I had the pleasure earlier this week to be a guest of the Laguna Niguel Rotary to listen to Holocaust survivor Esther Sterling’s harrowing story of surviving World War II and Hitler’s Nazi regime.
At 79, Esther is spry, her blue eyes bright with the same fierce determination she must have called upon as a child in order to survive the nightmare of war.
Esther began her story in 1934 when she was a young girl living with her family in the oil rich region of Galicia, Poland (now the Ukraine). Because of the oil resources, the area was always being fought over and the local regimes changed with the prevailing party. Turmoil was a way of life, but little did they know just how terribly chaotic things would become.
Esther’s father was a prominent jeweler who owned the watch store in town, and he and Esther’s mother were respected members of the community.
In 1939, the Germans were pushed out of the area by the Russians, who took over her father’s jewelry store lock, stock and barrel and threatened to ship the family to Siberia with other Jewish families. Esther’s father was able to prove he was a valuable “asset” and they were moved to Eastern Galicia where he went to work in a watch factory. Working there, he taught other workers his art of repairing watches so they too might escape being sent to Siberia. No one had any idea of what each day would bring or what the future held.
As the war progressed, the German’s took control and the family considered a move to Russia to escape Hitler’s wrath. But Esther’s large family all lived in the Galicia region. Her mother was adamant, they would not leave. They moved again to a small town which was soon taken over by SS soldiers who forced her family to move to the ghetto and live with another family in one small room. All that separated them was a dingy blanket.
“We lived in constant fear then. People were confused and literally paralyzed with fear -no one thought it would get so bad,” said Esther. “We never knew when the German’s would impose an ‘action” in order to weed out the old and young, or those strongest and able to work. Thank goodness my parents were both young and strong at the time.”
Before they were moved to the ghetto, Esther’s father had rented a place outside of town where her nanny took care of her and her sister. There, in anticipation that things were going to get worse before they got better, he dug a deep hole under the house where the girls could hide whenever an “action” was announced. Because they were very young, he was sure they would be weeded out and sent to a camp. When the “actions” were over, the girls would secretly return to the ghetto. This went on for what seemed an eternity.
Each day the Germans would have “an announcement” ordering those living in the ghetto to give up their various valuables until soon they were stripped of just about everything but the clothes on their backs. Esther’s mother was able to hang on to a small pouch of diamonds, she knew they would need them to escape if necessary.
As the Germans began to lose the war, rumor of “extermination” began to pervade the ghetto. Esther’s father decided they had to go back to the hole until they were liberated by the Russians or Americans.
As fate would have it, they were found and the Germans marched them out to the street. The soldier in charge looked away for a moment and Esther took off running, managing to make it back to their room where she hid in a coffer. Her quick thinking likely saved her life.
Things got worse, and the Germans began to take the young and old to the local graveyard where they were ordered to dig holes and then shot. Her Dad decided to find a man he had taught in the factory who had offered to return the favor and take the family in.
With the diamonds Esther’s mother had saved, her dad set off to find the man. As he walked the dark road to the next town, he was seen by soldiers who ordered him to come with them. Knowing they would torture him to find out where the rest of his family was hiding, her dad began to run. The soldiers shot him dead in the street.
“My mother didn’t want to go on when she learned my father was dead, but I told her, ‘I want to live, so you must help me! You must live!”
They eventually were able to escape and though there is much more to her story, Esther says that even to this day she is compelled to recount those painful memories. “I survived, so it is important that I bear witness because so many could not.”
Lynn Selich is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of OCSocialScene.com, a website devoted to covering the philanthropic efforts by organizations throughout Orange County. She can be reached at [email protected]