South Tahoe Holocaust survivor pedals to world title

Leon Malmed shows off his trophies from August's World Masters Cycling Championships.
Courtesy photo

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Leon Malmed still remembers holding onto his mother’s dress as a group of French police officers took her away.

More than 80 years later the images are still fresh, but on this day in Austria those painful memories are turned to fuel as he pushes his bicycle past another opponent.

“I say, I’ve got to do this for my parents,” said Malmed on what goes through his mind while competing. “When there’s someone in front of me, I’ve got to catch up to that person.”

Growing up in Nazi occupied France

Malmed was four years old when Nazi bombs fell on his hometown in France.

As war declared escalated between Germany and France, Malmed’s mother fled south to Paris with him and his nine-year-old sister Rachel. His father enlisted in the French military.

A few weeks later, the French army was defeated. Malmed’s father returned to the family and together they moved into a three-story apartment complex in Compiegne.

As Jews living in Nazi occupied France, Malmed said his parents were forced to wear holocaust badges. He added that by the time they realized they were in serious danger it was too late, and on the morning of July 19, 1942, French police officers, working in collaboration with the Nazi SS, showed up at their door.

“I still remember holding on to my mother’s dress as she was being pulled away by the French police,” said Malmed.

The commotion awoke the family’s downstairs neighbors, Henri and Suzanne Ribouleau, who rushed upstairs to see what was happening. As Malmed’s parents were being taken into custody, the Riboleaus, who had two kids of their own, promised, to watch after him and his sister.

“Fortunately, at that time the neighbors down below us said not to worry, we’ll take care of your children until your return,” said Malmed.

Expecting their neighbors to return home at anytime, the Ribouleaus scrounged to make rent payments on the apartment for the two children. Malmed said he recalls his foster family being so poor that it took a year of saving for Suzanne Ribouleau to afford a raincoat. Still, the Ribouleaus kept to their word, hiding Malmed and his sister in the cellar below the apartment or in a nearby field whenever authorities came to their door.

“This couple, with two sons of their own, risked their lives for three years, three long years,” he said.

During that time, Malmed and his sister continued to hold out hope that their parents would return to them, and one day while peering out of the cellar window that hope was renewed.

Through the small opening in the cellar just above ground level, Malmed and his sister watched as the boots of American soldiers walked by, replacing the jackboots of Nazi troops that had haunted them the past three years. With France liberated, Malmed and his sister thought they would soon be reunited with their parents, but as weeks turned to months and months into years, hope of ever seeing their parents again began to fade.

It would be more than 50 years later that Malmed and his sister discovered that their mother and father had been transported from a concentration camp in France to Auschwitz where they were been killed.

After not speaking about his experiences during World War II for 60 years, Malmed began giving talks at churches and schools, and later wrote a book, “We Survived … At Last I Speak.”

Becoming a champion

In the years following the war, Malmed grew into adulthood, and found work at a Michelin plant in France.

Still, he said racial tensions lingered and that he never felt comfortable while living in the country. So, in 1964 he moved to the U.S. and settled down in New York for the next 18 years. Eventually, Malmed made his way to the Bay Area and Silicon Valley, where he landed a job in the tech industry. He and his wife remained in the Bay Area until 2013 when retirement brought him to South Lake Tahoe.

As a lifelong competitor, Malmed took up golf and tennis when he retired, but said he was never very good. Then at age 66, a friend convinced him to join a cycling group for causal weekend rides.

Pedaling an old loaner bike that was three sizes too big, Malmed discovered he could keep up with more experienced cyclists. He soon purchased his own bike and in no time was leading the pack of riders during their weekend excursions.

Upon moving to South Lake Tahoe, Malmed joined the Alta Alpina Cycling Club and has ridden with the group every Wednesday for the past 10 years.

At age 78, Malmed began cycling competitively, and in 2021 decided to race in the USA Cycling Masters Road National Championships.

Lining up against athletes that have been on bikes since they were young children, Malmed said he could only think, “What am I doing here? There’s so many professionals.”

After four days of racing, however, Malmed exceeded all expectations, winning the 80- to 84-year-old age group in the criterium race, and finishing runner up in the road race and time trial.

Malmed returned in 2022 and swept all three events, claiming national titles in the men’s masters 85- to 89-year-old division.

“I guess maybe I should have started biking earlier,” joked Malmed on finding success in a sport he picked up later in life. “I could have become someone.”

Last August, Malmed added world champion to his list of accomplishments. At 85 years old, he traveled to Austria to race against thousands of other cyclists at the World Masters Cycling Championships and finished first place in 80-year-and-older category in the time trial event.

“I just love to win,” said Malmed I’ve always been very, very competitive. I think it’s just my character. I know I cannot win everything. That’s for sure, but I can try and I do try. I just love competition.”

Malmed, who celebrated his 86th birthday on Wednesday, has no plans of slowing down. Next year he said he will race in Denmark at the UCI Gran Fondo World Championships.

“Biking makes me happy,” he said. “It gives me an incredible sense of freedom. When I’m chasing another rider, I tap into this energy I didn’t know I still had.” 

South Lake Tahoe cyclist and Holocaust survivor Leon Malmed captured a world title at the World Masters Cycling Championships last August.
Courtesy photo

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.