November 01, 2013
By Esther Starobin
I arrived in the United States on November 11, 1947. I was an unhappy child torn from my second home to come to a new land with family I hardly knew. My sister and I were met in New York by two uncles—one my sister knew from Germany and one an unknown American uncle. I knew neither. So I began my journey to becoming an American and eventually a Holocaust survivor.
I had lived a sheltered life in Thorpe, England, with my foster family. I knew they weren’t my real parents but knew little about my history. My sisters came to visit occasionally but it all seemed pretty normal to me. Life in the United States was very different—living in a city, living in a large house with many people, living as a Jew. I knew my parents were dead though in my mind I kept hoping they would unexpectedly show up. It wasn’t a subject anyone talked about. I knew I was different than most of my classmates but thought it was because I was Jewish. It never entered my mind that it had anything to do with being originally from Germany.
As more and more about the Holocaust was discussed and written about, I felt sorry for those who had suffered and survived but did not feel that included me. I continued my life as a wife, mother, and teacher. A large part of my teaching career was spent in a middle school that had many children who lived in difficult situations. Eventually I would tell them about my life as a foster child and if Alan, my foster brother, was visiting he would come and visit my classes. My talks, however, always focused on the foster child aspect and having lived in many different homes.
When the first Holocaust Survivor Gathering was held, my sisters and I were not considered survivors. We didn’t think of ourselves as survivors either.
After I retired, I began volunteering at the Museum. I had been doing that for several months before I was invited to a survivor meeting. From that I learned about the memoir writing group. I joined and have since learned so much about my family and life in Germany.
In my early writing I would cover a large span of time without adding much feeling to what I was writing. Gradually through the years this has changed. As our workshop leader, Maggie, introduced us to the writings of others and to thinking about a specific idea or object, I was forced to reconsider how I examine my experiences during World War II and after. Writings and questions from other workshop participants opened up further questions in my mind. What a gift!
Often I had no idea about the subject that was suggested to us. This led me to discussions with my sisters. In particular, an avenue of communication was opened with my oldest sister, Bertl. Sometimes, she could and would share information about our life in Germany or of our parents that otherwise I would never have learned about. Other times, Bertl knew as little as I did. Then I would write to Reinhart Lochmann, who has studied the history of the Jews in Adelsheim, our former home, to see if he could locate the information. Before this I resented the fact that Reinhart knew more about my family than I did, but I have come to appreciate his willingness to research and to share. So I learned about my father’s early life this way. I learned about the items in our home this way. I learned about the court case that took my parents’ business away. I learned about my parents’ and brother’s deportation to France in 1940 this way.
This research has led me to think about my mother and father and to write about them. As I reread the few letters that came from the camps in France, I found such love, strength, deep faith, and hope that I was not really aware of from my previous somewhat quick reading of these translated letters. Reading the few letters exchanged between my mother and my foster mother helped me appreciate the connections between them and the love emanating from them both. It showed me how lucky I was to have had them both in my life.
Perhaps the greatest gift from the writing workshop has been the ability to look at past events and to realize how much they affect the way I live my life today, as well as my family, my activities, my religious life, and my friends.
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