AM: So there’s a poetic lilt to the way you express yourself, Estelle, and you identified your mother as having a sort of poetry about her. Did you get that from her?
EL: Yes, yes. My mother was — she was very romantic. Yes. My mother would not — if she would see a flower, “Oh, look at the yellow in the yellow of the flower,” or “Look at the cloud.” So she was very attuned to beauty in the sense that it touches the best in us, that the best I think is love. To me, recognizing beauty is recognizing love. To me, there is no beauty if it’s not connected to love. I know that there is enormous expression and anger. There’s enormous energy in destruction. But to me, that represents the dark side of us that we need to be aware of. To me, the beauty in the sense of love is the healing part of us, and that is what I try to hold on to to feel human.
AM: And did she pass that on to your sister too? And can you tell me about your sister?
EL: My sister was a perfectionist. She was my example, my older sister, but also because I recognized that impulse of beauty, the impulse of justice, the impulse of kindness. She only had a few years of education, formal education. But her passion for right and kindness and good and harmony was so keen. But anyway, with that little bit of education she became a professor of comparative literature and she wrote a very important book. She collected poetry written in the ghettos and concentration camps in Polish and Yiddish and translated it and, of course, added very profound commentaries to it. So she was a strand of goodness, a good impulse.
AM: And you recall your mother murmuring in front of the crematoria, “Life is sacred; it’s noble to fight and stay alive,” and promised that the Nazis’ children and children’s children would be asking, “Where was your conscience?” Can you tell me more about your mother and the spirit that animated her?
EL: My mother, I guess, is an example that one can snatch valuable lessons from suffering. My mother — I pointed out — experienced being thrown out of the country from the shtetl, from Russia. My mother had a lot more spunk than my father had. So right in front of the crematorium she said — not only did she have spunk but she was also, like I pointed out earlier, she was very romantic. And so she had spunk and she was romantic, and this is a wonderful combination. So in front of the crematorium, she said “The world has a conscience.” My sister and I said she’s crazy. In front of the crematorium, where children are being gassed. And she said: “You’ll see. If we’ll be lucky and if we’ll survive, you’ll see that the Germans’ children and their children’s children for generations will be asking, ‘How could it have happened to us? Where was our conscience?’ They’ll ask their parents, where was your conscience?” And she was right. The people in Germany are now asking, how could it have happened?
To me, it means the world. I am so grateful for it because I feel revenge is not the answer. Revenge only perpetuates anger and perpetuates more bitterness.
AM: And in her return to normal life, you described that she did have some trouble adjusting.
EL: So, my sister and I were still young. For us, life still was a puzzle, and everything was new; it was discovery. So we were able to progress from the darkness to every step, as my sister warned us, not to expect but to embrace whatever we get with appreciation. So we were able to start life over again. My mother remained poetic. She remained interesting. But she was completely lost. She became difficult. She just — not every survivor was able to start life over again.
So my mother, when she would go to the store sometimes and went shopping in the Jewish — we lived in the Bronx and people who came here before the war would also say, “Well, you should have fought back.” And my mother would be so indignant. She said, we did fight back. And you know, and she talked about the moral resistance. But it became almost defensive.
With my family, with my children, my sister and I talked it over very carefully how they are so young. Their personality and psyche is being formed. We didn’t want the shadows of our experiences to darken their expectation of people. So we were very careful. We mostly answered the questions. We didn’t deny. They knew. So we were very careful and we told them gradually, because we wanted them to trust humanity and to believe in the best that people are capable of.
AM: What would you say the work that you’ve done for the museum has brought to your life and to your perspective on this lived experience?
EL: I think that communication between people is essential, that it is important to hear one another. I think that it took my fear away to face the dark times. Sometimes the fear of remembering is greater than the consequences of remembering it. So that is important to me.
I feel that in hearing one another, everyone grows. I feel that as long as genocides still are happening and as long as there are people who are saying the Holocaust never happened, in many ways Auschwitz and Majdanek are still with us. And I feel that we must listen if civilization is to progress.
I feel that communication is important because there is a continuation, and clearly the past has lessons for us to keep. And we have to be careful to remember not to let history repeat itself because, unfortunately, history does repeat itself. And I often wonder why, and I recognize the fact that while we accumulated a lot of knowledge, we all have — every generation has only one life span to live, and to acquire wisdom takes a long time. And so I am very — because of that, when people ask me, do you think it will happen again, all I can say, it happened before, so it could happen again. And human beings in the span of the life that they have to absorb the wisdom and to recognize that we are all one family. If one member of the family suffers, all humanity suffers. And if we want our children to grow up in safety and security, we must respect every human being and we must see the humanity in every face we look at. And the museum proves that history remembers and the museum is the school that offers the lessons for us to turn to. So I am grateful to do my very small part.RETURN TO PODCAST HOME
Photo credits: David Seide