Esther Brunstein is a survivor of the Holocaust. She spoke to Miriam Scharf about her socialist roots and the need to continue the fight against fascism.
Can you give us a picture of your life, your family and community in the time before the Nazis invaded Poland?
I was fortunate with my upbringing. I was a happy child surrounded by a loving family. My parents were devoted socialists, Jewish socialists, who belonged to a party called the Bund. This particular environment gave me an insight into being part of a big movement. It wasn’t just the Jews; it was working with all the forces that were against the fascist regime in Poland. I was very young but I was aware. My school, the party, the organisation my parents belonged to — I felt part of it, I felt a bit grown up. I was brought up with that spirit.
You spent your early teens in the Lodz ghetto. What helped you get through those years?
Hope — that it wasn’t going to last forever and that we, the then prisoners, would be part of a new world, a better world. When we knew we were going to be put in the ghetto we took a few things for everyday use into a borrowed pram. In the beginning, before the barbed wire made it impossible, my brother Peretz went to the libraries get books. We had very good libraries in Lodz, with books in Polish, Yiddish and German.
In the ghetto we weren’t meant to have books so we moved them secretly from house to house, but we had a proper list for borrowing and returning. Organising reading and education were very important to us — I used to recite poetry. And my mother was always by my side and encouraged me, saying it wouldn't be much longer, that I had to be strong.
Can you describe what happened to your family during the round-ups for deportation?
By that time we were not together. Early on my dad, my wonderful father, was warned by the Bund Committee in the ghetto that he was on the list of people to be deported because he was a known Bundist. So he left for the Soviet border, as did my elder brother Peretz, a left wing journalist. It was considered safe as they didn’t kill Jews for being Jews.
Later deportations were taking place all the time and fear spread. My mother and I were put on the train to Auschwitz, but Peretz escaped. My mother was ill. It was malnutrition, she couldn’t walk. [Esther and her mother were separated at Auschwitz; that was the last time Esther saw her.]
I think my mother gave me a strong will to survive. We were sent to labour camps. It was slave labour. It was so cold, it was winter. We had practically nothing to wear. Somehow we picked up some rags and washed them in freezing water — we had no soap. My hands were swollen, the skin rough and cracked.
Everything was done in fives. Once we were told there would be boots. We queued in fives; I didn’t know then where all these boots came from. But some found names on clothes and suspected.
I was lucky to be selected for work in a room where we peeled potatoes — it was at least not as cold as outside. I was even allowed to take some potato peelings. I thought all the time about getting warm food or, impossible luxury, being warm.
At liberation you were ill with typhoid fever and on the lowest bunk of the isolation ward, unconscious and near death. Do you remember how you felt when you regained consciousness and realised the nightmare was over?
Yes, because there was a girl who was my friend. She came running into the ward, and this was strange because no one had energy for running. She was shouting, “Estusha, Estusha, Get up, get up! We are free!” I was only half-conscious, but I remember thinking that I didn’t have to be afraid any more. When we found each other after the war and compared our stories we both admitted we had given up hope. I wanted desperately to see my mummy again; I was 16 but still called her mummy. I think I stopped being a child quite young.
You have addressed many audiences over the years on Holocaust remembrance, from school assemblies and Teachers Against the Nazis meetings to the United Nations. How important do you think it is to remember the Holocaust today?
Extremely important, so that we do everything we can, possible and impossible, for it to never happen again.