Esther Brunstein died this January. She was a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz, the slave labour camp Lager III Waldeslust, and Belsen. In 1939 when the German army entered Lodz Esther was 11 years old. Her father, well-known in the city as a political activist, escaped. Esther never found out what happened to the father she adored. Her elder brother David, a journalist for a Leftist paper fled too but was caught and shot, aged 20. Her other brother Peretz was set to work in the textile factories.
The deal Rumkowski, the head of the Judenrat (Jewish Council) made, was to keep the factories working for the Germans with Jewish slave labour. Peretz, Esther and her mother survived the terrible privations of the Lodz ghetto. Their mother, looking much older than her 42 years, narrowly escaping the deportation in 1942, when everyone below 10 and over 60 were taken. In 1944, there was no escape, the ghetto was liquidated and the remaining thousands were herded into cattle trucks bound for Auschwitz. Those who survived the journey were immediately ‘sorted’. Here, Esther was selected for ‘life’. Her mother was led to the gas chambers. ‘Life’ meant being sent to a labour camp. It was freezing cold. Esther was ‘lucky enough’ to get a job in the kitchens and remembered managing to get, perhaps life-saving, potato peelings from the trash.
She often told the story of a woman who, under conditions of crippling hunger, continued to share her pathetic rations to help her friend’s daughter, weaker than herself at the time. In February 1945 the Nazis abandoned the camp and force marched the inmates to Bergen-Belsen. Esther was lying unconscious with typhus when in April, the camp was liberated. She was sent to Sweden to recuperate. She remembered the day she looked in the mirror and finally felt the face there belonged to a normal-looking teenager. Of course life would never be normal for her. But after two years waiting for a special permit to work in the UK, then as now it was very hard for a refugee to get in; she arrived in the UK in 1947.
She settled into London’s East End. Very active in the Yiddish theatre, there she met set-designer, artist, and tailor Stanisav Brunstein. They married and had two children. They worked. No one wanted to hear their stories. But in the late 1980s and early 1990s when fascist parties raised their heads again, Esther was encouraged to speak. Despite the personal cost Esther told her story at meetings, mainly organised by the Anti Nazi League, at schools, colleges, towns and workplaces up and down the country.
She was outside the BNP headquarters at Welling in 1993. I heard her first at a teachers’ union meeting. She was a powerful speaker telling her own painful story and drawing out the lessons for opposing racism and fascism. She remained very proud of the part she played in the movement. Esther addressed the UN in 1998 at the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights, spoke at the opening of the Holocaust wing at the IWM on 6 June 2000, and campaigned to establish Holocaust Memorial Day.
Both Esther’s father and mother were Bundists. The Bund was a socialist Jewish workers organisation which stood for political autonomy of Jewish workers, fought antisemitism and opposed Zionism. Their slogan was. ‘Mir zaynen do’, (We are here). It was the most popular Jewish party in pre-war Poland, organising strikes and taking part in elections. It was also a huge social and cultural movement. Esther went to a secular Yiddish school which she described as ‘free and democratic’.
Esther said, ’What this school has given to me…was a every strongfeeling of what was right and just… I always retained this feeling and belief in fellow human beings’ (interview with David Rosenberg in the Jewish Socialist magazine 1995).
Esther was a woman with many extraordinary qualities, a brilliant linguist, speaker and activist. She was also a warm and wonderful human being. She always said that it was her family, school and her fellow Bundists whose protection gave her a wonderful childhood, who gave her the values and strength to survive the horror with her humanity intact. As her daughter Denise said at her funeral, ‘Her most extraordinary achievement was that she was an ordinary mum’. Esther’s humanity and hope, which characterised her important contribution to the fight against racism and fascism, will always be remembered and valued.
by Miriam Scharf
See Esther (and Leon Greenman) speak here, http://uaf.org.uk/2012/01/video-two-holocaust-survivors-speak-out/