Please tell me where you were born.
I, Esther Wenger née Holstein, was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1938.
What memories can you share with us about your family?
I was the youngest of four children; I had three older brothers. My father came from a family of 13 children, of which there were only two survivors. My father was a well-known pediatrician. My mother was one of five children, of whom only three survived the war. My mother was a great-grandchild of the Wurtzburger Rav of Germany.
Prior to the onset of war in your town, did your parents try to escape?
In 1935 my father had visited Eretz Yisrael and would have liked to move the family there. At the time he was on a religious kibbutz, but they weren’t able to take families with more than two children. My father tried other options, too; as a matter of fact, our furniture was already on the ship when the docks were closed and our escape to Eretz Yisrael was no longer an option. In addition, my paternal grandmother was aging, and my father would not leave her behind.
In 1938, right after Kristallnacht, my father was taken away to Dachau. However, in the early years of Dachau, if you could prove that a country was willing to take you in they were still letting people out of the camps. I have in my possession letters and telegrams that my parents had written to cousins in Denmark and Palestine requesting help to escape.
My father had a younger sister living in Holland in the town of Utrecht. We had an opportunity to join them. My mother was considering sending just my three brothers, the eldest of whom was 11 years old, as she was still nursing me. However, my father was soon released from Dachau and we all traveled together. My paternal grandmother in Cologne had passed away by then and we traveled to join my aunt and uncle in Utrecht, Holland.
We settled into a two-family house. My aunt and uncle and their two daughters lived in one apartment while we occupied the other. I began school with my two older cousins in Holland. I recall celebrating my fifth birthday there.
My maternal grandparents lived in Germany, too. They were taken on transports to Theresienstadt where, unfortunately, they were niftar.
How long did this semi-normal way of living last?
Things were quiet for a couple of years. In 1943 the German police arrived in Holland and the Dutch police cooperated with them. We were arrested by the Dutch police and taken to Amsterdam, and from there were transported to a transit camp named Westerbork. While in Westerbork, I remember we were assembled in a very large room. My mother tried to keep me occupied; she took a stocking and stuffed it to create a “doll.” Every Monday night lists of names were called out. Those people selected were shipped to one of four concentration camps (Auschwitz, Sobibor, Bergen Belsen or Theresienstadt). Tuesday mornings the transports would leave.
One time a special list was read for people being taken to Palestine in exchange for German prisoners in England. My father was very disappointed when our name was not called for that list. We never made it onto that list. My aunt and uncle with whom we lived in Holland were sent to Sobibor and, of course, were never heard from again. They were sent straight to the gas chambers on the first day they arrived in the camp. We were sent to Bergen Belsen.
Please tell us a little about Bergen Belsen.
Many people worked in the shoe factory in Bergen Belsen. Men and woman were separated so I scarcely saw my father and brothers. I remained with my mother. The camp was surrounded by barbed wire. Each day we stood in the freezing cold weather for appell — when they would count us. They had dogs who kept us in line; anyone who moved out of the line was shot on the spot.
The living conditions were awful. Holes in the ground were substitutes for toilets. I recall having my hair shaved twice because of the head lice; I kept myself busy all day killing the body lice. Due to the lice, many people contracted typhus and died. The bodies were piled up like mountains.
Before my father died of starvation or typhus or both, I remember being taken to see him. I don’t remember who brought me there, or the circumstances of the visit. He was obviously dying, and soon afterwards he was niftar. It was 13 Shevat. A short while later my mother died a similar death, on 6 Adar. I was left all by myself. Four days later my second-oldest brother was niftar as well, on 10 Adar.
to be continued…
These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.