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In these days of worldwide anti-Semitic demonstrations, I am reminded of a person with whom I became friends while living at a retirement community here in Oregon. This lady, whom I will call Esther (not her real name), was a Jewish refugee who came to the United States in the 1940s. This is her story as she told it to me. It is a demonstration of what can happen when the anti-Semites gain control of a society.
She was born in 1925 in the small German town (population about 30,000) of Suhl, in the Thüringen Mountains about 50 miles southwest of Berlin. Esther was the only child of Alfred and Elise, and her father was the general manager of a large department store.
When the Nazis came to power in Germany and began programs to eliminate the Jewish citizens, Alfred was dismissed from his job and forced into the German Jewish population of the unemployed and unemployable. Esther and her family were able to remain in their home until 1939, when the home was confiscated, and Alfred and Elise were arrested and transported with other Jews of Suhl to a holding camp near Berlin.
Before their arrest, her parents found a place for the 14-year-old Esther in the household of an influential Rabbi (his wife was a member of the German nobility, Ester thinks). Her place with the Rabbi’s family was not that of a guest, though, but of a servant. The Rabbi and his invalid wife had a large home with spacious grounds and included a building that housed their large collection of exotic chickens from all over the world. As the sole household staff, Esther’s duties included caring for the chickens, the grounds, the housekeeping, cooking, and tending to the bedridden wife – all by a young girl accustomed to the privileges of an only child in a prosperous household. She remembered this time, in part, as one of never getting enough sleep and always being very tired.
From the time of her parents’ arrest in the middle of the night, Esther never learned of their fate. For a time, the Nazi propaganda machine maintained the fiction that arrested Jews were merely being “relocated” to lands to the east (conquered Poland) where they would be settled and allowed to resume normal lives. She lived in the hope that she and her parents would reunite any day.
To his great credit, the Rabbi worked diligently for nearly three years to obtain an exit visa and an entry permit that would allow Esther to leave Germany for America. After many false starts and failed attempts, Esther was finally notified to report to a local office to receive her exit visa. She arrived outside the government office early in the morning of the appointed day and joined a large crowd waiting on the sidewalk. Finally, late in the afternoon, after waiting all day with no movement, the crowd was notified that they should return the next day. This waiting was repeated for two more days before Esther finally returned home with a visa to leave Germany. After more effort, the Rabbi was able to locate a Jewish family in New York who would sponsor Esther and pay her fare. The Rabbi did all this, spending the influence he had within the Nazi hierarchy through his wife’s family, even though without Esther, he would have no household help or assistance in caring for his wife.
The now 17-year-old Esther, speaking no language other than German, traveled third-class on a steamship during wartime to New York to meet a family who would hold her fate in their hands. During the journey, Esther was tormented by the thought that her parents could not locate her to join them in their new home in the East. She was met at the dockside in New York and taken to the apartment home of a large, three-generation family and learned that she would be expected to work as a maid for another family in the city. She was given her own bedroom in the sponsors’ crowded apartment, but the grandfather was in the habit of wandering about in the nude. Esther said she didn’t get much sleep for fear he would come into her room.
She had been given the address of a relative of her mother who lived in Iowa, so in desperation, Esther wrote to this cousin asking her to send her train fare so she could leave New York. About a month after landing in New York, she found herself traveling cross-country to visit a relative whom she had never met and with whom she had not even a common language. The cousin’s family didn’t have a lot to share, but they did provide Esther with a place to live and helped her find work. They also knew an older Jewish businessman who was looking for a wife. Arrangements were soon made for a wedding that Esther described as a ‘business agreement’ that had nothing to do with romance.
The couple made a home in Iowa and raised a son and daughter. Esther, who still had difficulty with the English language when I knew her, told me very little about her married life other than that she was a widow, her son became a physician in the Midwest and her daughter, from whom she was largely estranged, lived in Oregon.
Even though Esther, who was 90 when I met her, had a life of extreme hardship and heartbreaking disappointments. Still, she was a very positive, generous person who was always eager to help others and was possessed of a remarkable sense of humor. She did not have a “victim” mentality, but did tell me that her one regret in life was never having been able to learn the fate of her parents.
I had read of the remarkable work the American Holocaust Memorial Museum does in tracking individual victims of the Holocaust, so I volunteered to contact them to see if they could provide information on the fate of Esther’s parents. Esther agreed, and gave me her parent’s places and dates of birth, which I gave to the Museum. After a few exchanges, they provided me with photocopies of the actual German records of the transport and final disposition of Esther’s parents. By the time I received this information, Esther had moved to a nearby assisted living facility.
With the documents in hand, and taking along a mutual friend for moral support, I visited Esther and asked if she was sure she wished to know about her parents, knowing that the information would be distressing. She insisted that she did want to know, so I gave her the awful truth: When they were arrested, they were taken to a camp near Berlin, where they remained together for about one year. They were then separated, and Elise was sent to the “killing fields” of Lithuania and immediately murdered. Alfred was in the Berlin camp for an additional year and was then also sent east to the “killing fields” and murdered.
I gave Esther the documents I had obtained, and my friend and I did what we could to comfort her in her tears and distress. Esther thanked us and left the room. When I attempted to visit her later, she refused to speak to me except to say, regarding the information I had given her, “My son could have done that!” I’m still not sure if she was dismissing my efforts or if she was mourning the fact that her son, the doctor, hadn’t obtained the information for her years earlier. I never saw Esther again.
“Esther” lives in my memory as a noble exemplar of the resilience of the human spirit. Despite the traumatic events she had gone through, she remained a positive, generous-spirited, and fun-loving person … who still played a mean game of Yahtzee.
I see on today’s news that last night in Paris, there were widespread instances of people painting Stars of David on their neighbors’ storefronts and homes. Are we headed for more “Kristallnachts?”Published in