I think we could all use a break from the intense and divisive politics of the 2020 Presidential Election. Many of you are probably tired of reading about it, and, for now, I am tired of writing about it.
So, below please find an uplifting story about a Holocaust survivor. In my opinion, she achieved the ultimate revenge on the Nazis. She lived a long and productive life, enjoyed many children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren, and along the way chronicled her experiences for posterity.
Much of the below information was provided by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which does a superb job of keeping alive the heroism of ordinary Jews amid the horror of the Holocaust. Many of you are aware that I have blogged about other heroes before. Below please find the latest example.
Esther was born in Cheim, Poland in 1933. The US HMM characterized her family as “middle class,” in contrast to most Jewish families of that time in Poland, so perhaps, her father was a professional or a successful merchant.
As most of you know, soon after the Germans conquered Poland they commenced an aggressive campaign to round up and isolate Jews and other “undesirables” and ship them off to concentration camps. There were many such camps throughout Central Europe, and Sobibor was one of the worst.
Sobibor was located near the village of Sobibor in German-occupied Poland. It was part of a sinister program called Operation Reinhard. Briefly, OR was a codename for a top secret Nazi plan to exterminate Polish Jews in Nazi-controlled Poland. It represented a new and more sinister stage of lethality. It called for the establishment of extermination camps. Its primary purpose was not just to work Jews to death over months or years in concentration camps but to exterminate them within hours of arrival.
Sobibor was such a camp. The few prisoners who escaped such a fate were only those few whom the Nazis determined could help them administer the camp. Even those few fortunate ones normally only lasted a few months before they, too, were gassed. According to Wikipedia it is estimated that approximately 2 million Jews were exterminated under OR, some 250,000 of those at Sobibor.
This was the camp to which nine year old Esther was sent in December, 1942. Fortuitously, she was assigned to work in the “sorting shed” where she was tasked with the gruesome job of sorting the possessions of the murdered Jews. In addition, she worked as a seamstress. Probably, this useful skill saved her life.
The camp is primarily known for a daring prisoner escape, which occurred on October 14, 1943. Esther was one of the planners of this escape. The leaders were Leon Feldhendler and Aleksandr Pechersky.
According to Wikipedia, the audacious (or perhaps, foolhardy) escape plan entailed two phases. Phase One called for the prisoners to “discreetly” assassinate all of the SS officers in the camp. In Phase Two, all 600 prisoners were to assemble in the courtyard for rollcall as usual and simply walk out the front gate. Admittedly, it is hard for me to see how this would have been successful, but nevertheless it appears that was the plan.
Later, Esther recalled some details of what transpired.
1. They picked a day when the camp commandant was absent.
2. She dressed as warmly as she could. She put on “two sweaters, a coat, a kerchief and boots”
3. She took “no luggage. You didn’t know where you were going or if you’ll make it.”
4. Things fell apart when 12 of the SS officers escaped assassination. At that point the prisoners had to improvise, make a break for it. Many of them tried to escape by climbing over fences topped off with barbed wire and running through mine fields.
5. She used a stepladder to climb over the barbed wire fence.
6. She was shot in the leg, though not seriously.
7. She survived the minefield by hopscotching on the dead bodies of those who had already set off a mine.
8. After making it to the woods she managed to hide for nine months in a barn owned by a friend of her father’s. She scraped out a living space underneath some hard-packed straw. Remember, she was nine!
9. She hooked up with Irving Raab whom she had known from Chelm. Raab had originally fled to Russia but had come back to avoid the advancing Soviet Army, which, as we know, Jews were wise to avoid.
10. The two married in 1946 and eventually moved to the US.
11. Roughly 300 of the 600 prisoners made it, although most of them were quickly killed or recaptured. According to Wikipedia, only 38 of them actually survived the war.
Following the escape the camp ceased operations. The Nazis demolished it and planted it over with trees. For many decades after the war the camp was neglected and virtually forgotten. Accounts of the Holocaust largely ignored it, which, given its sordid history, was very surprising and unfortunate. Things changed after it was portrayed in a US TV miniseries entitled Holocaust in 1978 and then in a British TV movie Escape from Sobibor in 1987.
The Raabs settled in the US where they established a poultry company and raised a family. Esther often retold her experiences in an effort to keep the story of the Holocaust alive. This was essential because, as we know, as time passes survivors die and memories fade. Jews don’t want the world to forget lest there be a recurrence someday.
Esther died on April 13, 2015 at her home in New Jersey. At her funeral she was eulogized by her rabbi and longtime friend, Yisroel Rapoport as “a woman of valor… courage… modesty and wisdom.” He added “she fulfilled her vows to tell the world about the atrocities … of the Holocaust.”
Esther was survived by one son, eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. As I said, the best revenge against the Nazis is to survive, live a long productive life, and leave the legacy of a big family. Esther did that.
Rest in peace, Esther. Your life story of bravery and determination to survive is a huge credit both to you and the Jewish people, and you will be sorely missed.