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Estelle Wakszlak Laughlin

Born: July 9, 1929, Warsaw, Poland

Estelle Laughlin was born Estera Wakszlak in Warsaw, Poland, on July 9, 1929 to Michla and Samek Wakszlak. Estelle had an older sister, Frieda, who was born in January 1928. Michla tended to the home and children while Samek ran a jewelry shop. Estelle and Frieda attended the local public school.

Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. During the siege of Warsaw, Estelle experienced aerial bombing raids and witnessed the mass destruction that German bombs wrought in her home city. On September 27, a ceasefire was called, and soon after, German forces entered Warsaw. Estelle and Frieda were no longer allowed to attend the local public school. 

In October 1940 German authorities decreed the establishment of a ghetto in Warsaw. The Wakszlak family and more than 400,000 Jews from the city and surrounding areas were forced to live in a 1.3 square mile area. The family’s apartment building was on a street that became part of the ghetto so, unlike many others, they did not have to move. This helped them survive because they had access to their possessions, including warm clothes. 

Still, life in the Warsaw ghetto was harsh for the Wakszlak family and the other Jews imprisoned there. They had to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David, identifying them as Jews. The food allotments rationed to the ghetto by the German authorities were not sufficient to sustain life. Starvation and disease were rampant. Samek was able to get extra food for his family from the black market. Even in the face of these horrific conditions, a cultural life continued in the ghetto. Estelle and her sister Frieda attended clandestine schools and participated in a children’s theater.

From July to September 1942, German authorities rounded up more than 260,000 ghetto residents and transported them to the Treblinka killing center, where the vast majority were murdered upon arrival. This mass deportation is known as the Great Action (Grossaktion). During the Great Action, Estelle and her family hid in a secret room to escape being caught and sent on a transport.  After the Great Action ended in September 1942, tens of thousands of Jews remained in the Warsaw ghetto. In this period, Estelle and her mother and sister had forced labor assignments in a factory mending German uniforms.

In April 1943,  German forces made one last push to deport the remaining Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to forced labor camps or the Treblinka killing center. As SS and police units began roundups, Jewish resistance groups in the ghetto fought back. This act of armed Jewish resistance became known as the Warsaw ghetto uprising. For nearly a month, Jewish fighters resisted German SS and police units. Samek was part of the ghetto’s resistance movement and he had built a bunker in which he and his family hid during the uprising. The Germans burned down the ghetto block by block to draw out the people hiding in a network of underground bunkers. 

As the Germans set fire to the ghetto, they threw grenades searching for underground bunkers. One of these grenades blew open the trapdoor to the family's bunker. The Germans dragged the Wakszlak family out onto the street, marched them to a central gathering point (called the Umschlagplatz), forced them to board freight train cars, and transported them to the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp.

Upon arrival at Majdanek, the SS separated the women and men. Estelle, Michla, and Frieda were chosen for forced labor. Samek was ill with tuberculosis and weak from a beating he received at the hands of Germans in Warsaw. The women learned from another prisoner that he was murdered in the gas chamber. At Majdanek, Estelle and her mother and sister had to perform forced labor, including sorting through belongings stolen from murdered Jews. At one point Estelle witnessed a female German guard badly beat Frieda. Frieda could not work and she hid in the barracks, but was discovered.

One day, while Estelle and Michla were away, Frieda’s name was put on a list, supposedly for transfer to another camp. Estelle and Michla believed this was a trick and that the list was for prisoners who would be killed in the gas chambers. To stay together, even if it meant they would die, Estelle and Michla switched places with two women who were on the same list. Because their names were on this list, Michla, Estelle, and Frieda were sent to the Skarżysko forced labor camp to work in a HASAG (Hugo Schneider AG) munitions factory. They were later transferred to another HASAG factory at the Częstochowa forced labor camp.

Soviet forces liberated Estelle, Frieda, and Michla in Częstochowa in January 1945. To escape antisemitic violence in postwar Poland the three women moved to Allied-occupied Germany and lived there until 1947, when they moved to the United States to join Michla’s two sisters and brother in New York City. Estelle is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.