A Holocaust Survivor Remembers

Estelle Glaser Laughlin survived the Warsaw Ghetto and the Holocaust. She shares her story on Chicago Tonight at 7:00 pm. Watch a web-exclusive video and read an excerpt from Laughlin's book, Transcending Darkness: A Girl's Journey Out of the Holocaust.

In the following video, 83-year-old Estelle reminisces about her mother and father, the bravery of the people in the ghetto, and a recurring nightmare.

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Chapter 13: A Miracle

Tata, Fredka, and me (Estelle), Warsaw, 1938

On a mid-January night in 1945, an earsplitting rumble of bomber planes broke the long silence and made the darkness tremble. We lifted our heads from our bunk planks and whispered, “Could it be?” In a few seconds, flares, brighter than a summer’s day, lit up the sky. Violent explosions shook the earth relentlessly. Mesmerized and in total disbelief we murmured, “Allies? After all these years?”

When the bombardment would momentarily pause, the silence—morbid as death—filled us with dread. “Don’t leave. Please, please don’t leave. I will not mind dying,” we prayed in chorus. It may sound strange, but in the death camps, the prospect of being blown up by Allied bombs was the only happiness we could hope for. Such a death would be merciful. Such a death would be our victory over Nazi gas chambers.

The detonations continued for hours and we began to imagine the unimaginable. As if in a dream, we peered around the doors. No guards were in sight. We shuffled out of the barracks, one at a time. We crouched forward and muttered, “Be careful. The Germans might be hiding in corners. Who knows where the demons are?”

Mama, Fredka, and I stole across the camp to Max and David’s barrack to seek protection and guidance. We located seats in a corner and hoped that if we sat quietly and proved not to be any trouble to them, my cousins would let us leave with them if the improbable happened and we were liberated. We knew they would see us as burdens on the snow-covered roads with people unfriendly to Jews. Unlike the three of us, my cousins remained in fair physical shape and had warm clothes, leather shoes, and some money. Mama, Fredka, and I were walking skeletons without proper footwear. We had no place to return to, no home. Warsaw was no more.

We sat silent and spellbound, teetering between fear of annihilation and euphoric hope of liberation, and listened as aerial bombardments gave way to ground artillery thudding from a distance, then ever closer toward the camp. We wondered, “Is it possible the Russian troops are near our gate?” The young men discussed at what point they should risk sending scouts to check the gate and possibly beyond.

“Who should go?” they asked. Everyone volunteered.

Careful not to act in haste, they questioned, “What if the Germans come back and punish us for going past the gate? Could this be a ruse, a trap the Germans are setting up for us?” It was impossible to grasp what was happening.

As the air raids let up, and the barrage of artillery drew closer, the men grew bolder. They sent scouts as far as the gate. They returned swiftly and reported, “The gate is open. There are no guards at the gate!”

The scouts continued to explore past the gate into the no-man’s-land encircling the camp. All proved positive. The German guards were gone.
Me (Estelle), 1948When the first tinges of gray dawn began to lift, the scouts reported that people were leaving the camp. With lightning speed, the men in my cousins’ barrack organized themselves into groups based on their areas of origin. Max and David told us they were leaving without us. They were heading for Działoszyce, their hometown, to see if they could recover anything of their past lives. “Follow us there,” they said. “We will wait for you.” They bid us good-bye, and suddenly, in a flash, they were gone.

We were stunned. What to do? Where to go?

We left the barracks and joined the milling crowd of starved, agitated people who were as confused and scared as we. We had nothing to take with us. We had only to summon our strength, push one foot in front of the other into an unfamiliar landscape outside the gate, and hope to find salvation down the road. “We must run! The Germans may return,” we urged each other forward. Our legs and breath disobeyed.

Like three apparitions, we followed the fleeing crowd of people who looked like their own marching shadows. We passed through the gate. Outside we saw no signs of habitation. My breath was shallow with suspense. My mind cautiously scanned, absorbed, and hoped. Not a bud of life sang out. Before us was only a desolate snow-covered field.

Mama, a small skeletal figure, shuffled forward, pushing against the icy wind. Her shoulders hunched over, bracing against the cold. Passion for life burned in her intense blue eyes. She searched the horizon for food, cover, and a road to safety.

Adding to Mama’s otherworldly appearance was her outlandish hair color. It was tinted navy blue. During our last days in the concentration camp, we felt a panic because Mama’s hair had began to turn gray, and older people counted among the first for extermination. We found someone willing to barter a small envelope of fabric dye in exchange for our ration of bread. In the only dish allowed us, the puszka, we collected small puffs of steam from a narrow valve that protruded from the kitchen barrack. We managed to collect enough steam to dissolve the dye, and frantically rubbed it into Mama’s hair. The result threw us into a slight terror. In desperation, we looked at each other wondering, what have we done? We tried hard to convince ourselves that navy blue hair was probably safer than gray.

Fredka, my beautiful sister, looked the most frightful of us. Her once softly rounded face was now hollowed by angles and craters; her bright blue eyes were dimmed with pain and fright. Her thick hair that once bounced with waves and hay-colored tendrils had been shaved. To hide her humiliation, she found a rag and wrapped it into a turban to cover the stubble growing out of her scalp. The turban ballooned over her skeleton frame and made her look like a strange bird. Her long caftan swayed from her body like a sack on a stick and trapped the icy wind against her bare skin.

Fredka had always been the most despairing of the three of us. In the concentration camps, she had pleaded repeatedly for us to surrender to the gas chamber and be spared the humiliations. Her anguish inspired Mama and me to struggle and persist even harder.

I am less able to describe what I looked like at fifteen on the dawn of liberation, since we had no mirrors, but I could not have been different from the others. I imagine that my eyes, encircled by moon-shaped shadows, stared out of my emaciated face with the same pain and despair as the eyes of the other survivors. I recall wrapping my arms round my body to sooth the gnawing pain of hunger, cold, fear, longing, and confusion. My bare feet burned with cold inside oversized shoes. Unlike Mama and Fredka, I had real shoes, not wooden clogs. I got them with the help of my two cousins just before liberation.
After walking for what seemed like hours, we heard military vehicles, rowdy voices of soldiers, and hoots of laughter in the woods beyond a hill. It was hard to imagine people with such light hearts. We hesitated a moment, listening. “Russian soldiers!” we cried out with relief. We caught our breath and rushed toward our liberators—our eyes misty with gratitude. They were our sole hope of rescue from the cold and hunger, and a promise of safety. Startled, the soldiers looked at us and backed away.

Confounded and in total disbelief, we explained who we were, how long we had been praying for their arrival, and how desperately we needed food and shelter. They turned their heads and waved us away. “We have a war to fight. We cannot help you.” They warned, “It is against the law to be in the street after dark. You must move on and find shelter before curfew.” To send us off quickly, they gave us a few slabs of bread.

We felt as if God himself had withdrawn his hand and slammed shut the gate to paradise! Swallowing our humiliation, grief, and fear, along with the bread, we walked on searching for relief from our misery. Lured by memories of life as it was before the war, we walked along the road hoping to find food, shelter, and contact with an accepting community in the center of Częstochowa.

From Transcending Darkness: A Girl’s Journey Out of the Holocaust, by Estelle Glaser Laughlin. Text and photographs copyright © 2012 by Estelle Glaser Laughlin. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Texas Tech University Press, www.ttupress.org

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