Thank you, Esther

Esther Peterseil shares her story with NYLAG staff.

Esther Peterseil (rear center).

Last week a number of us at NYLAG had the opportunity to hear Esther Peterseil, a survivor of the Holocaust, tell her story. Esther is a longtime NYLAG volunteer who has devoted much of her life to making sure the story of the Holocaust is never forgotten. I felt compelled to help her in this task, by sharing her story with you.

I hope that Esther will forgive me for telling you that she is almost 90 years old – although if you met her you would never think so. She sat in our conference room, ramrod straight, beautifully dressed, her hair perfect, her glasses perched on her nose, as she read to us plainly about the horrific details of all that she has endured, and all that her family suffered.

Esther was almost 13 years old in 1939 when the Germans invaded her small town in Western Poland, one of the first to be occupied. She and her family lived in hiding in a tunnel they created between their apartment and the building next door. For two years, they lived in darkness. Eventually they were discovered and sent to the town’s ghetto. Her older brother and sister were taken away immediately. The rest of the family worked in sweatshops making uniforms for Nazi soldiers. “We were useful,” she said.

In August of 1943, Esther, her parents, her younger sister Bala, and an older brother were shipped in a boxcar to Auschwitz and then marched to Birkenau. At the moment of their forced separation from each other, Esther’s mother told her that she must take good care of Bala, who had a bad heart as a result of rheumatic fever; she must make sure they both survived; and she must never stop telling the story of what happened to them. Esther never saw her parents again. Her mother was 49 years old when she was killed. Esther did take care of Bala, risking her own life in the process, and both girls did survive the Holocaust, somehow enduring Birkenau and the infamous death march.

Esther and Bala returned to their hometown in Poland and reunited with their one brother who had survived. They were the only ones out of a family of eight children left alive. But any joy at their homecoming was short-lived. One day, Esther greeted a woman in the market who had been the family’s housekeeper for many years before the war, almost a member of their family. The woman looked at her coldly and said she had expected that Esther would be dead by now. It was then Esther knew that Poland was no longer her home.

Bala, whose health had steadily declined, died in 1946 in a displaced persons camp in Austria. Esther and her future husband, whom she met in the DP camp, were not able to immigrate to Palestine, eventually finding their way to New York. But Esther, ever true to her mother’s wishes, was able to arrange for Bala to be buried in Israel, the only place she would accept as home for her beloved sister.

Esther and her husband had two children, who have blessed them with 12 grandchildren. When each grandchild turned 14, Esther took them to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Esther has spent her life telling her story, to young people in particular, as she did with us last week. She also spends her time volunteering for several nonprofits, including NYLAG.

As the Jewish holiday season draws to a close, I share Esther’s story with you. Not just the story of a woman who has lost so much and suffered so greatly, but also the story of a woman of great courage who is a fighter, a survivor who will not be silenced, and a person who had the resilience to live her life with great joy among family and friends she cherishes. A woman to celebrate. Thank you, Esther.

Blog Post by Yisroel Schulman
President & Attorney-in-Charge

One thought on “Thank you, Esther

  1. Thank you for sharing Esther’s tragic yet inspiring story. My own mother, Sonja, was 10 in 1939 when she was in hiding for more than a year. While her memory of the details of those years became muddled over the decades after her escape from Germany, the psychological trauma that she suffered as a young child haunted her through years of psychiatric treatment, substance use, and physical ailments. Her time in hiding with rationed food and long spells of hunger led her to hoard canned food in every cabinet in the house I grew up in.

    The holocaust caused incalculable suffering, even for those who survived. Having reached the US with the passages that were obtained by her grandparents, she later learned that they had both been murdered in a concentration camp. She never could forget this. . Now in her late 80’s, she is in assisted living with Alzheimer’s. Perhaps her memory loss is a blessing as she sings Jewish songs now and has finally stopped talking about the Holocaust.

    News of a recent, intense resurgence of anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere reminds us that we cannot forget the lessons of the past. While we remain vigilant for ourselves and our families, we also must also teach our children the tragedy of the genocide taking place now around the world.

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