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Ester Weinberg :The Power of Will

Documenting life legacies, has introduced me to many inspiring life stories. One of these tales belongs to Ester Weinberg, an amazing woman who taught me the meaning of life and the power of will.

Yolanda Papini-Pollock - Shirland Productions, Feb 20, 2012

Ester Weinberg lives in Haifa, Israel. She made Aliyah to Israel on her own when she was only fifteen years old. She was an elementary school teacher and then became the principal of an after school program. Ester is a widow who was married to a holocaust survivor and has two children. Ronit who lives in Haifa, is a charted accounted and Eytan who is a physician and lives in Winnipeg. Ester’s children and five grandchildren are her pride and joy. Today she travels around the world whenever possible and attends the Haifa University as a non-registered student. She strongly believes in overcoming hardships, no matter how difficult they are. “You either live your life or you stop living and why would you choose to stop?” For Ester, giving up is not an option.
Her life story is one of courage, determination and heroism. Her sad but amazing tale of surviving the holocaust was repressed in her memory and was not told for most of her life. Ester did not want to share her past for many reasons. She thought that if she didn’t talk about it, it would be as if it never existed. She did not think it was wise to share it with her children because there was no need to burden them with the sadness of her childhood. She wanted to live her life like any other Israeli born Jew. She spoke Hebrew at home and surrounded herself with Israeli born friends. Like with many painful experiences, she awakened to the realization that “ you can not sweep your past under the carpet and pretend that it did not exist”. She now understands that despite her efforts, her home was a place where holocaust survivors lived and it had to affect her children in one way or another.
Being an educator, Ester wanted her story to convey a message. She chose to tell it to Israeli soldiers and educate them regarding the vital importance of a strong Israeli army. During her many speeches to Israeli soldiers, she shares her thoughts about the significance of their army service. Ester believes that without them, Israel would not exist. She is honored and humbled to speak to them because their duty is to protect her and other Jews. Her experience has taught her never to take this for granted. “I have a lot of criticism of the Israeli government and other organizations, but the army is holy for me. Without it, we would not survive as a country and we need not kid ourselves about this.”
Ester was born in a small town in Kshanov Poland. The happy days of her childhood were short lived and she remembers very little from that period of her life. She does not remember her mother at all because the Nazis arrested her during a curfew night when she was only five years old. Her father did everything he could to protect her and sent her to live with a Christian family on a farm when she was seven years old. Her father paid a hefty sum of money and promised even more upon his return after the war. However her stay on the farm was abruptly shortened as the farmer and his wife who feared for their own lives sent her away in the middle of the night. “They told me to walk to the forest and look for Partisans.” Ester did not know who the Partisans were but she did as she was told.  “Can you imagine a seven year old child walking alone in the pitch dark? So scary.” she said. Two teenage Polish boys caught her and were happy to report her to the Gestapo for monitory reward. In the Gestapo’s interrogation room she learned that the Polish farmer and his wife were also arrested. She tried to lie about her religion but to no avail. Ester remembers the creative punishment they all received. “They tied us to one another with chains and walked us in the streets with a sign that said, “This is what happens to people who hide Jews.” She particularly remembers a Gestapo officer by the name of Georg Lotz who hit her relentlessly when he interrogated her. Later, Ester, the farmer and his wife were all sent to Auschwitz. Following the war she heard that the farmer and his wife died of Typhus in the camp.
Many Jewish female prisoners who lost their own children were determined to help Ester and nurture her as if she were their own child. They hid her and protected her as much as they could. When she was sick with Typhus, they did not send her to the hospital for fear that she would be killed. When she cried, they made her a doll from a stick and a piece of fabric. When she was hungry, they pointed to the smoke coming out of the chimneys in the crematoriums and said: “this is where they bake the bread. If you will be a good girl, maybe you will get a piece of bread too.” At this point Ester paused and said; “it took me a while to find out what they were really baking there.” Her job in Auschwitz was to sort through the clothes of those who went to the “showers”. She remembers finding a beautiful sweater and in it a picture of the little girl who wore it.
When the Russian army advanced towards Auschwitz, the Nazis retreated and began to march the Jewish prisoners towards Germany. Some prisoners went to Germany by train because they were needed to assist in a military factory there. Fortunately a woman that was on the train picked Ester up and hid her under her skirt so she did not have to endure the Death March.
When Ester was liberated, she was only ten years old. She was alone in an unknown world that betrayed her and her family. Fortunately, she found her maternal aunt, Deena who cared for her, as her own mother would have. They began walking towards their “homeland” in Poland only to find out that most Poles were not happy to see them. “How did so many of you survive?” They asked, disappointedly. She heard about Pogroms and she realized that as a Jew, if she yearned for a homeland, she needed to go elsewhere. Her aunt who was married by then, moved with her to Krakow. There she learned that her father survived the concentration camps but died in the Death March just before liberation. “To be an orphan is a disability. Parents are the foundation that shape and define people. I did not have this foundation. I still miss my parents. I am a seventy-five years old woman with grandchildren and I still miss my parents. For years I was waiting for my father. I thought maybe he was sick or blind but I did not want to believe that he had died. How could a little girl like me survive and a strong man like him perish?”
Her story continues in the city of Krakow, in which she lived for five more years. There she was invited to testify in the Auschwitz trials in 1947. Ester, who was then only twelve year old, stood in front a line of Nazi guards and identified by pointing a finger at Georg Lotz, the Gestapo officer who bit her and sent her to Auschwitz.  “When many of them were convicted and were sentenced to death by hanging, I asked the judge to be present during the execution. The judge replied that in Poland, citizens could not witness an execution. Then he asked me if I would not be afraid. I said to him, me afraid? Do you know what I went through and what I already saw before I came here? This does not scare me.”
Ester studied in Tarbut Hebrew School in Krakow with a teacher called Hananya Rabinovitch, whom she grew to admire. “He was like Janusz Korczak and a father figure to all of us. He taught us all the basics. He also encouraged us to immigrate to Israel and establish the Jewish homeland. He instilled in us the desire for education and all his students became professionals and moved to Israel”. Later, she continued her studies with the Polish Gymnasia where she experienced anti-Semitic remarks even from her teacher.
Ester made Aliyah to Israel in 1950. She studied to be a teacher and served in the Israeli army in an intelligence unit. “My normal life began when I got married. All I wanted was peace and quiet. When people asked me what do you want to do? I said, nothing. I want to do nothing and I want quiet. We, holocaust survivors, were young in age but we were old and tired in spirit.”
Ester cannot explain how she survived and how she knew what to do in order to rebuild her life. She attributes her success to her strong instincts that showed her the way but also believes that there were many “angels” along her way that helped her on her journey. The women in Auschwitz, her aunt Deena, Mr. Rabinovitch and Mr. Pnueli, the dean of her teaching college are all remembered fondly as her role models. “To survive Auschwitz you did not have to be brilliant. You only needed God to want to take you out of there” Ester realizes that some survivors left their souls in Auschwitz and are still living the horrors of the past. She thinks that people should do everything possible to get up and continue their journey. “It is sad to lose parents, children, a wife or a husband but you have to do everything you can in order to overcome your past and not succumb to it.”

Regardless or maybe despite of her hardships, she believes that if people are healthy, they can be whatever they want to be. They need to set a goal and with drive and determination they will be able to achieve it.

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