Ren Molho, Holocaust witness, activist, dies at 83

There's a story from the Holocaust about some death camp inmates who decide to put God on trial. They prepare for several hours, and then carefully argue the prosecution and the defense. No sooner do they find God guilty for their fates, than someone says, "It's time to daven Ma'ariv." Before dispersing, they start with evening prayers.

Samuel Broude, rabbi emeritus of Oakland's Temple Sinai, recalled that story recently because it so perfectly described one of his longtime congregants, René Molho.

An Auschwitz survivor who would proclaim his atheism within minutes of meeting someone, Molho was one of Temple Sinai's most active members and was well-known throughout the East Bay Jewish community.

A founder of the Holocaust Center of Northern California and frequent lecturer about his experiences, Molho died on Aug. 7 at home in Palm Desert. He was 83. He was known for continually keeping a good sense of humor, though tragedy would continue to strike him.

Molho was born in 1919 in Salonika, Greece, and became an oral surgeon. He had one brother, who was killed after he was the subject of medical experiments at Auschwitz. Molho was at Auschwitz as well, and lost his entire family there except for one cousin. He believes he was spared because camp records noted that he was a doctor.

Of some 48,000 Jews from Salonika, only 1,100 survived the camps. "For Greek Jews, it was so much harder to survive," he told the Jewish Bulletin in 1996. "They did not speak German. Most couldn't understand directions."

While he briefly resumed his practice in Europe after the war, he soon gave it up. "I had nightmares and I was sweaty. I wasn't physically able. I didn't think it was fair to my patients to operate."

In 1946, Molho married Tillie Amarillio, also a Greek Jew, who survived the war in hiding. The couple immigrated to Oakland in 1951. Molho worked for more than 30 years in management at Sears Roebuck in Oakland.

He was involved in many facets of the Jewish community. A founder of the Holocaust Center, Molho also chaired the Yom HaShoah memorial services for the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay. He lectured frequently around the area.

"It helps me," he told the Bulletin in 1996. Sharing his experiences with others is better than "having everything enclosed into my brain, into my heart."

Shunning the word "survivor," Molho preferred to be called a "witness."

"As a witness, he said he witnessed what happened and could tell the story so nobody could deny it," said Broude.

In addition to Temple Sinai, Molho was involved with the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, B'nai B'rith, Hadassah, the World Jewish Congress, Technion University and Hebrew University.

Steven Chester, Sinai's current rabbi, said that Molho was fiercely proud of his Sephardi heritage. "Whenever I'd say something to him like a Yiddish expression, or 'Good Shabbos,' he'd always say, 'You know how you say that in Ladino?'"

The Molhos had one son, Mario Sam, who died at 32 of a heart attack. Tragedy struck the Molhos again, when their house was consumed in the Oakland Hills fire in 1991.

When Chester went to visit the Molhos after they lost everything, Molho told him, "I don't know what I would do if anything good ever happened to me."

Nevertheless, he was "engaged totally in everything he did," said Riva Gambert, director of community programming at the East Bay federation. "He made people feel they should be engaged as well, and not get bogged down when things go astray from your life's plan."

Those who knew Molho described him as a paradox: Even though he was not a believer, he demonstrated a certain holiness through his deeds.

"Despite him scoffing at faith, he was a role model in making me understand what it means to be a holy person," said Gambert.

Molho is survived by his wife of 56 years, Tillie, of Palm Desert. Donations in his memory can be made to Temple Sinai, 2808 Summit St., Oakland, CA, 94609; the Holocaust Center of Northern California, 639 14th Ave., S.F., CA, 94118; or your favorite charity.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."