Malvina “Malka” Markovic, a woman whose rippling effect permeates Pittsburgh’s Jewish community, died Wednesday, May 9 at UPMC Shadyside Hospital.
The Holocaust survivor and supervisor of Pittsburgh’s mikvah was 94.
Throughout the sea of Jewish literature the sages state that before erecting a synagogue a community must build a mikvah. Sourced with natural rainwater, regular visits to the ritual bath are necessary in the laws of family purity.
That reality was appreciated by few more so than Markovic, said those who knew her. For more than a generation the Czech and former McKeesport resident dutifully attended to brides, converts and observers of taharat hamishpacha (family purity) who at all hours sought a spiritual and physical connection between water and life.
Between 1987 and 2016, Markovic resided in a Shady Avenue apartment one floor above the sacred space.
“I came to Squirrel Hill in 1987 because I got this job,” she told the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle in 2016.
When Faithe Milch, a past president of the Jewish Women’s League, sought to replace the retiring Sylvia Lenoff — Pittsburgh’s “mikvah lady” between 1975 and 1987 — Markovic was recommended.
“Margot Guttman suggested that we contact Malka, and since everybody in the community knew her because of her catering it was not an unknown,” said Lenoff.
“They wanted a European for the mikvah. They’re better workers than Americans,” joked Markovic, who in later years frequently “fired plumbers on the spot” for shoddy practices.
She lacked formal education or training, but Markovic threw herself into the job.
Always industrious, the indefatigable immigrant survived Auschwitz and Bergen- Belsen, snuck into Austria in 1950 with her husband Beni and their infant son David, boarded a New York-bound boat that caught fire at sea and finally reached McKeesport in 1951, only to experience a professional passage of washing dishes and janitorial duties before entering food services.
“America was the best thing for us. I didn’t want to stay where I was born,” she said.
Decades prior to taking on the mantle of Pittsburgh’s “mikvah mother,” she catered countless occasions in the Jewish community.
“She did both of my boys’ bar mitzvahs,” said Milch. “Her catering was really good. In those days she made whatever was the fancy food.”
A 1986 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette praised her “paper-thin strudel dough.”
But by 1987, Markovic, who had since relocated from McKeesport to White Oak, was ready for change, recalled Lenoff. “Her son had moved from White Oak to Pittsburgh, and she and her husband wanted to move to Pittsburgh.”
So Milch offered Markovic the professional post. At the mikvah, Beni, who had worked at Tube City Iron and Metal for 25 years, joined his wife in the upkeep.
“It paid $136 a month, but had a free apartment,” said Markovic. “My husband learned to be a handyman. We fixed everything ourselves.
“My husband liked to raise tomatoes,” she added. Her spouse died in 2002.
For years, the Markovics’ garden regularly included the sweet squishy fruit as well as kohlrabi, cucumbers, garlic and onions. And although mikvah visitors were often gifted plastic bags filled with fresh red treats, at the age of 92 Markovic explained that she was no longer distributing tomatoes.
“Now I’m giving out dishes,” she said.
Born on March 5, 1924, in Loza, a roughly 1.5 square mile village with a population numbering fewer than 300, Markovic was intimately tied to what is today Czech Republic land. “If it was a good year, we ate food. If it was not a good year we had no food. All you did on the farm was work. There was no electricity, no water in the house, no toilets,” she said.
Although her mother made a sweet pizza-like dish topped with sugar and cinnamon laced cottage cheese, baking was an infrequent enterprise “because she had to heat from a wood stove. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.”
Obtaining bread was similarly cumbersome, requiring a 90-minute trek to a neighboring city.
Shortly after Passover in 1944, Markovic, who was the youngest of nine siblings, and her family were rounded up by Nazi forces. Following a one-week stint in Munkacs, the group endured a three-day ride to Auschwitz.
After exiting the open transport, the riders were divided into lines.
“I had two children in my arms, Rachel and Esther, and a guy came and took the children away from me and gave them to my mother, and said you have to go this way. And also my sister Lea, she also was with me, she also had a child, and they took it away and gave it to my other sister who went with the kids,” Markovic related in a 1999 recording with National Council of Jewish Women.
While Markovic’s family was immediately sent to the gas chamber, she and Lea spent a year in Auschwitz.
“I was always with my sister; we even went to the bathroom together,” she said. “I was afraid they would separate us.”
Markovic, her sister and two brothers survived. After liberation in 1945, while searching for relatives in Budapest, Markovic noticed her cousin Beni on a train. Two years later, they were married. The Markovics remained in Czechoslovakia for three years and eventually settled in Teplice-Šanov, a locale regarded for its mineral springs.
There, she “took over the mikvah for a year.”
Milch estimated that “between three and four women” frequent Pittsburgh’s mikvah each night, with stays ranging from 30 minutes to an hour.
Records are imperfect, but Milch’s calculations suggest that Markovic was responsible for 37,000 mikvah visits.
Generations of admirers gathered at Shaare Torah Congregation last week to eulogize the fount of faith whose optimism never drained.
Following the funeral, Milch recalled that in 1975, a day after her son’s bar mitzvah, Markovic came to the house to collect an invoice.
“She was bending over, and I didn’t know what she was doing,” Milch said.
Markovic had deposited a few seeds. Months later, tomatoes grew.
“They were the kind you can pick off and eat like candy,” said Milch, who still remembers what Markovich told her that Sunday morning decades ago: “I’m leaving you a memory.”
Malvina “Malka” Markovic (née Katz) is survived by her two sons, David and Saul, seven grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.