still exists in the world. His mantra? Treat others like you would like to be treated.
“I want to leave this world better than I found it,” he said.