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Estelle Laughlin: Post-Liberation Struggles

First Person Podcast Series

Estelle Laughlin discusses her liberation by Soviet troops in January 1945 from the Czestochowa concentration camp in Poland. In the days immediately following liberation, she and her mother and sister encountered both hostile and helpful people as they traveled through Poland and struggled to rebuild their lives.



ESTELLE LAUGHLIN: She advanced at them with the bold conviction of, of absolute values of what is right and good, and she stopped them. Then she ushered us into her house. She gave us shelter.

NARRATOR: Over 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.

This podcast series presents excerpts of interviews with Holocaust survivors from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s public program First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

In today’s episode, Estelle Laughlin talks with host Edna Friedberg about her liberation from the Czestochowa concentration camp by Soviet troops in January 1945. Estelle, together with her mother and sister, encountered both hostile and helpful people in the town of Kielce, Poland, in the days immediately following liberation.

ESTELLE LAUGHLIN: We were liberated in January ’45 by the Russian soldiers. Well, we were so completely cut off from the world. It was unimaginable that just maybe a few rabbit jumps away from where we were, there was freedom. There were people who were sailing on lakes and children sitting around tables. We were so isolated. We might as well have been on a different planet.

Well, suddenly we hear the bombs and bombardment. “Oh, we are going to die from Allied bombs!” What a joy it would be. What a victory it would be for us not to be killed by the gas chamber. We, finally, somebody is coming to our rescue. You know, we were on death row. We were just so, so, so happy and could not imagine. Well, eventually people started to step out from the barracks, out and into the gate and the German soldiers were gone, and people walked out. And then in the morning, my mother, sister, and I followed the people who were marching out of the camp.

Now you have to visualize, all we had was wooden clogs, a caftan covered with lice, covered with mange, covered with scabs. My limbs were covered with scabs. My face, the skin on my face was covered with scabs from scratching from the lice, and the skin broke and so it got infected. And we are marching out, oh! And around the camp outside the barbed-wire fence, there was a no-man’s-land. And we walked through the no-man’s-land. And we see Russian soldiers. Well, I’m rushing now because I don’t want to miss telling about one, the lady in Kielce.

Well, eventually we met up [with] the Russian soldiers, and we thought, you know, Messiah is there. The soldiers took one look at us, and they said, “We have a war to fight.” And gave us a slab of bread and said, “You have to rush, because curfew is enforced and when it’s, you have to find shelter before dark.” I don’t know if I was more afraid of dying of starvation and cold than being put in prison again for, for breaking the curfew.

Well, eventually we did find shelter in a school, and we were wandering like this through the winter. My first meal, somebody pointed to us out a pickle factory and we climbed in through the window. My first meal was a dill pickle. You know we dug through the ice-encrusted ground with our bare fingers. But we were searching for our family. We came to a town called Kielce in Poland. We came there on a train, by train that we had, well, I’m rushing.

So, when we arrived at the train station, there were people greeting one another, families, and we were there all alone. So, there my mother, sister, and I are there all alone, very frightened. Then we hear a sound, “Amcho.” Amcho is a Hebrew word, and it means “of the people” or “of the clan.” That was very often used when we were lost among people that we did not trust, we were afraid of, we would always chant “Amcho!” if there was another Jew, so he knows that he is not alone. Well, we met up with, there were a few people, there were maybe eight of us and we walked out in the street aware that we have to find shelter.

A group of hoodlums spotted us and they started to pelt us with stones, with rocks, dogs, and sick dogs on us. I was very frightened. We were frightened of dogs, because dogs were also used, German Shepherds, to attack us. So, there were parents who were watching the children, the young kids do it. Nobody said anything. Night was falling. I could not imagine how the moon or the star can hang in the sky when my people were so completely abandoned.

Down the street we began to see lights flickering in windows–lights in windows, home, enclosures, security. Oh, such, such, such craving. And there we are, alone in the street. And the door–and these guys, the hoodlums chasing us with the stones –and a door opens. And a little old woman steps out, dressed in black, looking darker than the black of night, a crescent smile on her face. She looks, looks down the street and she sees what happens, and she jumps, places herself between the flying rocks and us, raises her hands and she says, “Stop it! Stop that cruelty!”

She advanced at them with the bold conviction of, of absolute values of what is right and good, and she stopped them. Then she ushered us into her house. She gave us shelter. It was a tiny little hovel, a little room. She was like a good aunt. She talked to us all evening, shared about her life, asked questions. Then when the first light of morning rose, we left to wander into the wintry landscape again. I left very grateful–-my faith in humanity was restored---but utterly puzzled. If this old woman could do it, why didn’t others

NARRATOR: You have been listening to First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors, a podcast series of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Every Wednesday at 1 p.m. from March through August, Holocaust survivors share their stories during First Person programs held at the Museum in Washington, DC. We would appreciate your feedback on this series.