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Eyewitness to History: Estelle Laughlin

Estelle Laughlin was born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1929. During the Holocaust, German authorities forced Estelle and her family to live in horrible conditions in the Warsaw ghetto. After Germans discovered the family’s hiding place during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, they were sent to the Lublin/Majdanek concentration camp. Estelle survived Majdanek and labor camps in Skarżysko and Częstochowa.


Estelle Laughlin:

My name is Estelle Laughlin.

I am a Holocaust survivor and volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

I tell my story for several reasons.

I tell my story with the hope that you’ll be uplifted by the courage and love that shine through people, even in the worst times.

I tell my story to honor the millions of innocent people, including my family and friends, and nearly everyone I knew and loved who were killed because they were Jewish without means to protect themselves and without the support of others to protect them.

But mostly, I tell my story with the hope that it will serve as a reminder of the consequences to us and to humanity when we accommodate ourselves to tyrants; how it corrupts the conscience of a nation; what it does to love and trust.

The purpose is not to curse the darkness of the past, but to illuminate the future.

I was born in Warsaw, Poland.

Warsaw was the center of my universe and glows in my selective memory, in golden radiance of lilac trees against open blue skies, rich sounds of good neighbors, kindness, trust and love.

I had just turned ten when Germany invaded Warsaw.

Immediately, my life changed beyond recognition.

My once peaceful street was soon patrolled by foreign soldiers.

They shouted hatred and contempt and snapped whips in our streets and homes.

They isolated us in a tiny ghetto, built a thick wall around us.

They filled the ghetto with Jewish people driven out of surrounding areas.

Most came on foot, without a penny in their pockets, sometimes without shoes on their feet.

Most died in the street of cold and starvation.

People covered the bodies of dead children with posters saying, "Our Children Must Live. Children Are the Holiest Things."

Yet in this inferno, people found heroic ways to resist.

Immediately, the Jewish community marshalled forces and formed a far-reaching self-aid center to help the neediest among us.

To own a book was an act of defiance punishable with death.

Yet, many defied.

My father had a stash of his favorite books by Yiddish authors, by Sholem Aleichem and Sholem Asch and Isaac Peretz.

Nights, windows blinded with dark covers to keep our existence secret, in a small room illuminated by a carbide lamp—we had no electricity—my father read to us, bringing to life remote worlds.

Guns hovering over our heads did not stop us from celebrating holidays.

We pulled the window shades down and celebrated.

We even had theaters.

Imagine theaters when there was no bread.

A remarkable Warsaw ghetto historian and writer, Chaim Kaplan, said, "It is strange, when we don’t seem to need it at all, we need poetry more than we need bread." That is true.

The soul, too, must be nourished.

I think our ability to think and to create is our godliness.

All over the ghetto heroic unemployed teachers met with hungry children in cold rooms and taught them to hold on to their imagination and trust in love.

There was a very important group in the ghetto called the Oneg Shabbat.

They met with the purpose of preserving written history, art, and music that depicted the life in the ghetto for the purpose of nourishing future generations.

They hid the written documents in metal containers and buried it.

Fortunate for the following generation, two out of three containers were found.

In July 1942, the month of my 13th birthday, things became even more gruesome.

That was the start of the infamous deportation.

The deportations proceeded with 20th century know-how, and Stone Age values.

Between July and September 1942, approximately 99% of the children vanished.

I was among the 1% left behind.

Can you imagine a world without the sound of children?

Without grandmothers or grandfathers?

We never heard from the people who were deported but a few managed to come back under the cover of night and told us about the horrific train rides to Treblinka where our people were gassed.

I cannot imagine how anyone who loves their children and wives and mothers can do such heinous acts.

This is why I’m sharing this story, so difficult to talk about—and I believe this is why you chose to listen to it—because we have to be reminded that human beings are capable of great evil.

And therefore, we must remember—ever so much—the importance of love.

Armed groups began to form.

My father was a member of the resistance.

The fighters began to build a network of bunkers to hide in case of a bombardment or for entrenchment.

They dug tunnels for movement to obtain weapons from the Polish underground.

They also used the sewers a great deal—that was one way of moving around without being seen.

Events erupted with the entrance of Nazi soldiers into the ghetto.

Tanks and armored cars rolled down the street.

We lifted the secret trapdoor entrance to our bunker, stepped down a ladder, and pulled the trapdoor shut.

I felt banished.

The ceiling pressed down on me; the damp walls closed in on me.

The blinking of the carbide light was our substitute for the sun; the ticking of the clock was our only link with the outside universe to let us know when dawn was rising and night was falling.

How I missed the open horizon, the blue crispness of day.

While we were in the bunker, fighting erupted in the streets.

Again, a 20th century army, armed from head to toe.

Against tanks and warplanes stood poorly outfitted, inexperienced, starving band of ghetto warriors.

It is noteworthy that the Warsaw ghetto fighters battled longer than it took France or Poland to capitulate.

At some point the trapdoor to the bunker exploded, and in one horrifying instant a horde of barbarians were upon us.

They chased us out into the streets and marched us to the deportation station.

I want you to know that we did not march like a swarm of nameless people.

We were people with dreams and pride.

Some amongst us carried guns, perhaps only an hour ago.

The ground beneath us trembled, the air thundered with detonations.

Homes crumbled to our feet.

Bomber planes circled overhead dropping incendiary bombs.

Flames, enormous tongues of flames, licked the sky and painted it in otherworldly colors of iridescence.

They loaded us onto freight trains and sped us to Majdanek extermination camp where the thorns of electrified

barbed-wire fences marked the end of our horizon, and the crematorium stood clear in sight.

My kind, noble, heroic father was gassed in Majdanek.

My mother, sister, and I escaped being gassed by making a strange trade which was based on the fact that we had a pact that if one of us dies, all the three of us will die.

One day my sister’s name appeared on the list.

Everyone assumed that the people on the list were designated for the crematorium.

So we did the obvious thing, my mother and I traded with two women on the list who hoped to see another sunrise. When the names were called, the three of us stepped forward, absolutely sure that we were aimed to go to the gas chambers.

As it turned out, they loaded us onto freight trains, and sped us to a slave labor camp where we worked in an ammunition factory.

We were also enclosed by electrified barbed wire fences and completely isolated.

We lived in virtual darkness, cut off from the world and everything that was taking place there.

It was impossible to believe that only a few rabbit hops away from us, people sailed on silver lakes and children sat around dinner tables with families as children should.

We had no clue if the allies were winning or losing.

Then, a miracle.

One night, we were awakened by a rumble of planes and a barrage of detonation.

We raised our heads from our bare bunk planks and asked each other, "Could it be? After all these years?" This was January 1945.

We were invaded in September 1939.

We were liberated that morning by the Russian forces.

Our feelings of euphoria is beyond words.

So was the depth of our fears and helplessness.

We had no home to return to, not a penny in our pocket and no one to return to and no one to turn to.

There was absolutely no aid available in Poland.

We were on our own.

We rushed out of the gate, so afraid the Germans might push back.

This was the front battle line.

The ground was covered with ice and snow.

All we had on was a loose caftan, wooden clogs.

No underwear, no socks, no scarfs, no sweaters, no coat.

We were covered with lice and mange.

We were horrid to look at.

We were homeless, penniless, stateless, and unwanted.

We wandered through Poland and Czechoslovakia to West Germany where the American forces were stationed.

From there, we made our way to New York in August 1947, two years after liberation.

My sister and I started out working in a garment factory, I was sewing buttons.

Eventually, we both entered college despite the fact that I had only three years of formal schooling and my sister had five years, plus a couple of years of underground ghetto tutoring.

My sister became a professor of comparative literature and I, a teacher.

Our inspiration to strive came from the darkest places, the ghetto.

Not all survivors were able to begin life again.

My mother was one of them.

I survived with love of humanity and joy for life.

Life should be lived joyfully.

Without that, survival would hardly be meaningful.

Thank you so much for listening.