By Esther Starobin
When you handed me over did you hug me, kiss me, give directions to my caretaker, was it someone you or I knew? Could you picture me as an adult? The years have passed, and I am now many years older than the age you were when you died. As a parent I often looked at my daughters, your granddaughters, and speculated on what kind of adults they would become. I wondered if they would marry, if they would be friendly, trusting people or mean, bitter, angry people. Did you wonder the same things about me? Deborah and Judy marvel at your love and ability to consider what was best for your daughters that allowed you to send them to unknown people. Later, you were able to do the same for your only son who was so dear and special to you. When my daughters and grandsons reached 26 months, I looked at them and wondered if I would have had the strength to do the same. I like to believe that you passed on to me the ability to put children’s welfare above my own needs.
In leaving Germany, our lives took on experiences unknown to our family in Adelsheim. I lived with a family who were kind, loving, caring, and devoutly Christian. This deep faith made the Harrisons willing to take care of me. Was this belief so different from the belief that you had in God when you sent me to an unknown country and unknown people? In spite of the events swirling around you, your letter to Auntie Dot thanking her for taking me in and then describing me was written from one mother to another. You took time to tell her that I clung to you so very much though I was not spoiled at all. “Conditions are here such that she couldn’t go to anyone else,” you continued in your letter of August 10, 1939. “Esther is a merry child, loves playing with other children . . . I am so glad that Esther likes your son, and by God’s help, she will soon become accustomed to you.” The Harrisons, in turn, were willing to accept me and to let me adjust in my own time to becoming part of their family. From the stories I have been told, I was afraid of Uncle Harry, one of the mildest men on earth, and also of loud noises. Instead of getting angry and forcing me to relate to him, I was allowed to hang on to Alan and Auntie Dot. I wish you could tell me what had happened to me to make me afraid of grown men and loud noises. Surely, I wasn’t afraid of my father, so from where did this fear arise? After living with the Harrisons for eight years, I was very much part of their family. My family extended to Bertl, Edith, Ruth, and Aunt Hannah who were welcomed whenever they could arrange a visit to Norwich.
When Bertl was able to arrange for us to travel to the United States, I found it very difficult to leave the security and love of the Harrisons’ home. I wonder how different this was from the time when I left the security and love of your home. Now many years later, I am in frequent contact with Alan. The Harrisons became part of our extended family. We frequently telephoned and visited them when they were alive. In fact, after Auntie Dot died, Uncle Harry would spend several weeks in the spring with us in Maryland. I wonder if you would have liked to visit and would have enjoyed the time spent with my family as much as Uncle Harry did.
In your letters from the camps in southern France that you wrote to Bertl, who was a teenager, you continued your parental role. In a letter you sent Bertl and Aunt Hanna from Rivesaltes sometime between September 1941 and March 1942, you said, “We are only glad that you, my dear children, are well, that you are dressed, and that you have good nutrition. We thank the good people who in these hard times replace your parents. My dear children, be very grateful, therefore, and good and industrious. Perhaps there will be sunshine for us again and we may be together in peaceful days. We long very much therefore.” I can only assume the qualities mentioned in your letter were ones you believed in strongly in Germany and would have taught me if we had continued to live together in Adelsheim. I also gather from this and other letters that you had a very strong belief in the importance of family. You reminded Bertl over and over again about the importance of us children remaining in contact and eventually being together as a family. I think you would be proud of her because, even now, Bertl takes on that role.
She is the one who makes sure that we have family get-togethers and help each other out as the need arises. When you wrote the letters from Gurs and Rivesaltes, could you imagine your children grown, married with children of their own? I wonder if you really thought it possible that we would survive and live normal lives.
The strength of family has been transmitted to the next generation, which exists only because of your great concern for your children’s welfare and your belief in God. The cousins, your grandchildren, stay in contact. While they have developed into very different adults, there is a bond between them that is very strong. In fact, whenever one of the out-of-town cousins comes to visit, some kind of get-together is planned. I wonder if you could imagine the talking, laughing, and eating that occur when they are together along with their children. Is their conversation very different than the conversations you had when you visited the relatives on Shabbat or during holidays?
In this letter I am trying to respond to what I know about you from reading the letters you wrote to us from Germany and conversations with my sisters. I realize how little I know of your life, your likes and dislikes, your hopes and fears. I wonder what you would think of me and my family. Would you approve of how I live or would you be upset with me? Not even Bertl who is the oldest of us really knew you as an adult knows her parents. Sometimes when Bertl hears something that I have done she will say our parents would be proud. How does she know this? I feel as though I am the result of many people’s influence on my life. Yet, if you had not had the courage to send me away, I would have no life. Your decision and strength is what gives me life today.
©2011, Esther Starobin. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.