A Girl Called Estherke
Dedicated in memory of Moritz Gertler and to all the victims and survivors of the Holocaust – 15 April 1945 – by the Gertler and Trink families.
It was the new month of Sivan, 5704, Spring 1944. Ida, her father, mother, brothers, and sisters were ordered to the train station with the rest of the Jewish community of their Czechoslovakian town. Jews had lived there for generations, but their history was all coming to an abrupt end with a single train ride to Auschwitz. The cattle cars were sealed. More than 80 people were squeezed into a single wagon. Ida and her family managed to stay together, and they comforted each other amidst the choking heat, filth, and fear of the unknown. “Papa, where are they taking us?” Ida asked. “My children, once there was an altar on Mount Moriah in the holy city of Jerusalem. God commanded a father to take his only, beloved son and sacrifice him upon that altar, in order to test his faith in God. As the father was about to fulfil God’s command and lifted the knife, the Lord God spoke to Abraham and said, ‘Lay not thy hand upon the lad.’”
“Today, my children, there is another huge altar, not on a sacred mountain but in a profane valley of death. There, man is testing his own inhumanity toward his fellow man. The children of Abraham are again a burnt offering, this time by the command of men. But man, unlike God, will not stop the knife. On the contrary, he will sharpen it and fan the altar flames so that they may totally consume their sacrifice. A man-made fire, a knife held by man, must be stopped by man, by a human voice, a human hand. My children, be human in this inhuman valley of death. May the merit of our father Abraham protect you, for whoever saves one Jewish soul, it is as if he saves an entire universe.”
On the eve of the holiday of Shavuot, Ida and her family arrived in Auschwitz. The skies above Auschwitz were red. Ida’s father spoke as if to himself: “On this day, millenniums ago, God came down to man in fire and smoke and gave his commandments. Today, man is commanding in fire and smoke, ‘Thou shalt kill!’”
The Auschwitz platform separated Ida forever from her father, mother, young sisters, and brothers. Ida and her older married sister passed the selection and were put to work for the German civilian population and the Reich’s war machine. Ida sorted the clothes of the gassed, folded them neatly, and placed them in symmetrical piles according to size and quality, ready for shipment to Germany to be used by the German people.
One day, as Ida was sorting the clothes, an SS officer walked over to her and said: “Why do you smile, Jewish pig?” Before Ida had a chance to respond, she saw a black boot flying into her face, felt a piercing pain and the gush of blood, and looked down to behold her front teeth on the floor in a puddle of blood. “Pretty white teeth look better on the floor than in a filthy Jewish mouth,” said the SS officer. He commanded Ida to wipe the blood off the boot that knocked out her teeth and cheerfully walked away, humming a tune.
Ida quickly assessed her condition. She realised that a gaping hole in her mouth was a sight that an SS officer at a selection would not cherish.
She walked over to the pile where thousands of dental bridges were thrown and hastily selected one. She placed it in her swollen mouth and returned to her assigned spot.
That night in the barracks it was especially difficult to fall asleep. Heartbreaking screams were piercing the night, mingled with the wailing of children and mothers as they were torn away from each other. Slowly, the screams subsided and gave way to the usual deadly sounds of the Auschwitz night. Most of the girls in Ida’s barracks fell asleep.
Then there was a noise under Ida’s three-tiered bunk bed where 36 girls slept, 12 per bed, packed together like sardines. “All we need are rats, just to give them another reason to shoot us,” someone said. “Shut up, I am tired,” another voice complained. The noise persisted. “Ida, you are the brave one, go down and see what it is.” All the other 11 girls had to turn so that Ida could move from the spot where she had wedged herself in.
Under the bed, in a corner, curled up like a frightened porcupine, was a little girl. She told them that when the children’s Aktion began, she managed to run away and hide in the latrine among the piles of chlorine cans. When it became dark, she ran into the barracks and hid under the bed.
The girl’s name was Estherke. She had big, blue, frightened eyes, beautiful blonde curls, and two deep dimples. Ida became instantly attached to the child and kept showing her off to all the others girls, exclaiming: “Doesn’t she look like a little actress?” The blockova told Ida that she must give up the child, otherwise she, her sister, and maybe all the girls in the barracks, would pay with their lives for harbouring a little criminal. Ida stood there clutching the child. “I will never give her up,” she said with determination. She walked over to the blockova and asked to speak to her privately. “I know that your boyfriend is Jewish and assumed a false Aryan identity. Killing me, my sister and others will not help. Other girls, and even men outside of this barracks, know it too. We will all keep quiet if you will help to save Estherke. During the day when we are at work, you must keep Estherke in your private room.” The blockova agreed. Ida had won her ﬁrst battle for Estherke’s life.
Ida loved the child. All her thoughts focused on Estherke. To save that child became her obsession and purpose for living. Rumours began to circulate that Lager (camp) C, in BII, Ida’s camp, would be evacuated. Ida became frantic. She knew that Estherke would not pass the selection for transfer from one Lager to another. With the help of her older sister, whom Estherke called Grandma, and men from the nearby Lager, Ida worked out a plan.
When the evacuation materialised, Ida wrapped Estherke in a blanket and threw her over the electriﬁed fence into the waiting arms of a male inmate in the adjacent men’s camp, BIId. Later that afternoon, a package ﬂew once more over the fence into Ida’s waiting arms. She got back her Estherke. Ida was now in Zigeuner- lager (gypsy camp).
During that selection, however, Ida was separated from her sister, who, with a group of other girls, was taken away to an unknown destination. Again rumours spread in the camp that the eastern front was nearing and the entire camp was going to be evacuated. Ida began to plan once more how to save her little Estherke. On 18th January 1945, the camp was evacuated. Ida put Estherke into a knapsack that she had “organised” for this purpose. With Estherke on her back, she set out with the others on the dreadful death march.
The winds blew, the frost bit, the snow fell, and her stomach growled from hunger, but Ida marched on. At night, she shared with Estherke whatever stale bread she had managed to conceal. She comforted the little girl, warmed her tiny frozen hands, and promised her that one day they would be free. After many days of marching and travelling in open cattle cars, a few of the original group that began the death march on 18th January 1945, reached Bergen-Belsen. Ida and her beloved Estherke were among them.
In Bergen-Belsen, Ida found conditions even more difficult than in Auschwitz. With the evacuation of camps in the east, thousands of evacuated inmates were driven into Bergen-Belsen. Absorbing all the evacuees was far beyond the camp’s capacity. Water was scarce; a few crumbs of stale bread and inadequate toilet facilities made life almost impossible. Filth, lice, starvation, and epidemics took over. Ida managed to ﬁnd a job, for which she was given a piece of bread and a warm drink that they insisted on calling coffee. One day, as Ida was cleaning the latrines, she heard a familiar voice calling her name. She looked around, but saw no one she knew. A face covered with blotches and lice, a body covered with rags, was coming closer to her while calling her name. Ida stepped backward. “Ida, don’t you recognise your own sister?”
Estherke was overjoyed. “Grandma” was back, the three of them were once more together, just like in Auschwitz. While Ida was out searching for food, Estherke and “Grandma” stayed together. But their happiness did not last long. “Grandma” succumbed to typhus.
Estherke did not leave her side and tried to ease her suffering. One day, while Ida was trying to get some coffee for her dying sister, the squad that came daily to collect the dead took the sister away with the other corpses. Estherke protested, insisting that her “grandma” was still alive. She pleaded, but to no avail. Estherke followed the squad, and when “Grandma” was dumped on the big pile of corpses, Estherke managed to pull her out from under the corpses and did what she could to warm her body with her own.
When Ida returned with the coffee and discovered that Estherke and her sister had been taken away with the dead, she felt her knees giving way as if she would collapse, but her weakness did not last long. Ida was not one to give in to despair. She took the coffee and began to search for Estherke and her sister, and there, near a pile of corpses, she found them. Ida wasted no time. She gave the coffee to Estherke to guard. After mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, massage, and a few drops of coffee on her sister’s parched lips, Ida revived her. Thousands were dying, but with Ida’s and Estherke’s love, “Grandma” recovered. Their joy knew no limit.
On 15th April 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the British Army. The two sisters and Estherke made their way back home to Czechoslovakia, together with throngs of other refugees. They were all trying to go home, all hoping that perhaps other relatives had also survived and families could be reunited. After finding a temporary shelter in Prague, the three set out in different directions to search for other surviving members of their families. Estherke travelled to Bratislava, hoping that her father, mother, or some of her eight brothers and sisters had survived. Ida and her sister left with similar hopes for their family. The parting was painful for Ida. She and Estherke had not been separated since that fateful night in Auschwitz. The three agreed upon a time and place to meet no matter what the outcome of their search might be.
The two agreed-upon weeks passed. Ida and her sister returned to Prague as planned. But Estherke failed to return. They waited a few more days, but still there was no trace of her. Then Ida launched an intensive search. She travelled to Bratislava, but no one recalled seeing a child who matched Estherke’s description. Ida then contacted all children’s homes and refugee centres, but to no avail. Estherke had vanished without leaving behind a single trace or clue. After months of searching, Ida gave up. She met and married a young man, a survivor like herself. Her sister was fortunate too, for her husband had managed to survive the camps and one day they ran into each other on a street in Prague.
The sisters parted once more. Ida and her husband went to America. Her sister, her husband, and their newly born baby, became part of the illegal immigration to Israel. They out-manoeuvred the British blockade and finally reached the shores of Palestine.
In the early 1950s, Ida travelled to the young State of Israel to visit her sister. One very hot day, Ida fainted on the street. Two young Israeli soldiers who happened to pass by picked her up from the pavement and took her in their jeep to the nearest hospital. The following day, the soldiers came in to see how their patient was doing. A friendship developed between Ida and the two soldiers, who continued to visit her daily. As Ida was about to be discharged from the hospital, she asked the two young men how she could repay their kindness. The taller of the two, Yossi, told Ida that he was getting married in a few days. The biggest reward would be if she would come to his wedding.
“But I don’t know anyone!” she protested. “You know me, and I am a pretty important man at this wedding,” Yossi said with his good-natured smile. It was a beautiful dusk in Jerusalem. A gentle summer breeze scented with Jerusalem pine provided relief from the summer heat. The sun, like a huge orange, hung low above the Judean hills, which glowed in a beautiful pink-grey light. Ida was standing among the other guests, hoping to find a familiar face. “The bride is coming,” someone near her said. Ida made her way to the front so she could see the bride whom Yossi had described so lovingly. The door opened, the bride walked in. It was none other than her own long-lost Estherke! Under the bright stars shining above the eternal city and the Judean hills, Ida stepped forward and led her beloved Estherke to the bridal canopy.
There was a strange presence in the air. Ida was sure that her father was present at this very holy moment in Jerusalem. She could even see the smile on his face and hear his gentle voice: “Whoever saves a single soul, it is as if he saves an entire universe.”
Based on interview by Marcy Miller with Mrs Ida Hoenig, 16th April 1976.