Esther Litwin Loeb
Life and Death in the Camps
Vanderbilt Virtual School
I speak to a lot of children, 13 and up, teenagers, and the first thing they ask me, "Ms. Loeb, why do you think you survived?" It's a very hard question to answer and with kids you have to be very truthful; they know when you're telling a story and when you're telling the truth. And I ask myself, "why did I survive? Why did some of us survive all those tragedies and horrors?" And then I thought about God and I said, you know something, I think God works in mysterious ways and he made some of us survive so we can come to you and to the whole world and tell our stories because you would be surprised that people still don't know it anything about the Holocaust. Well, I am a survivor, and I have survived thanks to God and here I am trying to tell you a little bit about my life.
I was born in Poland and lived in a beautiful city: parks, flowers, statues, it was beautiful, spotless, theaters, cinemas, restaurants. Unfortunately, we were not allowed in some of the places. I lived in the city of Bramburg, and there were 50% Poles, 50% Germans, and a very small minority of Jewish families. And we lived in fear all my life. Going to school I was verbally abused, and some kids threw rocks at me, not too many but some of them did. But what hurts most of all is that the kids would not play with me, and when you are a young little girl would you want to play, and nobody would play with me. It was the hardest thing that ever happened and I remember today and it breaks my heart even today because they did not play with me. This is the kind of life we had, but we had a lovely home and love from our parents. My parents had two stores selling menswear and we were very happy because we had our family.
Just before the war in 1939 Hitler decided he would like to have the corridor which was in Poland and it went smack through our city of Bromberg. My mother had a German friend and she told her, you better take your children and send them deep into Poland because when the Germans are going to come through this corridor, through our city, they will ruin things for your children first. And my mother said: Don't be silly. Where am I going to send them? I was born here, this is my home, This is my country. The friend said, you better listen to me and take your kids and send them deeper into Poland. And I guess my mother finally listen to her and she took my sister and me and sent us to the city of Lodz, to her sister.
Of course, Poland had no idea that Germany would attack Poland and take Poland within three weeks. Poland was not prepared for a war. They thought they would just want the corridor and that would be it. Unfortunately, September 1, 1939, the war broke out and they started bombing Poland and my parents were left in Bromberg and we were in the city of Lodz, so we were separated. Eventually my parents decided that it was not good for them to be there, so they locked the house and locked the store and took whatever they could carry and traveled at night and were hiding in the daytime to get to the city of Lodz where we were. And it took them two weeks to get to us and it took Germany three weeks to conquer Poland. And that's when just a little bit of the monstrosities, brutality, and sadism began.
For example, they have taken old women and giving them a bucket and a brush and they told them to brush and clean the concrete sidewalks--backwards! And you know even if you do it backwards you have to lift your knees to go backwards. They would not let them lifted their knees and they had to slide their knees on the concrete, and so the skin broke and they will bleeding and the more they cried they stood there and were laughing. And no one could come to help those poor old women and after two or three hours they told them to quit, they could get up and go, but they couldn't get up by themselves and they could not lean on their buckets to get support, they would not let them. And the awkward positions they used to get up, the more awkward they were the better they liked it and they were standing there laughing at these old women. They were so humiliated the teachers ran from their eyes, they were shaking with fear, yet somehow they got up and they left,
They had seen an old man with a beard. They called him over and started a conversation with him and during the conversation they took out a cigarette and lit a match but instead of lighting the cigarette they put the match to the man's beard and the screaming of agony and the man started to run and he was screaming something terrible and they just stood there laughing. They are done such a wonderful thing.
Then they decided that they needed 150 young men and women ages 18 to 25 to work. No parents would give their children and no husband or wife would go, so what they did, they took 10 man each day and they shot the third, the sixth, whatever they decided, each day they shot A person and they said we are going to do this until we get the people to go to work. Eventually they drew lots and we got 150 young men and women, age 18 to 25, and they put them on trucks. That was the beginning, mind you.
The people did not know what was going to happen. The cruelty was already beginning. They took these people into a forest and divided half of the women and half of the men and took half of them to a warehouse where they beat them, rape them, and shot them. Meanwhile, the other half that was left in the forest, they were supposed to dig a ditch, and when they killed all those people, they put their dead bodies on a truck and drop them in the ditch and covered it up so no one would know that there were dead bodies there. Then they brought them back to the city and when the parents and spouses asked where their loved ones were, they beat them up because how dare you question a German soldier. And they told the other half that if any one of you ever say anything about what happened, we will kill everyone in your family. So they were petrified and would never say anything to anybody about what happened in the forest.
Then the Germans decided they wanted youngsters 17, 18, and 19 years old and the hold how are our began again. When they got through with that age they decided to get from 7 to 12, and that's when my parents decided that we cannot stay here; we are all going to die eventually. I have to protect my family, my wife and my children. I have to escape somehow. Well, I don't know how my parents did that but they smuggled us from the city to a river and they were small boats coming and they took these people across the river which was in Ukraine. We came to the boats and people rushed to the boats trying to get on and the smugglers used to shoot in the air and they said if you're going to run and overpower those boats they're going to sink and we won't be able to take people across. Well finally my father put my sister and me on the boat and my mother was coming but they stopped and would not take anymore and my father was begging to swap places with my mother but they started the motor and they left. So my father and my sister and I went and my mother was left behind. When we came across there were Ukrainian soldiers and they took everything people had, a little money, some jewelry, some heavy coats, they took everything that people head and left them with only what they were wearing. And it was pouring rain and terribly cold and we had nowhere to go and no money. My sister and I could not understand what's going on, and being cold and hungry we wanted something to eat. I remember my daddy used to knock on every door and beg for somebody to take me and my sister in just for one night, but nobody would. He finally came to a church and he went inside and asked the father could we please stay inside because it was raining outside. And he said yes you can stay when it's raining but when it's not raining you have to be outside. So we stayed that night in the church and the next day we had to go out because it was not raining anymore. And my father used to go to the market and beg for a piece of bread for my sister and me and himself. But we had to wait for my mother, we couldn't leave. Eventually, after about a week, my mother came in. She had decided to cross the river all by herself so nobody would pay any attention to her and she did and we finally were together again. We were so happy to be together again, I cannot even describe it to you.
We were just hugging and crying. We had no home, no money, no food; we were actually starving. There was this elderly lady and she came to my mom and she said, you know something, I have a little farm not far from here and I have a barn and there's nothing in the barn, it's empty. If you want to make your home there for a few days, you are more than welcome. Which we did, and we stayed there for about two weeks, and then one early morning there was a knock on the door and my father went and said who is it. They were Russian soldiers and they said, out, out, all of you out, you spies, and they took my parents and of course us, my sister and me, for an interrogation. They accused my father and my mom of spying. My father told them, I am not a spy. I am a Polish citizen trying to escape the Nazis to save my family. We have been under the Nazis for six months. They said, but now you came to spy on us and if you are not going to say that you are spies and sign this we will send you to Siberia.
My father said, you can send me anywhere you want to but I'm not signing anything. You cannot make me sign anything. So what they did, they put us on a freighter, a ship, and I don't know how long we were on it, we were starving, people were sick, women gave birth to children who died. They finally brought us to an island and they let us off on an island named Sibirskaja Taiga (Siberian Jungle). The mosquitoes were about an inch long and they gave us pieces of net to put over our eyes and faces. They left us a little bit of potatoes, some flour, some salt, and a little bit of meat, and this is it, and they said once a month we come and bring you something to eat. It was an island and we had to have fire day and night. There were animals, there were snakes, it was a horrible place, and they did not come every month but they came about once every two months.
We were there for about four months and they came again and put us on a freighter and we were again on the sea, I don't know how long, and they stopped the freighter and we came to a port and they put us on trains and we were going on the train for about five or six days. It was horrible. Then they put us on trucks and the closer it got the colder it got, and they finally brought us to Siberia. I cannot even describe to you the freezing, the weather, it was snowing constantly. It was 30 and 40 degrees below zero. When you opened your mouth your tongue stuck to your teeth and lips, you had to cover your face so you could breathe. You couldn't even take a deep breath, that's how cold it was. They brought us to long, ugly looking barracks with shattered windows and doors off the hinges and there was an eerie sound, a howl through the corridor. It was scary, it was petrifying, and we were hungry and cold. We were beat, we just didn't care anymore.
Each family got a little room with a concrete floor and some hay on it, and this was supposed to be our bed. Each family got one blanket and you had to get up in the morning and go to work because if you didn't work you didn't eat. We used to get up early in the morning. It was so bitter cold that we used to put newspapers inside our clothes next to our bodies, as it was supposed to keep the wind away, but it didn't help. It was so terribly cold, people had frostbite on their fingers and toes and ears. They used to give each family a little more than this glass of borscht soup with just a few pieces of cabbage and a few pieces of potato peel. And they were all taken with famine, and you know what they did: they would lie down in the snow at night and freeze themselves to death so that the rest of the family would have more food to share among the children. Children were born dead, there was starvation, sickness, diseases, freezing cold weather, hard work, and that's how we lived.
My father could not get up one morning, he was burning up with fever. I went to the guard outside and asked him if there was a place that we could take my father. He said, what for, you are going to die here anyway, so what's the difference? And there was also brutality and everybody tried to be quiet. We walked like zombies, we were afraid to say anything to anybody. It was a pitiful sight. They have taken your self-respect, they have taken your soul and your heart, you lost your faith in everything and the only question you had is: why? But there was no answer. Eventually we found a guy that pointed us to a clinic about a quarter of a mile from our camp and he said, if you can make it maybe they will help your father. So my sister and I took our father and almost carried him in all that snow and we brought him to the little clinic and they put out a cot and put him on the cot and they gave him an aspirin and that's how he was lying there.
In the meantime, I didn't know it and my sister didn't know it, but my mother was pregnant. She had a little boy and the little boy was seven days old when my father died, and my father was 36 years old. They took my father's body and put it in a casket, all beat up, with plenty of holes, and they put his body on a sled with a horse, and my sister and I walked behind the sled, supposedly to the cemetery. And it was one big hole and they dropped my father's casket in. I have no idea where my father is buried, I just hope he rests in peace wherever he is. Then we had to come home and tell my mama that our father died, her husband died, and we finally told her and she lost milk in one of her breasts. She did not have enough milk in her other breast to feed the child, and there was no nourishment, and the child was dying. So we asked one of the same guys that told us about the clinic if there was anyone around here, if there was a farm around here where we could go beg for a little bit of milk for the child. He said yes, about five or six miles, if you can make it. My sister and I decided that yes we were going to make it to save our brother's life and we went in that snow and ice and we thought we would never come back and we finally found a milk farm and we explained to these people--we couldn't speak to them because we didn't speak their language. And we tried to tell them that it was for a baby and they finally understood and they gave us a little bit of milk and we carried it close to our bodies so we wouldn't freeze and we came back with that little bit of milk and my mother took a little piece of net and open the child's mouth and dripped in a little milk, one drop at a time. The child died of malnutrition anyway, he wasn't even a year old. So my mother lost her husband and lost a child; she didn't want to live anymore so she just lay down and did not want to get up and we hugged and kissed and loved her and we said, mom, you have to, you have two daughters and we would not know what to do without you. Well, she finally realized that it was true that she had two daughters to live for and she finally got up and we all went to work and we survived.
We were there almost four years, then they told us we could leave this forsaken place and we could go to a warmer climate but in Russia. So we decided to go, the elders decided to go, all of us were going to Kyrgyzstan. If you look it up on your map you'll see it, Kyrgyzstan, and that's where we went and it was much warmer and we worked so hard, maybe twice as much as we worked in Siberia.
Then after a year, just before 1945, the war was over and they told us we could go home. So we did go home, to Poland, after five long, terrible, miserable years. We came home to Poland and there was nobody left. My mother had five brothers and three sisters, my father had sisters and brothers and their spouses and children, but there was nobody left. There wasn't even the cemetery left to go to, there was just my sister, my mother and I, we were the only ones left on this earth from our family. We had no papers, we had no country, we had nowhere to go so they put us in a displaced persons camp in Germany and we stayed there and there was plenty to eat but we couldn't eat because our stomachs had shrunk and the more we tried to eat the sicker we became. It took us a long time before we could swallow a piece of meat. It took a long time before we could have a decent breakfast. Our eyes wanted to eat, but we couldn't.
In 1947 Palestine at that time was asking a lot of young people to enlist to fight the Arabs and I decided, there's no future for me here in this camp, maybe I should enlist and fight for something, fight for a country that I don't even know, but it's Jewish country. So I enlisted, and you know the English people were in Palestine and they would not let any people or any ships get in. So we smuggled ourselves in from La Havre, France. We had freight ships and they took us to Israel and that is how I came to be in Haifa, which I love and I think is the most ....
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Esther was two years in the army and lived six years in Israel. "I had a little part in the liberation of Palestine, May 14, 1948, when Palestine became Israel, and I ma very proud of this." In 1954 she came to the United States to visit her mother and sister, who had come to Nashville, Tennessee in 1949. On a visit to Mobile, Alabama, she met Samual J. Loeb, who operated a store in Plateau, a suburb of Mobile. Esther and Sam were married, and they had a son, Jeff. Esther moved to Nashville, Tennessee in 1954
In her later years Esther gave many talks at schools and other places about her experiences in association with the Tennessee Holocaust Commission, and she was the inspiration for the Nashville Holocaust Memorial.
Esther died on May 5, 2011 in Nashville.