Esther Spagat (née Edzia Zoltowska) was born in Lodz, Poland, in 1927. Soon after the German occupation of Poland, Esther and her family were confined in the Lodz ghetto.
In 1942, Esther’s father and two brothers were deported from the ghetto. Esther and her mother worked in a factory until the ghetto was liquidated in the summer of 1944. They were deported to Auschwitz, and two weeks later, to the Stutthof concentration camp, where they were tasked with roadwork. In the fall of 1944, Esther and her mother were transported to the subcamp of Seerappen (now Lyublino, Russia) along with other female forced labourers. In late January 1945, the camp was evacuated, and they were forced on a death march. Esther’s mother was killed, along with most of the women from their camp, during a massacre at Palmnicken (now Yantarny, Russia). After the war, Esther returned to Lodz and soon met and married her husband, Morris. In early 1946, they left Poland and went to Germany, where they lived in the Lampertheim displaced persons camp until they went to Brussels, Belgium, to live with family. In 1951, they immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto, where they raised their two sons and Esther worked in the clothing business. Esther Spagat passed away in 2016.
The school I had attended was closed to Jews in 1939, and there was no school in the ghetto for me; our lessons with the rabbi also stopped. I loved school. I’d had only five years of school, and I missed it. My education was over before it had really started, and I was never able to go back to school again. The feeling of being uneducated has haunted me my whole life.
Once the Germans closed the ghetto, supplies became scarce. Before, when we could go outside the ghetto, we managed, but after the ghetto closed, it became more difficult. Everyone wanted to work at the grocery store because it made it easier to get food. If you didn’t have connections and pull, you starved and died. Life was misery for a lot of people in the ghetto; they didn’t have food, water, heat. For those who had money or jewellery to exchange, it was not as hard. As long as we were together as a family it wasn’t too bad, but my father’s parents were elderly by this time, and the strain of ghetto life was particularly hard on them.
After the war started, my father was no longer able to travel to other towns and cities, so he was unable to keep his cattle business going, but he likely had some money accumulated that we could live on. When the ghetto was closed, he worked as a supervisor in a vegetable supply business. My older brother worked in the big market, moving potatoes. My father also had many friends who helped us.
We weren’t cold. I remember getting wood to heat the big heavy stove. We had candles that we lit for Shabbat, but in time, we stopped lighting them because we needed to save them to use for light. We had plenty of water and food somehow, but many others died from lack of food, or from cold or from lack of will to live. There were people who would come to collect the dead and bury them in the Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish police patrolled the ghetto. German soldiers were stationed around the fences. Occasionally, we would hear about people trying to escape. We went about our daily lives as best we could, but it was clear that my parents were concerned. We no longer had a radio, so we had little news from outside the ghetto. My dad had dug a hole in the yard where we lived, bundled the radio in a thick blanket with rope around it and buried it. He didn’t want the Germans to have it. I never went back, after the war, to see if the radio was still there. It was not important to me then, but now I wish I had it. Word about what was going on in the war would circulate in the ghetto, but no one really knew. As young people, we weren’t interested in the war.
The ghetto was like a well-organized city, with police and fire departments. Religious services were held in secret. It wasn’t hard to find ten men to have a religious service that people could attend. We couldn’t go outside after sunset; we had to cover our windows with blankets to prevent the light from coming through. There was rationing of food and coal. In the ghetto, life was misery and people just wanted to survive; some would put a knife in your back in order to survive. It was all about destruction.
As soon as the war started, German soldiers started arresting and picking up people in the streets to send them to labour camps. Often, I would realize that I hadn’t seen a neighbour in a while and wonder what had happened. I would ask around and someone would tell me that the person had been picked up and taken away. This happened all the time.
The Jewish police rode around in trucks with the Germans and grabbed people off the streets, putting them in the truck and deporting them to Auschwitz. They issued orders for people not to leave their homes for twenty-four hours or so, and then they would go through the ghetto in sections, taking people and deporting them.
I watched the Jewish police pick people up off the streets, at work or at home. Day and night, the trucks, filled with people, went to the train station. There was always a German soldier in the truck along with the Jewish police. We didn’t try to hide, we just stayed away. In the fall of 1942, my father got the notice that elderly people and young children should go to the train station. Thousands of people followed their instructions, and hundreds did not. My father took my grandmother and his youngest son to the train station. No one knew what was going to happen, but even so, after that my father could not forgive himself for what he had done; he was a completely changed man. My mother was also destroyed by this, but neither of them spoke of it.
Later that same year, my paternal grandfather died in his sleep; he died on Shabbat HaGadol, the Sabbath before Passover. He was not ill; he probably died because of his age and lack of nutrition. I think my father sat shiva — he didn’t shave for a week.
My father and my older brother were taken from our house on December 31, 1942. The Jewish police came and told them that they were going to the station and that they should get dressed. They had no choice. My mother and I didn’t go with them. We didn’t say goodbye. We figured they would come back just as my father had before. As he left, my father looked very sad. To the day I die, I will miss my father. I think of him often and see myself on his lap and feel his beard scratching my cheek.
The shootings are always an echo in my mind. I dream about the last minutes of life for so many — the Germans yelling and firing their guns into the sky to create confusion, the shooting. My world was falling apart.
My mother and I were always together in the same barracks, in the same bunk, and we were able to comfort each other. We talked about my brothers and my father — she would say, “I hope they are warm; I hope they aren’t working too hard; I hope they will come back.” We talked about food; we remembered a time in Lodz when I had come home from school and said I was hungry; my mother was making pasta at the time and cutting it so fast, like a machine. She said that we would be eating in about half an hour, but I said I couldn’t wait. She told me to get some bread and butter, to which I said, “Dry bread and butter I’m going to eat?!” We thought about how much we would appreciate having dry bread and butter now. We imagined what foods we would enjoy.
Where I was or where I was going never registered — it was like my mind was dead. I merely existed; I wasn’t functioning the way a human being does. Maybe it was because I was with my mother, and I knew she was aware of what was going on. But then my mother started to become exhausted — mentally, physically and emotionally. I could see from the expression on her face that she was not herself, and she was only forty-three. I could see the life slipping away from her.
We were in Stutthof about a month before we were taken to Seerappen in cattle cars. The trip took a day or two. Seerappen had been a men’s camp before we arrived. I knew this because I saw men’s names carved in a desk. Once there, we worked in a metal factory, making holes in metal sheets with a pen and mallet. There were marks on the metal where we were to make the holes. After we made the holes, the metal sheets were placed in a box. I don’t know what they were used for.
My mother was still with me, she was always with me. I was the only one in our camp who had her mother, but nobody knew that we were mother and daughter. I never called her “Mom” because we were afraid that if the guards realized we were mother and daughter they would separate us — or worse. It felt so strange to call her by her first name, and many times, I just couldn’t do it. Most likely the others thought we were sisters because we looked so much alike.
The barracks were the same as everywhere else; they were rough and smelly, but we didn’t pay too much attention. We didn’t even have the will to survive. I wasn’t thinking of survival; I was just going on, never looking up or at anyone, just shying away as if to say, “leave me alone.” We had no communication with the outside world.
We stayed in Seerappen for a couple of months before it was evacuated and we started our long march. We marched hundreds of kilometres in freezing temperatures. The march was very disorganized. We stopped overnight in different camps along the way to wherever it was that we were going. Thousands of women were crammed in together, and there was no space to lie down. It was cold, so we huddled together to try to stay warm. We talked about everything and nothing. My mother spoke Polish, Russian and German. A lot of the women were from Poland — Lodz, in fact — and some were from Romania and Hungary. The Romanians and Hungarians didn’t speak Yiddish, so we couldn’t communicate with them; they stayed together to speak in their own language. Every now and then we could understand a word … “piece of potato, piece of bread.”
It was very cold, and I was lucky to find an overcoat at a camp where we stopped overnight. It wasn’t much of a coat because the guards at the camps would rip open the linings and seams of clothing to look for hidden money or jewels. Somehow, while we were marching, I lost my shoes. My mom had newspapers on her chest to keep her warm, and when we stopped at a barn, she bundled my feet with straw and the papers over my socks. As I walked in the newspaper on snow, the papers became frozen and my feet got frostbitten; it was very painful. Day by day, I lost most of my toes from the frostbite; I would take off the black pieces from my feet and throw them away without really realizing that I would ever miss them. My feet never recovered from the damage.
I didn’t know where we were. It was January, so it had gotten dark early, and as usual, we were marching on a road in rows of five. In our row of five there was Dola Feldman, who was from Lodz, Esther Tusinka and her sister, who were from a small town, and my mother and me. Whoever was out of line or stumbled was shot on the spot by the Germans. I could see that my mother was not doing well. She was very weak, and I tried to encourage her. I had a frozen piece of bread in my pocket, and I took crumbs and put them in my mouth to warm and soften them. I then gave them to my mother, feeding her like a baby bird. She was chewing and chewing on these crumbs of bread. In the distance I saw a building with a light. I thought it was a barn, and I said to my mother, “Look over there. See, there’s a light. Maybe we will walk over there, and it will be nice and warm and we can rest.” I whispered to her to try to keep her going. We walked for days until we came to a shoreline.
All of a sudden, the Germans started shooting into the air, and then they started shooting at all of us. People were falling into the icy water and falling on each other. I don’t remember everything that happened. I don’t know who was shot first, but I was dragged into the water and fell on top of others. I was shot near my hip but the bullet went right through me, luckily missing the bone. I must have been at the edge of the water because I didn’t drown. It was January 31, 1945. We didn’t have a calendar, but somehow I knew the date. Over a lifetime of meeting survivors, I’ve never met another person who survived this night.
After the shooting stopped and everything quieted down, I looked around. I didn’t see anything. I was numb, my brain didn’t work — I was in shock. I existed, but I did not live. I was in pain, but I didn’t know why. I saw a barn ahead, so I started to crawl toward it. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t think, Where’s my mother? What’s going on? I just crawled to that barn. Why didn’t I look for her? I didn’t think of saving my own life, I just automatically did it. I think about this often. I think, maybe she was alive, maybe she had died, maybe she froze to death, maybe this, maybe that. I wonder to myself, Why didn’t I look for her? But I didn’t. Maybe a guardian angel said, “You’re going to survive and build a family.”
By the time I got back to Lodz, my feet were slowly getting better. I was functioning pretty well on the outside, but I was not doing as well on the inside, as I was still hurting emotionally because of my mother. I never heard any word of what happened to my father or my brothers. To this day it still hurts. I didn’t know where to go or whom to ask — it stays in my heart. I had bad dreams then and still do today. The shootings are always an echo in my mind. I dream about the last minutes of life for so many — the Germans yelling and firing their guns into the sky to create confusion, the shooting. My world was falling apart. In my dreams I feel scared and hold myself tightly, and I sleep the same way — holding myself to protect myself. I still hear my mother’s voice, especially as the holidays approach. I see her busy, going to the market for her daily food supplies. I see myself tagging along, I see the way she was preparing for the holidays …. It was a happy time. It is very hard when the memories come out. It’s sad now that after so many years I can’t erase the thoughts. Sometimes I’m laughing and I hear her laughing. She is always with me. I still feel her arms around me, still protecting me.
I was twelve and a half years old when the war started. As I think about my wartime experiences, I am amazed at what I could cope with. It was emotionally overwhelming for me and everyone else who survived.
I have not had an easy life. I try to be a happy person; I don’t like to complain. I look at each day as a bonus. I get up in the morning and I say, “Good morning, sunshine. I’m here!” My philosophy is to be nice to people, to greet people, help them and try to give them a smile — it makes them feel good, and it makes me feel good inside.
It hurts me to see the needless suffering that continues to go on. It hurts me to see what’s going on in Yemen, to see the little children suffer. I can’t express my feelings when I see the children crying, being held in their mothers’ arms like I was, and like thousands of other survivors. I wonder, didn’t the world learn anything from the Holocaust? People had blinders on. At some point the whole world knew what was going on in Europe, but they didn’t want to see it. Many were in denial.
Morris and I never talked about the Holocaust. The children knew we were survivors. We associated with other survivors. We compared notes about where we survived but never about how we survived. We started to talk more about the Holocaust in the last twenty-five years; we started talking after Spielberg made the film Schindler’s List. Whenever we were with other survivors, the conversation turned to our war experiences. But I never talked about my experience. They knew that I was in a death march. I didn’t mind not talking about it. Our older son, Lee, would ask us questions, but we never gave him a straight answer.
One year we were at a wedding or bar mitzvah and our friends were talking about the Shoah Foundation Holocaust tapes. Two people from the Canadian Jewish Congress came and met with us, and we decided to do it. It was the first time I had really told my story. I was nervous; it was hard. After that, Lee’s wife, Beverly, encouraged me to buy a tape recorder to record my story, and more recently, my son Michael also encouraged me to tell my story. Their encouragement has been invaluable!
Through my lifetime I often didn’t understand what was going on in my own body. Sometimes, when I’d read the newspaper, all of a sudden it would come to me: Why did I do this? Why didn’t I do that? Because of my experiences in the war, I was disturbed, plain and simple. A friend who was studying to be a doctor saw what I was going through and suggested that I go to see a psychiatrist. I didn’t because in those days we thought that only really “crazy” people went to psychiatrists, and then they were placed into institutions — I didn’t want that! Now I understand that it was exactly the kind of help that I needed.
Those of us who survived the Holocaust went through hell on earth, and everyone has a story to tell. I am so glad that I can tell my story. There were many things I had not discussed, things that were on my chest that I needed to get out.