Once your mother died, how did you survive alone?
Very wonderful people by the name of Birnbaum took care of me.
Did you have surviving relatives?
I had one surviving brother. He became bar-mitzvah in Bergen Belsen. It’s interesting to note that there was a very small sefer Torah in Bergen Belsen that someone had secretly brought and that he was able to use. His bar-mitzvah present from my parents was their slice of bread for the day. After the war he settled in Eretz Yisrael and built a beautiful family. He later died of a heart attack during a false alarm in the Gulf War. We also were fortunate to have surviving relatives, then living in New York and England.
Can you tell us about liberation?
On April 6, right before the war was over, the Germans were at a loss what to do with us. We were put on a train headed to Theresienstadt, where we heard they had gas chambers waiting for us. It was toward the end of the war, and the Nazis and their train went back and forth, trying to evade the Allies. We were on the train for two weeks when it suddenly stopped, on April 23, in the German town of Trobitz, where we were liberated by the Russian army. Here a makeshift hospital was built. We were quarantined in Trobitz for two months because of the rampant typhus. In fact, my oldest brother was niftar (26 Iyar) from typhus — after liberation; liberation came too late for him. After two months, my surviving brother and I stayed for a year with relatives in Amsterdam, after which we came to America to make our permanent home with an uncle, an aunt and cousins in New York.
You mentioned that you have a siddur that belonged to your eldest brother; can you tell us the story behind its return to your family?
Two years ago I received a phone call from a man living in Holland. When I answered the call, he verified with me that I was Esther Wenger, née Holstein, and that I had lived in Holland during the war. He then went on to explain that his wife and her family were in the same places that I had been during the war, and when he and his wife were going through his deceased mother-in-law’s belongings, they uncovered a small prayer book. Inscribed in the cover was a congratulatory note on the occasion of the bar mitzvah of my oldest brother, whose celebration took place prior to our deportation. It was signed “from your grandmother.”
How this siddur came into the hands of this woman, neither I, nor they, will ever know or be able to figure out; however, they went through all the trouble to do the research and locate and find my whereabouts with the help of the Westerbork Camp Museum in Holland, which I had visited in 1995 for the 50th anniversary of our liberation. They had my name and address listed. The museum would have liked to keep the siddur, but these people felt that if they could find a living relative, they would like to give it back to them. Pictures of the siddur are exhibited in the museum. When I received the siddur, I was surprised that not only was there a message from my grandmother, but also congratulations from my mother, whose handwriting I recognized from letters relatives had given me. My mother had written the date of our arrival in Westerbork and our barrack number. She also inscribed the date that we arrived in Bergen Belsen and my brother’s barrack number. I am so grateful to them for having returned this siddur to my family after 67 years. A real hashavas aveidah.
What message can you impart to today’s generation?
We should know that everything is in Hashem’s hands and for the good. We have to be grateful for what we have and never question the reason behind Hashem’s actions. Although my parents did not survive the war, they left behind a beautiful legacy of 10 grandchildren and many great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.