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RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE & HOPE: Episode 4 – Estelle Glaser Laughlin

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[Andy Miles] Hello, and welcome to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and Studio C Chicago.

The mission of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is expressed in its founding principle: Remember the Past, Transform the Future. The Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. The Museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation, and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives, like this podcast, that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.

On this episode, we hear from Estelle Glaser Laughlin.

Estelle was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1929. When she was 10 years old, her family was forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. The family hid in a secret room to avoid deportation during liquidations in 1942. Estelle’s father built a bunker in which the family hid during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in April 1943. The bunker was eventually exposed by a bomb, and the family was sent to Majdanek Extermination Camp, when Estelle was 13 years old.

[Estelle Glaser Laughlin] We were with a group of women, and a group of men were sitting opposite us. And my father had TB at that point, and he was running a very high fever. His eyes were so filled with pain. I was so used to looking into his eyes for comfort and reassurance. There was such pleading in his eyes. So at some point, when the guards passed and were on the other end, I shoved myself through the first row and I dashed across. And my father wiggled his way to be close, and I ran across to him and kneeled down in front of him. And I said, “Dad, don’t worry, Tata. They won’t get me.”

[Andy Miles] Estelle Glaser Laughlin arrived in America with her sister and mother in 1947. With only three years of public schooling and brief underground tutoring in the ghetto, she entered college and earned a master’s degree in education and taught in Montgomery County, Maryland. After retiring, Estelle found a new passion in writing prose. Her memoir, Transcending Darkness: A Girl’s Journey Out of the Holocaust, published by Texas Tech University Press in 2012, was named a finalist for the 2012 ForeWord Review Book of the Year Awards. Her new novel, Hanna, I Forgot To Tell You, also published by Texas Tech University Press, was released last year. She’s currently writing another novel. Estelle has three high-achieving sons, seven grandchildren, and four great grandchildren. Of course, they’re all wonderful, she says. We spoke in late 2019 in her living room.

AM:  You have said, Estelle, that you aim not to curse the darkness of the past but to illuminate the future. But it is, of course, important to illuminate the darkness of the past, and that’s part of what our conversation today will do.  So to begin, I’d like to ask: Why do you think it’s important to talk to me and our audience and to tell your story? 

EL: I think that it is essential to be reminded from time to time of the consequences to us and to society when we accommodate ourselves to tyrants, how it corrupts the conscience of a nation, what it does to love and trust. We have to be reminded that human beings are capable of extreme cruelty and, by being reminded of that, appreciate so much more the healing power of love. It is noteworthy that it took Hitler a mere 14 years to transform the Weimar democracy into a complete police state, in a mere 14 years. And so we have to remember of the consequences of not remembering and not protecting and not standing up, not healing the world by standing up for what is right and just.

AM: You were born in 1929 and were 10 years old when Germany invaded your home country of Poland in 1939.  How would you describe your life in those early years, before the “peaceful streets were changed beyond recognition,” to use your words?  

EL: I was born to a middle-class family. My father was a jeweler. We had a large, loving family. I remember Poland. Although there were outbursts of hooliganism, Warsaw was the center of my universe and glows in my selective memory in golden radiance of lilac trees against open blue skies, rich sounds of good neighbors’ kindness and trust and love, magic train rides to the countryside in the summer. All these memories became like a cove. When you lose everything, your memories become your possessions. These memories were my possessions. They were the succor that kept my soul alive. And in a way, I think as a young person, seeing all the cruelty and murder all around me, I had to hold onto something. I think that I used these memories of the good people, of the kindness, that if there once was there will always be good people. They were the light in my darkness.

AM: And how do you remember your father and your mother and your sister at that time, during those early years of your life?

EL: My family was like a capsule of paradise. My mother was in love with my father so there was love all around me. My father was a very philanthropic — he was a humanist, and he worked — my father was a jeweler so his jewelry shop was an extension of our apartment, and I could always run to him and complain and he would somehow heal the hurts that I had. If I would come and complain, oh, this friend of mine was so horrible and he would say, “Oh, did you ever do anything like that?” I would say no, never. So he would say, “OK, just go and play, and when you remember come and tell me.” And of course, I remembered. (Laughs.) So he made me aware. Or during the war, my father was very much involved in helping the needy people around us, and in the building there was a list of contributors, and my father’s name never appeared. And my vanity — I would say, “All of my friends’ names are on the list; why isn’t yours?” And my father said: “If you give something, you give because it’s the right thing. If you give because you want something in return, you call it making a deal.” And I think that that was a very wise observation, and it reflects his humanity.

My mother was born in Viciebsk in Belarus in a shtetl, and she was very romantic. It amazes me, it astounds me where she found the inspiration to find such beauty and kindness. The prejudice against Jews there were very enormous in the shtetls, the persecutions. I have a flood of memories of my mother’s stories and my images that I had of her when I was a child, how she described the wild flowers on the fields and the sounds of the peasants working in the fields in the distance. They were very poor. The Jewish people in the shtetls lived very poorly and very isolated. Their core really was learning the Torah.

So she was driven out during the time that is described by Sholem Aleichem in his wonderful books, and “The Fiddler on the Roof” is one of the stories. So she was chased out like that too and came to Poland. She fled and came to Poland. So for my mother — you know, the Holocaust was not the first occurrence of dreadful persecution of Jews. For my mother, that was the second holocaust, in a way. And then, when she came to Warsaw, met my father, was in love with him, treasured — had two children that she was very proud of, and then the second holocaust in her lifetime happened.

AM: Had conditions changed and the mood darkened for Jews in Warsaw before the Germans invaded and occupied the city?  And did you feel at the time that was inevitability to the invasion?

EL: OK. So I was a very young child, but I have very vivid memories.

Children are very aware of what is happening around them, so I could tell by the shiver in people’s voices, by the fear. You know, hatred is like a pathology. It’s very contagious. So with the rise of antisemitism and the horrendous persecutions in Germany, it infected the haters. It emboldened the haters. And the voices of the haters became very frightening. I remember more taunting by children when I went to school by Polish children throwing stones at us and say, “Jews go to Palestine.” Palestine, in my mind, was a story in the Bible. The only world I knew was Warsaw, was Poland. This was my sky. These were my trees. This was all I knew. So it was very, very frightening. We had the favorite children’s show. I remember when it was interrupted with these dark voices telling about this horrible man Hitler and Jewish people being persecuted and children were not permitted to go to school. All I could see was a finger pointing at me. I couldn’t quite understand.

Another thing that stands out: There were also outbursts of hooliganism as a result, and my father would take us on Saturdays often to Krasiński park in Warsaw where there was a pond and swans and there was a little hill. And these walks were very precious to us. And a Jewish person was stabbed — I don’t remember — probably I was able to read already; I was 10 years old; I saw the headlines probably — that this boy or this young man was stabbed in my park. And I remember going to my father and saying, “Oh, my god, will we be able to go to the park anymore?” And my father said, you know: “Jewish people have experienced similar situations. We have to be patient. That will pass. We’ll go to the park again.”

AM: So once the Germans had invaded and occupied Poland and Warsaw, how quickly did your life change?  Did major changes take hold overnight?

EL: Yes and no. We were attacked suddenly. My father went to see his clients in the city and suddenly planes appeared in Warsaw and dropped bombs and then we heard on the radio that Germany attacked Poland without declaring war. So that was very, very sudden. The sky was blue from end to end of the horizon, and all of a sudden, yes, we were attacked. But prior to that, there was a lot of talk about what was happening, the aggression, the invasion of the Sudetenland and other aggressions. There were banners all over the city flying, saying, “We are united and ready and prepared.” So there was sort of a preparedness and sirens just like fire alarms. We heard sirens just to test and prepare us. So there was a lot of agitation.

AM: And what was involved in the process of your family living in the home that you had grown up in and being moved into what became the Warsaw Ghetto? How long a period of time did that happen in?

EL: Everything was instant. War is crisis. It’s continuous crisis. And it’s very existential. You are in the moment. You have to respond. So it changed — my life changed completely. My once-peaceful streets were patrolled by foreign soldiers. They snapped whips in our homes and streets. They marched into our homes, helped themselves to whatever they wanted to. If you as much as murmured a complaint, not only were you killed and your family was killed, the whole building that you lived in was shot, the whole street. The Germans were very good in enforcing discipline, and fear is a very powerful way of controlling a situation. So there was not much time but to respond.

AM: So this was an immediate transformation.

EL: It was an immediate switch from one to another. This is what I remember: that around one square mile contained 400,000 people. So people — there were like 10 or 11 people per room sometimes. Our street fell inside the ghetto. So if you had a cover over your head, you had everything. Without a roof over your head, you had nothing. Poland is cold and so the streets were littered, literally littered with corpses, with rivers of people.

So there were several things that worked to our advantage. We were very fortunate. We were fortunate that our apartment was in the ghetto. We were also fortunate that my father was a jeweler. And during the war, the most dependable currency is gold and precious stones. And there was a very vigorous black market in Warsaw.

There was total unemployment, total. The only stores — our streets were so bleak. All the stores’ windows were shuttered. All of them, immediately.

AM: You alluded to the bodies that were strewn in the streets and I’m reminded that you’ve said that dead children’s bodies were covered with signs that said, “Children must live, children are the holiest thing.”   Do you remember the first time you saw a dead child’s body or bodies in the street and the effect that it had on you?

EL: Yeah. It was such poverty. It was so common. When I walked down the streets, I saw these gory, horrible-looking images of dead children. I identified. It scared the daylights out of me. I didn’t want my mother or my father or any of my friends or my sister or myself [to] die that way. I felt that if one dies, they have to be uncles and parents and loving people and crying. I didn’t want to die that way. I didn’t want to see anyone dying that way. But one would think that I curled up and stopped living because it was so gory. It was so, so dark and frightening. But there is a drive in us, the drive to live, the feeling that I am worthy to live. And I think this is a beautiful impulse. I wanted to live. I sometimes wanted to turn my head away and didn’t want to see it. But something pulled me to — I must see it and I must remember. But I also had the drive to live.

You know, amazingly, we had theaters when all of this was going on. So there is that impulse. There is that drive towards life. And sometimes, in the deepest depth of despair, the sanctity of life is more vivid. It is paradoxical that maybe the light and the meaning of life is the most vivid and most meaningful when maybe death and life are so very close.

AM: Yeah. Physical resistance was impossible, but there was moral resistance, like people putting on shows to make money for the sick and celebrating holidays, and some of the things that you’ve already mentioned. You’ve characterized your Jewish neighbors as having “tremendous moral resistance,” asserting that people did not go like sheep.  Can you tell me more about that?

EL: So I’ll refer to Chaim Kaplan, who was a ghetto historian and writer and a very remarkable man. So Chaim Kaplan said that it is strange that when we don’t seem to need it at all, we need poetry more than we need bread, and it is true. I think our ability not to follow like sheep, our ability to express ourselves, our ability to think for ourselves, our love for beauty, our love for humanity, our compassion is our godliness. And so immediately, the Jewish community organized itself in a widespread self-aid organization. Everyone who had a little bit more contributed to help those who were the most destitute amongst us. We even had theaters when there was no bread. Imagine theaters at a time like that. We had secret schools. Heroic unemployed teachers met with children in cold rooms and teach them to hold on to their imaginations and trust and love.

And coming back to books: To own a book was an act of defiance. It was a capital crime. If you were found with a book, you were shot on the spot. Your family was dead too. Yet, all over the ghetto, there were secret libraries. My father had a stash of his favorite books by Yiddish authors. Nights when those blinded with covers to keep our existence secret, my father would pull out his books and read to us, bringing to life remote worlds. So that was our moral resistance, our holding on to that which is best in us.

AM: So with your 13th birthday came the start of the Warsaw Ghetto deportations.  You’ve said that the deportations took place with 20th century know-how and stone-age values. Can you tell me what you knew and believed about these deportations and how your understanding of them changed as people would occasionally make their way back to the ghetto and talk about what had happened and what they had seen? 

EL: Well, the deportations started the beginning of July and ended in September of 1942. So short of two months, 99 percent of the children disappeared. Can you imagine a world without the sound of children, without the presence of grandmothers and grandfathers? Because children and old people were the first to disappear. So that certainly a country — Germany — a highly literate country — did things that people literally in the Stone Age probably did not do. So this is what I mean that it was carried out with 20th century know-how and Stone Age values.

We had no idea that the deportations meant death. Some people were forced to write false letters to families inviting them to places where they were fed and sheltered and clad, so some people went voluntarily and unknowingly to their death. But many people hid.

Now, we lived in apartment buildings. Where does one hide in an apartment building? Pretty much where children play hide-and-go-seek. We hid behind couches. We hid in between cardboards, in drawers and closets, between mattresses and box springs, on the beds, anywhere. Anywhere. But some people in my family did the same thing: selected one room and put a wardrobe in front of the door to obscure that room and hid in the secret room. Of course, everyone in the row of apartments on the various levels obscured the same closet in hope that this would keep our secret more secure. So this is where we hid.

And while we were in hiding, we could hear the bands of Nazis rounding up people from the streets. We heard the crying. We heard the shouting. We heard the insults that were flung at the people. We could hear — in our secret room we could hear the steps of the pounding of the boots in our room. We could hear them opening the wardrobe. Can you imagine sitting in that room behind the door and hearing the drawers opening because they were looking for plunder? And I remember hearing the scratch of their fingers along the wardrobe. I could feel it on my skin. And we sat in the silence until we heard the yammering of the people, soft pat of their feet and the boots and the shouting and the shooting. And we walked out of our — we didn’t dare to leave our hiding until complete — we didn’t even trust the silence. Then we would walk out, go to the windows, look at the windows of our neighbors to see if there’s any stirring of life. Then we would go down into the courtyard and the people who were to check who of our neighbors survived. And once, my best friend hid in — between a box spring and a mattress, and she had the little dog and the dog ran after the Nazis and yammered and kept on hopping and led the Nazis to the bed and found my best friend. And that was the end.

So there were just endless tragic scenes that followed even the raids. And the raids occurred quite — they would just descend on, close, block off a number of streets or maybe one street or a block and just round up people from that block.

AM: How often?

EL: It was erratic. It was — too often. All I can say that they were — they deliberately timed it so and I think that the irregularity also kept us in complete — in constant fear. So it was — I don’t recall how long it took, but maybe like 20,000 people a day were rounded up. I don’t remember.

So the people who were snatched from our lives, the people who were deported, we never heard from them. But just a few, very few managed to come back, sneak back under the cover of night and they told us about the horrendous train rides to a place called Treblinka, where our people were gassed. At that point, people began to organize themselves into armed resistance.

One might ask, why was there no armed resistance before? There was no armed resistance before because it would have been suicidal. First of all, there was no access to arms. But it would be completely suicidal. So the only hope was that the Allies are going to win. And as in the past, we have to be patient. Not all of us will survive, but at least some will. But at that point, the choice was to die in Treblinka or to die in self-defense.

So at that point, there were very few people left. I don’t remember the number. And the ghetto was reformed. They piled up in a convenient pile the Jewish, the remaining Jewish people in three sub-ghettos, which were three streets. Again, fortunately, our apartment remained in one of the sub-ghettos. So we still had a roof over our heads. And they placed a factory, a German factory, in each of the sub-ghettos. So only the people who were fortunate enough to find employment in one of these three German factories in one of the three sub-ghettos were allowed to live, if they worked for gratis.

AM: And were these factories producing war materiel?

EL: No. I don’t remember what the other two — it was a shop where we mended German uniforms. So only those who had the good fortune to find employment to work for no money in one of the factories was allowed to live. So my mother, my sister, and I were able to have that privilege, because with that privilege came the right to live. The ones who found employment were called the useful ones; the others were “useless.”

So my father was among the useless. And there was a number of useless, and we called them the wild people.

AM: Why would your father have been designated as useless?

EL: Because he did not have the good fortune of finding employment in the factory that my mother, sister, and I found.

My sister’s best friend’s father was the manager of the — he was Jewish, but he was the manager of one of the shops. He was not a nice person — (laughs) — but my sister was his daughter’s friend, and because of that — and I describe how my mother had to ask my sister to go to him and to plead for the job and how abhorrent it was both to my mother and abhorrent to my sister, but that was the only way to survive. So we were among the very small group of people that had the privilege to sew, that mended the uniforms of wounded soldiers.

AM: So during this time, when your father had been designated as useless, he became involved with the underground resistance.

EL: Right.

AM: Can you tell me about the efforts that he was involved with? And what knowledge did you have of his work in that capacity?

EL: Right. So my father was “useless,” but he was not the only one useless. And I’m going to refer to them as wild people, because that was another surname for them.

So the people who were designated for death, the people who were useless and non-existing — and so this group of the wild people — and my father was one of them — organized themselves into armed resistance. They decided that they are going to die fighting. And they also — they knew that was a certain death and they thought they might — they decided to die with dignity. There was enormous dignity and determination and passion and love and loss. All of them, most of them were young people who lost their whole family. And so there was a feeling of standing up. So they organized themselves into armed resistance and immediately they started to build bunkers in the basements. So we lived in an apartment building, five stories. We were the only family that was still alive. So we moved from our second-floor apartment to the ground floor and we built a bunker too.

AM: So everyone from that building had vacated — they were dead, they were in camps —

EL: Right. So if you want to know how did we eat and how did we stay warm? Staying warm was no issue because we — the apartment buildings were vacated and the furniture and doors — so my father would hold the doors and wood and furniture and chop the wood into fuel to heat our apartment. Fortunately, they didn’t turn off the water. Smuggling even then went on because that was the only way we got food. And so — and part of the smuggling was also carried out smuggling of food by the underground.

So the resistance fighters built the bunkers for entrenchment, and they dug tunnels between the bunkers for navigation, and they used the sewers very much.

AM: So the starting point would have been the basement of the apartment you lived in, and they built out from there.

EL: That was one cell. It was very energetic, very — there was no time. So everything was done with the energy of anger, with the energy of indignation, with the energy of righteousness and complete idealism and commitment. And so it was — time was very compacted.

And so they also built a tunnel under the wall to obtain arms from the other side, from the Christian side, from the Christian underground. Some of the Christian underground was very, very helpful. But antisemitism also existed among the Polish underground too, the Christian underground. So I know that we sometimes received arms without any instructions. The fighters — they were not soldiers. So there was a great deal of disappointment, but there was a great deal of gratitude.

So they built the bunkers and we had a bunker under our floor too. And events erupted with Nazi columns entering the ghetto and with flocks of bomber planes and armored tanks and armored cars and with humongous loud speakers announcing you all better report now; if you don’t, you’ll be killed right away. Otherwise, you’ll be deported. And we knew what deportations meant.

At that point, we lifted our secret trap door to our bunker. Our trap door was we had a small powder room, so the powder room floor and the commode and all lifted up. The ingenuity of the partisans, the handful of partisans, with no stores to obtain — they had to use whatever they could pick from the abandoned, empty apartments or what they could smuggle in and form the bunker. And so we walked down the flimsy steps, pulled the trap door down. I felt banished. The ceiling pressed down on me. The damp walls closed in on me. The flickering of the carbide light was our substitute for the sun. The ticking of the clock was our only connection with the outside world, the only clue when morning was rising and sun was setting. The few people were my whole nation. How I longed for the blue crispness of day, for the open horizon.

While we were in this darkness, fighting broke out in the streets. Facing a 20th century army, armed from head to toe, facing armored cars, facing tanks, facing flocks of bomber planes stood a handful, a band of poorly clad, poorly armed, poorly fed freedom fighters. They climbed up on rooftops, stepped in front of open windows, crawled out from the tunnels and from the sewers and lobbed Molotov cocktails and whatever they had. And at some point, a grenade was thrown into our bunker and the barbarians were upon us. There was no corner to hide anymore. They pulled us out into the streets. The buildings were crumbling to our feet, people in congealed blood all around us. Flames, enormous tongues of flames, were licking the skies and painting it in otherworldly colors of iridescence. Smoke, clouds of smoke lifted and they loaded us onto freight trains.

I have a memory that when we were in the trains and they were pelting — when they took us to Umschlagplatz, a deportation station, we were so thirsty; our lips were coated with scabs it was so dry. And I lost my voice for a little while. I couldn’t even call for my parents. And the Nazis squirted water onto the ground and we scooped up just the water from the puddles to moisten our lips. And then they loaded us onto the trains. And for the sport of it, they were pelting bullets at the train. So there were bullet holes in the train walls. So they were freight trains, so there were no windows. And there were bullet holes, so we looked through the bullet holes and we saw — you know, it’s impossible to imagine how spectacular the sight of destruction was, the flames and the smoke. And I remember my father’s remarking that hell could be so spectacular. That was such a healing thing to me because at that moment his noticing the detail took me out of my fear, and I separated myself. It was almost a skill that was helpful to me to separate myself from what was happening to me, to the existential moment to being in the moment and being an observer and being a witness, which is a gift. And I was a child, was a very young person. It was not a conscious realization. But it was ingrained in me and it became a very helpful tool to separate myself from the emotion and be able to witness and evaluate a situation on a more compassionate level.

AM: And from there, you were all together, your father, your mother, and your sister were together, in tact, and you were deported where?

EL: To Majdanek. So we finally arrive in Majdanek, and they then unloaded us and deposited us on some turf. And they separated men, women, and children. There were very few children.

AM: And at this time, you were 13?

EL: Exactly. Exactly 13.

AM: And your sister’s just a year and a half older.

EL: Right. So women, children, and men are separated. So that was a separation from my father, which was horrible. So the children were separated and they were put into an enclosed area and they yammered, “Mama, mama.” It was just devastating. And children under 14 were not allowed to live, and I was 13. And I was so afraid that, you know, they’ll guess — I had no documents — I felt very, very afraid of being — I was more afraid of being separated from my mother and sister and my father than from dying. Death — I didn’t know what death was. I wanted to make the transition to death by holding my parents’ hand. So the fear of being separated was greater than the fear of the gas chambers.

And so we were with a group of women and a group of men were sitting opposite us. And my father, he had TB at that point, and he was running a very high fever. And so he put the coat on his head, I guess to stop the chill. His eyes were so filled with pain. I was so used to looking into his eyes for comfort and reassurance. There was such pleading in his eyes. So at some point, when the guards were passed and were on the other end, I shoved myself through the first row and I dashed across. And my father wiggled his way to be close, and I ran across to him and kneeled down in front of him. And I said, “Dad, don’t worry, Tata. They won’t get me.” I turned the lapel of my coat because we had cyanide sewn into our lapels. One person once asked me, “How could a parent do it?” A parent whose children would end up in Treblinka would do it. So I don’t know how many people did it, but our friends did it. So I turned my lapel and I said, “They won’t get me, don’t worry.” I meant to make him feel better. And he said, “No, you must live.” And I lived.

AM: So that was the end for your father.

EL: Right.

AM: And you and your mother and your sister remained together.

EL: Right.

AM: And during that time, in your memoir, you describe the will that your mother expressed for staying alive and a certain optimism that she had. But your sister was struggling.

EL: I don’t want to say that my sister — that this was a gesture what I’m going to describe of surrender, because it wasn’t. It was her form of rebelling. It was inevitable that we are going to die. We were stored in the barracks, but the crematorium was right next to us. The only reason that we were stored was that the crematorium was too busy and there was no room yet for us. But there was no — the thorns of the electrified barbed wire fences marked the end of our horizon. And there was no lavatory. There was a ditch right in front of the barbed wire fence, and we went when we needed to go to the bathroom and everybody had diarrhea from nervousness and from a number of other reasons. And can you imagine using the bathroom and there are the sentries? How humiliating, how degrading. They could shoot you and you would sink in that muck. My sister found it so humiliating and she said to us, “You know, we are going to die anyway. Let them kill us.” To me, that was a very — I see it as a courageous thing. It was sort of a defiance. “Go ahead and kill me.” And my mother said to her: “Life is sacred. It is noble to fight to stay alive.” And we did stay alive.

AM: Yeah. So the slave labor camps: In one case, the camp was surrounded by barbed wire fences and sentries were posted every few feet; it was completely isolated.

EL: Completely. So we were so isolated we might as well have been on a different planet. The camp was surrounded by a forest and a no man’s land. We could not even hear a sign of life. We could not imagine that a few rabbit leaps away from us people were sailing on silver lakes and children were sitting around dinner tables, as children should. You know, I remember that silence, that isolation. We went to work at the crack of dawn, came back to the barracks. Hundreds of us were in one barrack, all maybe 50 or 60 or a hundred on one plank, no mattress, no blanket. The only thing I remember when we were walking was the forest and how I wanted — I imagined running. I was afraid, very afraid of the dark. But I remember a patch of sky. The patch of sky was our only connection to life and to freedom.

And I want to point out that even in Majdanek, in the death camp, we composed songs. We didn’t have a pencil or paper to write it down for history to remember. We composed songs and remembered family and remembered — we were so hungry. I remember sucking the saliva and imagining and we would describe the feasts and the wonderful memories. Viktor Frankl writes about it, about holding on to the meaning of life. Our love was our sustenance. Our memories were our sustenance.

AM: So with your isolation in these camps, you were unable to know whether the Allies or the Axis powers were winning the war, what the basic course of the war was.  Can you talk about that detachment from any reality outside of this isolated death camp?

EL: That isolation was what isolation is. I think the closest example is: Imagine being locked in a basement and you pound the door and nobody hears. Very frustrating not to be able at least to pound at the wall. We couldn’t even pound at the wall. So that was complete isolation.

So again, was there hope? People sometimes ask me if I had hope. I am not aware of having hope because how could you have hope when you know that you are designated and you’re guarded and you are right in front of the crematorium? But I had the drive. I wanted to live, and I felt that I am worthy of living.

AM: And a will to live and hope are different things.

EL: Right. Right. Some people tried to convince me everyone has hope. Could be. I personally, when I think of myself at that moment, I don’t identify with hope, but I identify with indignation and wanting to live.

When a gun is pointed at you and the trigger can be pulled, there is no — in a way, it’s probably the most sober moment because the past is irrelevant. The past is past. The future is not yet. So you experience the now.

You are so aware of the light when you see it in the darkness.

So that was in 1945. January 1945. So it’s from September 1939 to January 1945. At night we hear bombardment. We lift our heads from our planks, from the bare bunk planks, and we say, “Could it be? After all these years?” And the bombs were — explosions were drawing — it was the front line. We had no awareness of it, that the Russian forces were very close.

So we hear the symphony of bombardment. And any time it paused, we say, “Oh, don’t stop, don’t stop,” because dying from an Allied bomb would be a dignified death. Yes. At that point, I dared to hope, but the hope was so remote we thought it was a ruse, that they are setting us up. (Laughs.) Why would they need — we just could not believe the reality.

AM: When liberation came it was January in Poland.  It was cold and you were ill clad and covered with lice and scabs.  And you had been in isolation for so long that the outside world was something strange, probably, at that point.

EL: It was frightening because we were aware that there was antisemitism always in Poland. There were outbursts of antisemitism before the war. So we did not feel that we are returning to a secure environment.

So we were liberated by the Red Army, by the Russian forces. This was, as I pointed out, January. Poland is very cold. The ground was covered with snow and ice. All we had on was a loose caftan, no underwear, no stockings, wooden clogs. All my limbs were covered with scabs and mange and lice. I don’t believe we had a towel. I don’t think we had a shower. I know we didn’t have a shower. We are afraid. We knew that this was the front line. What if the Germans push back and they come back? So we wanted to run. And it was like you want to run in a nightmare and your legs are tight. And so we shuffled in the ice and the concentration camp is encircled by this no man’s land. We shuffled out and we hear the Russian solders and we rushed to them, like to Messiah, and we say, “Oh, how long we’ve been waiting for you.” And they put their hand up and they said we still have a war to fight. And they did. This was January. The war did not end till May 1945.

And people just, when they saw us, they drew away from us. I have to believe that some probably had sympathy, but they were occupied with their own problems and showed very little interest. We had no home to come back to. We had no country to come back to. We were stateless, homeless, penniless, cold, hungry, covered with ice and shuffled through the town. We were so hungry somebody from concentration camp told us about a factory down the street, a pickle factory, and we climbed in, my sister, my mother, and I, through the broken window. Our first meal was a pickle, a dill pickle. We also were aware and the Russian soldiers reminded us that war is still on and there is still a curfew. So I think that we were just as frightened of being arrested for breaking the curfew as we were of dying of hunger and cold and thirst.

And eventually, my mother and sister and I hopped a freight train to a town called Kielce. So we went in search for our cousins. And I describe in my book, too, how when we arrived in Kielce and night was falling and it was curfew and we were so afraid of breaking curfew, had no place to turn. So there was a custom among Jewish people when we were — the survivors — when we were isolated and stranded. We would use the word Uhmhoo. Uhmhoo is a Hebrew word for “of the people.” And so we would say “Uhmhoo? Uhmhoo?” If another Jew was present, he would respond and then you would not feel completely alone. So we said “Uhmhoo,” and there were a couple of Jewish people and we walk out of the station and night was falling. And I could not imagine how the moon could still hang at such a dreadful moment for us. And a bunch of kids picked up pebbles from the ground and were throwing and chanting antisemitic slogans and throwing pebbles and siccing dogs on us. I was so afraid of dogs. We were — of course, the German Shepherds in concentration camps. And so it was like the end of the world.

We wandered through Poland, and it was apparent to us that we were not welcome.

So from Kielce, my mother was frightened of being lost in this bloody Europe, and she had two sisters and a brother in the United States. We didn’t have money to buy a stamp. We didn’t have their addresses because we had nothing left from home. So my mother had this great idea that we have to find somehow our way to the United States, or getting in touch with her family, which was the logical thing to do. But we had no means to get in touch. So that would mean to escape from Poland to Germany to the American sector from which people were free to write letters, and hoping from there to establish contact. But we didn’t have any money to do any of that.

AM: What did America mean to you or represent to you at that point in your life?

EL: America was always the North Star, the star of every person. America represented freedom. America represented promise. America represented the value of every individual, the dignity of every individual, the opportunity to be yourself. So America — not just for us — for everyone. So yes, so we have the dream, the ultimate dream to come to America and have a chance, just have a chance.

So in order to do that, we had to leave Poland.

We had two cousins that we met up with in the concentration camp. They were in much better shape than we were. And we knew that they returned to their hometown, Działoszyce. So again, my mother and I hopped a train and wandered through a night that was horrendous, where nobody would let us in. Finally, one peasant showed us mercy, gave us shelter for the night; otherwise, we would have definitely frozen to death. And we found our two cousins, who were very clever. And they were able to obtain false papers that identified us as born in Salzburg, I believe, or in Austria. So this is how we made our way to Germany, to the American sector, and established contact with my mother’s family in the United States.

I want to point out what life was like for the Jewish survivors in Germany, because I think it is very inspiring to me, at least. My mother, by the way, was the only Jewish mother, the only mother in Majdanek that I am aware of. We were the only family of three that I am aware of. So we were a rarity. So all of the people that we met there were sole survivors. They were so full of energy. They were so full of grief. I guess that they prove that suffering does not have to drive you to despair and anger, that it can teach you to love more deeply and be compassionate. They found ways to survive. We had dance parties. We were so thirsty for laughter. Laughter, I think, is essential. In fact, my mother in concentration camp when we would sometimes laugh, my mother would say, “Oh, I think we are mad; how can I laugh under such circumstances?” But I think that laughter is as essential as water is to life. And so we began to laugh again. We had dance parties. Not that we were without grief, but those who think that grief stops you from living know nothing about life.

We are in Germany. We are in our small Jewish community. The relationship between the German people at that point was very welcoming. It was, I would imagine, awkward for both us. You know, in some way, the offender and the offended, the aggressor and the victim are connected for life because they experience — they own, they share the same moment. So it was very awkward.

For us, we had to resolve — there was fear. We enter a country that shoved my father into the oven, and everyone I knew and loved. Can I trust them? But on the other hand, they have faces like us. They were normal people. So we had to resolve, which was very difficult for all of the survivors. I, my sister, and my mother would talk about it. We cannot — whom do we trust? And we cannot blame everyone.

Some of my people that I knew decided to — or heard of — decided to find weapons and to avenge. But when they came back they said, “When I faced the person” — a woman, a man — they were reminded of their mothers and fathers. So they recognized that there was no separation, and they couldn’t do it. And so it took us a long time. It took us a concentrated and deliberate effort to understand that hate begets hate, that an eye for an eye, as Gandhi said — an eye for an eye and everyone will be blind. And so that process of forgiveness began there. And we resolved it there. We lived with a German family. My cousins were the ones who arranged everything. We didn’t stay in DP camps. My cousins were very clever and very, very resourceful, and very inventive. So we stayed with a German family.

So we were then in the German community and that was the beginning of establishing — returning to close to normalcy — still wasn’t normal. We still were without a country and still without a home.

So we came — my mother, sister, and I. At that point, we separated from our cousins with whom we were together, and we came to the United States. We arrived in New York. Even seeing the Statue of Liberty and nearing the land of — it’s very difficult to imagine the impact of the transition from a relatively small town in Bavaria to coming to New York and the whole impact of it. My mother’s brother lived in Brooklyn and we stayed with them for a while. And they found an apartment for us in the Bronx across the street from the zoo. And they furnished it for us, and then we were on our own from then on. My sister and I found — my family helped us find a job in a garment factory sewing buttons. Most of the people in the shop were Jewish and Italian people, migrants. Their English was not very good. But I learned a great deal from them. They were very civic-minded. Some of the Jewish people in the shop were illiterate, but they were so well-informed. They listened to the news. So I learned a great deal from them, but I also — but that was not the best environment for young people. So I didn’t have many friends — some European friends but not many American friends.

AM: Did you know other Holocaust survivors in this environment?

EL: Yes. Some who we knew from Germany. So they were the center of our social group. But there’s always a drive to assimilate. There’s also the curiosity. And I dated some American young men. But you know, when my American friends would open the refrigerator and say “there’s nothing to eat” was so different from my experiences. There was really — it was hard to find a common denominator. I wanted so badly to assimilate. I envied the cascading laughter that I — you know, the giggle. It was all hard work.

Eventually, I married. My husband was also a survivor, from Berlin. And he was in Shanghai during the war, so his experience was different.

AM: So despite three years formal education and some tutoring in the ghetto, you entered college and became a 6th grade teacher and eventually a reading specialist. You’ve said that even in the bunker, when the world was crumbling, your father had a tutor for you and your sister.  Can you tell me more about your father and how the relatively short period of time you knew him has had a lasting impact on your long life?   I mean, it’s clear from reading your book that he did.

EL: Yes, the inspiration to be the best that we could be came from the darkest places. And true — I describe the valiant teachers who taught children in the cold rooms risked their lives to do that. And my father, having a tutor, even in the worst — even when we were in the bunker and the world was crumbling around us. To me, it was sort of a promise there’s a future. For my father, I think it was maybe a way of denying that his children had no future.

My mother asked my father, we don’t know if we’re going to see another sunrise; isn’t it burdening the children? Isn’t it insane to risk their lives to go to the secret schools? I overheard the conversation between my mother and my father, and my father said: “We don’t know — this may be the only future, the only normalcy. This may be the only thing that is normal that we can give them. We have to risk.” Overhearing that, it was also to me a promise that there’s a future. So that’s what that represented to me, and I think to my father, yes.

AM: You’ve said that you share your story with the hope that we will be uplifted by the love and courage that shines through human beings, even in the worst times and in honor of millions of innocents killed.  You were spared that fate and lived to tell this important and moving story. What would be the most important thing that people can take away from this conversation?

EL: From my personal point of view, I owe my survival — when I talk about survival, I mean to survive whole with love, with compassion, with love for humanity, and joy of life. Life should be lived joyfully. I owe it to the courageous people who were my examples, who reminded me of the best that is in me.

You know, I’m talking about myself, but really I’m giving voice to the people who couldn’t speak for themselves. And I hope I’m giving voice to the people who are in harm’s way today who also suffer discrimination and who also represent the nobility of humanity, of goodness and worthiness and dignity.

So I think that every new generation carries the future, and my message is that we depend on one another a great deal.


You’ve been listening to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Chicago’s Studio C. If you’d like to learn more about this episode and the series in general, please visit studiocchicago.com/holocaust, or ilholocaustmuseum.org. And please share this podcast and subscribe.

I’m Andy Miles and I’d like to thank executive producers Marcy Larson and Amanda Friedeman for their assistance and guidance in bringing this podcast to fruition, Estelle Glaser Laughlin for her time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening.

Also available: a “Podcast Extra” in which Estelle talks more about her mother and sister and her work with the Museum.

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Photo credits: David Seide

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