June 2, 2022: This is a slightly expaded version of my contribution in Art in the Time of Unbearable Crisis: Women Writers Respond to the Call, Stephanie Raffelock (ed.), June 28, 2022 from She Writes Press
I was named in memory of my maternal grandmother, Estera. She was named for the biblical Queen Esther, who risked her life to save the Jews of Persia—condemned to genocide in the fifth century BCE. Both women came to critical moments when they faced great risks and had to make life-or-death choices. I often look to both stories, but especially to my grandmother’s, for inspiration.
Grandmother Estera was born and raised in Garbatka-Letnisko, a village in east-central Poland that lies about ninety kilometers southeast of Warsaw. “Letnisko” means it was a summer resort, and visitors remembered the village as having clean mountain air fragrant with the scent of pines. However, Garbatka was not a summer resort for its Jews; they all lived on the wrong side of the tracks year-round.
Estera was born in the 1880s to a poor and pious family. She fell in love with Benjamin, a merchant, and the two young people wanted to marry. But back then, in that part of the world, parents arranged marriages—and poor as everyone was, Benjamin’s parents required his bride to bring to the marriage a dowry. Estera’s father asserted that if he must provide a dowry, his daughter would marry a scholar, a much more prestigious occupation than a merchant.
As was expected of her, Estera obeyed her father and entered into an arranged marriage with the scholar Meyer. Benjamin subsequently married a woman who, evidently, came with a dowry that satisfied his parents. Were Benjamin’s wife and Meyer aware that they were not their spouses’ first choices? Did people then even expect their marriages to be happy?
Several years passed, during which Estera and Meyer had a son, Moishe, and a daughter, Gella. For reasons now shrouded in mystery, Meyer ended up visiting Jerusalem. When he returned to Garbatka, he announced to his wife that the whole family had to leave Poland, which was not a good place for Jews, and make new lives in Jerusalem.
Estera, who did not share her husband’s concerns about their home country, was devoted to her extensive family in Poland. No longer an obedient young girl, she told Meyer to go on ahead, to establish a home in Jerusalem, and then to send for the family.
Meyer did as Estera directed. He went to Jerusalem alone and set up a home. He then tried several times to convince his wife to bring their two children and join him there, but Estera repeatedly refused. Finally, he sent her two things and demanded that she choose between them: tickets for travel and the offer of a get (a Jewish divorce, which only the husband had the right to initiate). Many men who emigrated abandoned their families back home and left their wives in the untenable position of being essentially without a husband and yet not able to remarry. Meyer’s offering Estera a get showed him to be a true gentleman.
In an extremely unusual move for a pious woman in her time and place, Estera chose the get. Might part of her motivation have been that Benjamin, her first love, was now a widower? In any case, Estera and Benjamin wed and had two children together—a son, Mendel, born in 1915, and one year after that a daughter, Gittel, who would eventually become my mother.
I hope Benjamin and Estera’s love had endured through their years apart, and that they experienced great joy in their marriage. What they did not have was the gift of much time together, because Benjamin soon died, very likely during the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic.
With Benjamin’s death, poverty gripped the family even more. Estera had a mill for grinding buckwheat, which allowed her to eke out a living through backbreaking work. Gella, Estera’s daughter from her first marriage, earned some money as a seamstress. Close relationships with friends and relatives in Garbatka’s Jewish community helped Estera’s family deal with their difficult lives.
In 1933, Moishe, the son from Estera’s first marriage, decided to join his father in Jerusalem. On the occasion of Moishe’s departure, a family photo was taken—perhaps the only one ever.
My mother, Gittel, survived slave labor, Auschwitz, and Bergen-Belsen. All the others pictured here were murdered in the Holocaust — the three generations of Estera, Gella, and Surele together at Treblinka, Autumn 2942.
- Estera – my Grandmother
- Gittel – her daughter (my mother)
- Moishe – Estera’s oldest son (Gittel’s half brother)
- Gella – Estera’s oldest daughter (Gittel’s half sister)
- Surele – Gella’s daughter
- Mendel – Estera’s youngest son (Gittel’s brother)
- Menashe – Gella’s husband
- Civia – Estera’s stepdaughter
- Leon – Estera’s nephew
Blitzkrieg. In the month of September 1939, the Nazis crushed Poland. The Jews in Garbatka, just like those all over Poland and in the other defeated places, were torn from their homes, ghettoized, and forced into slave labor—a prelude to genocide.
The Jewish men were quickly murdered or deported. Estera now lived with both her daughters and her granddaughter in Pionki, a ghetto created by the Nazis twenty kilometers west of Garbatka. Deportations from the ghetto became more frequent. In dread that their family members’ names would appear on lists of those to be transported, the women checked each new posting. One day in September 1942, both Estera and Surele, Gella’s eleven-year-old daughter, appeared on the list, supposedly to be relocated to another ghetto for “work reassignment.” Neither Gella nor Gittel was on the list. One could add names, but not remove any. Gella, refusing to be separated from her daughter, immediately added her name.
Gittel went to put her name on the list also, to go with her mother, sister, and niece, but Estera stopped her. Gittel fought with her mother, arguing, “You all are going. Gella volunteered to go. I want to go with you.”
Estera was adamant in her refusal. “Gella is going to be with her daughter, with Surele.”
“But you will be separated from me, your daughter,” Gittel protested.
Estera shook her head and put her hand on Gittel’s shoulder. What love it must have taken for Estera to insist, “You are older than Surele and can work—maybe because of that, you will survive.”
As Gittel watched in unbearable loneliness and grief, her mother, sister, and niece—all that remained of her family in Pionki—were shoved into a train filled with frightened people.
The destination, Gittel would later learn, was Treblinka— direct from train to gas chamber.
Against the odds, and as Estera had hoped, Gittel did survive the war. Her survival entailed separation from her loved ones; years of slave labor, abuse, and starvation; transport via cattle car to Auschwitz in 1944; and a winter death march from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen in January 1945. For the next half-century, until she died in 2003, my mother shared just the bare bones of the story of her survival. I can only imagine the horrors.
Following her liberation from Bergen-Belsen in April 1945, my mother met and married my father—also a survivor of ghettos, Auschwitz, and slave labor—in a displaced person’s camp in the British sector of Germany. I was born just eighteen months after their liberation—a testament to my parents’ amazing recovery and resilience.
The three of us immigrated to New York in 1947.
Earlier, when the war had broken out, all the members of my mother’s family had agreed that any who survived would contact Moishe in Jerusalem as a means of reconnecting with each other. My mother was the only one he ever heard from.
In the summer of 1962, my mother fulfilled a dream: she reunited with her brother in Jerusalem. At that time she also met Moishe’s father and Estera’s first husband, Meyer, who had never remarried.
Unlike Queen Esther, the source of her name, my grandmother Estera did not save the Jews. She could not save herself, her daughter Gella, or her granddaughter Surele. But she did save one person: my mother.
I thought of this story on a Friday evening in 2019 as I stood overlooking the walls of Jerusalem, golden in the setting sun at the start of the Sabbath. I suddenly was overcome with sadness and regret that my grandmother had not saved herself by following Meyer there. At the same time, I knew that had my grandmother not stayed in Poland and married my grandfather, my mother would not have been born.
Choices. If only the decisions motivated by love always brought joy. For my grandmother Estera, the decision she made not to join her husband in Jerusalem, for reasons of love and family, doomed her to suffer the loss of her loved ones and her home, and then perish at the behest of a genocidal tyrant.
I am grateful to my grandmother for her sacrifices, and for her insistence that her younger daughter not go with her on the transport. I am grateful to Gittel, my mother, for surviving. I am grateful to them both, as well as to my father and his survival, for my life, for that of my brother, and for those of the children and grandchildren each of us has.
In 2022, the world now shudders to see yet another, tragic chapter of war and loss at the behest of yet another tyrant. I acutely feel my connection with Estera as, once again, innocent people have to make impossible choices. My thoughts and prayers, and the actions within my grasp, go out to the heroes and the victims—those who die, as well as the scarred and traumatized survivors.
The words ring a bit hollow these days, but I repeat them with fervent hope that we can one day make them come true: “Never again!”