- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The phone rings on a typically quiet afternoon, and Malka Markovic pushes back her chair and walks slowly but purposefully to the phone on the wall. The woman at the other end of the line makes an appointment for that evening, and the call is soon complete.

For nearly 30 years, Markovic of Squirrel Hill has provided a steady, discreet service to Jewish women as the live-in supervisor of a mikvah, a small pool used for ritual bathing.

With the imminent opening of a new mikvah elsewhere in the neighborhood, she’ll soon be retiring - at age 92.

It’s the latest step in a long journey that began in her native Czechoslovakia in a poor yet close-knit village whose Jewish residents could only afford to heat the mikvah once a week by woodfire.

That Jewish community was one of thousands throughout Europe that was destroyed in the Holocaust, the Nazi mass murder of Jews that Ms. Markovic survived but which claimed many in her family.

“We were religious in Europe,” Markovic recalled, her words heavily inflected by her native Yiddish. Some other Holocaust survivors who “were religious in Europe, they came (to this country) and concluded, ‘This is what we went through,’ they didn’t want to be religious no more.”

What they went through, she went through, too. She reached the opposite conclusion.

“Because I figure, God let me live,” she said. “So I just continued to do it the way it was there.”

It’s a way that includes the ancient Orthodox Jewish observances, among them religious purity laws that cover even the intimate cycles of life. And that’s where the mikvah comes in.

The tiled pool, looking much like a miniature swimming pool, was installed decades ago in the two-story house where Markovic also lives. Under Jewish law, religiously observant married couples abstain from sex during a women’s menstrual cycle. To mark its completion, the woman goes to a mikvah for a full ritual immersion in the water.

Given the private nature of the ritual, Markovic has provided sensitive and discreet oversight. She arranges the evening appointments and the preparations, and there’s little small talk as the women come and go. If a woman is running late, she doesn’t mind waiting, as she’s already at home.

She has also done light cleaning and other maintenance, including plumbing and other repairs that contractors don’t get right, she said.

Men also make mikvah appointments for exceptional occasions - such as when they’re getting married, or those converting to Judaism. But on a day-to-day basis, it’s women she has worked with.

“She’s everybody’s mother, everybody’s grandmother, everybody’s great-grandmother. We will miss seeing her all the time,” said Judith Kanal, chairperson of the committee for the new mikvah of the local Jewish Women’s League.

Kanal said that with the pool aging, and situated in a house that was not built to handle the moisture it produces, it was time to have a purpose-built structure constructed elsewhere in Squirrel Hill. The new building will have two pools, each backing up the other in case repairs are needed. Construction is nearly complete, but an opening date has not been set.

Markovic “is and continues to be an amazing woman,” said Ms. Kanal. “She has taken care of our mikvah for decades with such loving dedication and loving care.”

And, she said, “When you think about what she’s been through it makes her even that much more remarkable.”

Markovic, wearing a long dress, knit cap and black beaded necklace, spoke candidly in an interview about that traumatic path that ultimately brought her to America.

She was born Malvina Katz - Malka for short - in the small town of Loza, located in an eastern part of Czechoslovakia that is now in present-day Ukraine.

Just after Passover 1944, Hungarian occupiers collaborating with the Germans deported the Jews of Loza. She was 19 years old.

“We went from Loza to Auschwitz, me and my family,” she said.

Immediately upon arrival at Auschwitz, the Nazis sent children, older adults and others immediately to gas chambers, then the crematory. They were ripped apart from other family members, typically teenagers and younger adults, who would be prison laborers destined for later execution.

“The young people went one way, and the children and their parents went the other way, straight in the crematory,” she said. “My father and mother, too.”

Upon arrival, Markovic recalled, she and her sister, Lea, were each holding a young niece or nephew. A guard - one of the Jewish prisoners given such low-level tasks by their captors - asked if they were their own. They weren’t.

“So he took it away from me and my sister and gave to my mother,” Markovic recalled. “He know where they were going.” Knowing that children and their parents were immediately sent to gas chambers, she said, the guard had made a split-second decision that spared young Malka’s and Lea’s lives.

In all, Markovic said, the Nazis murdered her parents, three sisters, 18 nieces and nephews and other relatives in Auschwitz. Two of her brothers were killed elsewhere.

She and her sister, Lea, stayed close by each other through the duration of the Holocaust.

They spent several months in Auschwitz in 1944, then were transferred to the Bergen-Belsen camp. “That was another killer,” she said, recalling daily executions by gunfire.

Yet everywhere she went, she said, her fellow inmates trusted her to distribute the food among them.

“They saw when I cut the bread, the smallest portion I took,” she said. When there was extra, she distributed it fairly.

She didn’t need much food, she said, even when for months they were served bland yellow beets every day, something typically used for cattle fodder. “I was (raised) on a farm, so I had hardship there,” she said. But others, particularly those from cities, “couldn’t take the hardship.”

Eventually, Malka and Lea answered a call for prison volunteers to work at a German factory making parts for war planes. The volunteers were supposed to be healthy, but on the way, “I was sick all night,” she recalled. “I had diarrhea. In that train was no toilets or nothing, (just) straw on the floor.”

But the German soldier guarding the group “didn’t throw me out of the train. He was just a soldier. He had a little heart.”

Malka and Lea worked at the factory until the end of the war. “Then they told us to go free, go wherever you want.”

The sisters found shelter at a farm and eventually made their way back to Czechoslovakia. They reunited with two surviving brothers, and Malka also met her cousin Beni Markovic, her future husband, on a train. They married and, with nothing left for them in Loza, settled elsewhere in Czechoslovakia.

But they soon found the land’s communist rulers brutal enough.

“I wanted out,” she said. “There was no life there.”

On a New Year’s Eve 1950, when they correctly suspected the border guards would be drinking and less vigilant, the couple sneaked across from Czechoslovakia to Austria with their 18-month-old son David.

They eventually came to McKeesport under the sponsorship of an uncle there. (Her sister Lea Shvartz, meanwhile, made her way to Israel, where she died two years ago at age 96.)

There, Malka and Beni Markovic raised David and another son, Saul.

Mr. Markovic worked at Tube City Iron & Metal, and Ms. Markovic worked as a cook and baker at Gemilas Chesed Synagogue in White Oak, catering many dinners and parties.

Her connections with that work eventually led her to her current position in 1987, and the couple moved to Squirrel Hill, into the apartment upstairs from the mikvah.

Mr. Markovic died 13 years ago at age 92. He returned from synagogue on a Saturday, asked to be taken to the hospital and died on a Tuesday.

“He had a good life,” Ms. Markovic said. “To the last minute he took care of himself.” He regularly attended daily minyan and weekly Sabbath services, and he was pleased to witness the bar mitzvah of each of his sons and grandsons.

Even with her simple lifestyle, “I’m a rich person,” says the mother of two, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of 11. “I have a lot of children.”

Both of Ms. Malkovic’s sons live in Pittsburgh and visit regularly for dinner. David is retired and Saul runs the Murray Avenue Kosher shop.

She expects to keep busy even after the new mikvah opens. “I don’t sit around, I work around,” she said.

First she plans to travel to visit grandchildren in other states. “Then I’ll see,” she said. “Maybe I’ll do something volunteering.”

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Online:

http://bit.ly/1s2K7uW

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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