Reminiscing is time well spent. I love memories.
Five years ago I visited the United States Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I spent ten hours there. I soaked in everything possible. As I carried around a pamphlet with the map of the museum, I noticed on the back, in very small print, a notation saying, "Visit our guest services desk to meet a Holocaust survivor." I went directly toward trying to locate that guest services desk! I had lost must husband about an hour prior to this and it didn't worry be in the least. I was too busy learning.
As I walked toward the desk, it seemed as if a beam of light was coming down from the ceiling and shining on an angel. A very small woman, elderly - but modern looking and beautiful, sat alone. Her petite frame looked small in the chair.
I walked up and introduced myself.
"Hello, I'm Estelle," she replied in a very thick accent. I discovered later it was an Eastern European accent. She was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland.
Estelle has had a tremendous impact on my life. She has said numerous times, "Memory is what shapes us, memory is what teaches us." She knows the power of memory.
Due to Estelle's simple comment about memory, I have learned so much about the power of symbols in the Jewish faith. Memory is so important to Jewish custom. These people truly believe that God requires remembrance on behalf of His people. I revel in the beauty of Jewish custom and the importance of their symbols. I, too, believe that God requires us to remember because that's how we continue living in faith. So, Estelle has helped me realize Jewish people are probably the only organized group who have raised the level of remembering to a religious requirement; what beautiful, rich, uniquness this brings to them! On some of my future blogs I look forward to writing about how I've learned the powerful symbolism of matzah bread, the Star of David, the Twelve Tribes of Israel, the lion (for the tribe of Judah), the unicorn (for the tribe of Manasseh) and the list goes on.
Back to Estelle's story. . . Estelle, her sister, mother, and father were arrested in 1940 Poland because they were Jewish. Estelle was eleven years old and spent the next five years living in concentration camps.
After being arrested, her family was taken to Majdanek, a camp in west central Poland; just on the outskirts of Lublin, Poland. Estelle's father met his fate immediately after arriving at Majdanek, taken directly to the gas chamber. Estelle remained, for the next five years, with her mother and sister, being transferred to seven different camps.
They ended up back at Madenjeck in 1945.
As Estelle was telling me her story that day, my husband finally joined me at the guest services desk. She went on to tell us both that, in 1945, Madenjeck was liberated by the Russian Army. She vividly recalled the day. I vivdly remember looking into Estelle's twinkling eyes as she relayed her story to us. Although her face was delicate and beautiful, I could definitely see the seriousness and sadness of her memory, her reminiscing, right then and there.
"It was winter, very cold. We had learned not to cry because crying did us no good. It just displayed weakness. My mother, sister, and I decided to keep each other strong. On this day of liberation we were wearing rag dresses. We wore clogs on our feet. We had no scarves, no hats, no underwear. We RAN to the liberators, so happy that freedom was within our grasp. We held out our hands. The soldiers said, 'You are free to go, but we have a war to fight,' not wanting anything to do with the malnourished and dying prisoners."
Pat asked Estelle, "How in the world did you ever resume a normal life?"
"We knew that we had relatives in a nearby village. We knew if we made it to the village they would help us. We were so weak and hungry. We were filthy and covered with lice and scabs. My mother knew that we would need food. Mother remembered that there had been a pickle factory in the town of Lublin. We walked and walked. No one wanted anything to do with us. People turned away, acted embarrassed, and offered no help. We found the pickle factory that very day. It was abandoned, no longer in business. Mother broke a window, we crawled through. There were jars and jars of pickles on the shelves, dirty and dust-covered. My mother, sister, and I opened those jars of pickles. We ate, and ate, and ate. . . so happy to have a full stomach. We spent the night there, eating more pickles and took some with us the next morning."
Estelle's story transitions. She and her mother as well as her sister all made it to the village where they had cousins. They got back on their feet there. Three years later they moved to Israel. Estelle married and moved with her husband to Washington, D.C. where she still resides today.
The whole time we spoke with Estelle she had her cell phone on the desk top. She told Pat and me, "I don't want to be rude. My grandson is calling me today and I answer the phone whenever my grandson calls. It's very important."
I thought about how she must feel after having lived through that horrible event. Now she has a grandson and I would imagine she belived at some point that she would never go on to have a family, much less a grandson. It was our pleasure to pause and wait as she sweetly spoke to her grandson who called four or five times during the conversation. Every time before Estelle hung up she said, "I love you," and usually more than one time she repeated it.
"How beautiful," I thought.
My students LOVE the story about the pickles. I love telling it. I will never forget that day in the Holocaust museum, meeting Estelle. It made our entire vaction that summer worth the effort.
Estelle has corresponded with me and my students ever since. She does not have a bitter bone in her body, she understands forgiveness. She continues to teach me about the power of memory. I thank God for Estelle's life and that it has intertwined with mine.