Esther Brunstein is a Holocaust survivor and anti-fascist campaigner. Born and raised in a family of Jewish socialists in Poland, she survived the Lodz ghetto and the Auschwitz extermination camp.
In her later life she has fought to keep that memory alive in support of the fight against fascists today.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, Esther talked to John Rose and Jan Ladzinski about her earliest memories
Esther grew up in the newly reconstructed Polish state after the First World War. Her father was a prominent member of the Bund—a well-established movement of Jewish socialists with strong links to the Polish Socialist Party.
But nationalist and often antisemitic groups and parties were on the rise too.
“As a child I was afraid to walk to school alone,” says Esther. “Even children of my own age would say, ‘scabby Jew, go back to Palestine.’
“I had many friends, and their families suffered so much because of being Jewish that their children would try to assimilate completely.”
But Esther’s Bundist family refused to take it lying down.
“My parents were not like that. They said that nothing could be done this way—you needed to fight.”
Her school, her house and her family were all strongly focused on politics.
The Bund was engaged in building a strong Jewish identity based on Yiddish language and culture, although not at the price of cultural isolation from the rest of the population.
Esther still remembers numerous pieces of Polish poetry and prose, which she quoted several times in our conversation. She identifies herself with both Jewish and Polish cultures.
And the Bund embraced the struggle of the Polish working class, even though some workers were antisemitic.
On various occasions Bundists were able to build a true unity between the Polish and Jewish workers. Like during the Cracow strikes of 1936.
But after the Nazi invasion, Polish Jews were rounded up into ghettoes.
They faced horrific living conditions and brutal repression—even before large parts of the population were deported to concentration camps.
“If we only knew what was about to happen when the war began, we would have escaped to the USSR. But they said that this would be a Blitzkrieg—a short war. We didn’t know it would last six years.”
Esther still remembers her life in the ghetto. “At first there was still formal schooling. Then everyone was too hungry, and the deportations started.
“Despite this there were study groups, and I was in of those, a group of five. More than five was dangerous. We would meet in a room. We treated it very seriously. And a teacher would come.”
“In the beginning we would get soup in the school. Even if someone did not want to learn, he would come to have some extra soup. Something terrible. Someone who hasn’t been hungry—really hungry—cannot understand.”
Thousands of people died in the ghetto from starvation and disease. The Nazis deported many thousands more to the extermination camps.
“The SS men came into the ghetto. They wanted a set number of people—and all of the elderly, sick and children. We heard the Germans coming into our houses.
“Then they would pull out everyone who was there. I was hiding in the attic with my mother.
“We heard the opening doors. They knocked them down really. We heard them shouting, ‘Alle Juden raus!’—‘get all the Jews out!’ while they were taking people away.
“And from there to Auschwitz, my god. It stayed in my memory. We know that many Poles died too, but there is no comparison to what the Jews lived through.”
Almost all the Jews in the ghetto were ultimately taken out to die this way. Apart from Esther only her brother Peretz survived among her family and closest relatives.
But there was resistance up until the end, from inside and outside the ghetto.
“There were people who risked their lives by keeping radios. It was punishable by death, but we heard the news. We heard about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising,”
Esther herself has remained loyal to the ideas of social equality and political engagement.
Until this day, she can quote a passage from Stefan Zeromski’s book The Coming Spring, describing a great utopia of affordable, healthy and egalitarian housing.
”The reforms will create houses of glass and distribute them across the broad open spaces, the fallow ground, and the fields and woods of the former latifundia,” it says.
Esther’s family and their comrades in the Bund never lived to see that vision of unity and peaceful coexistence come to fruition.
But thanks to the work of people like Esther, their struggles live on today.