International Holocaust Day is an opportunity to help preserve the stories of those persecuted during the tragic days of WWII. It’s also a reminder not to allow such dreadful acts to take place ever again.
Holocaust survivor and Chapel Hill resident Esther Gutman Lederman shared her story at a Downtown Rotary Club event at STARS Theater on Jan. 22, five days before the international day of remembrance.
In an interview-style setting, Lederman, 88, talked about the early days of WWII. She was just 15 years old in Lodz, Poland, the second largest city in the country, when the Germans invaded her homeland. Of the 600,000 Lodz residents, half were Jewish, including the Gutman family.
Her mother had a dress shop and her father worked in a hardware store. Esther and her sister, Halina, attended a Jewish secular day school and were much like children today, reading, ice skating and putting off schoolwork as much as possible.
“My school was great,” Lederman said. “I had a wonderful childhood up to 1939.”
When the invasion first occurred, the Gutman family didn’t feel any initial effects. Lederman said she never imagined her family would be touched by it.
“It was there,” Lederman said. “It couldn’t happen here.
“Things weren’t that bad. We had no idea what was coming.”
Soon there were food shortages. Radios and foreign currency were confiscated. There was constant humiliation of Jews by other Polanders. Even Lederman’s father, Israel, was demeaned in the middle of a street by a former friend.
Just as Jewish families were being forced into the ghetto, the Gutman family moved to Chmielnik with Israel’s brother. Lederman’s mother, Rose, was not happy about the decision to move.
“She was blind,” Lederman said of her mother. “She didn’t see what was going on.”
Of the nearly 300,000 Jews forced to live in the two square miles of the Lodz ghetto, 99 percent were later exterminated.
After moving to Chmielnik, it was tight but not unbearable. Lederman and Halina lived in the kitchen of their uncle’s home.
The family knew they had to move forward, despite the new town, lack of jobs available and no way to make money.
“We had to make a life for ourselves,” Lederman said.
A third family moved into the home with the Gutmans eventually. That’s when families really began to notice the congestion and ghetto-like living. There were no hospitals in Chmielnik and no state schools for Jewish children.
Lederman’s mother still made dresses; she was paid in sugar, eggs and other goods.
“We were looking out for each other,” she said. “We found friends.”
The people learned to rely on each other. Former teachers would meet with five or six children in homes to help educate them. That experience proved to be important to many children.
“You want to study. You want to learn,” Lederman said. “You want to hope for the future.”
By 1941, there were labor camps and men would be sent away and then come back.
Men, including Lederman’s husband, Ezjel, shoveled snow at the direction of Nazis. While some were harsh, Ezjel saw compassion in one. He told the men to try to get warm and when he saw someone coming he would have them start shoveling again.
“Even among the evil,” Lederman said, “you find someone with a heart.”
Although everyone had identity papers – they were as common as drivers’ licenses – Lederman was encouraged to buy fake papers, saying she was Catholic, in case anything bad should happen.
Lederman’s father was sent to a labor camp for two years. While he was gone, Lederman looked for refuge as a governess with the help of her falsified papers. The fake identity papers were taken away from her by an official just a few days of moving in with a family. So, Lederman thanked the family and left.
She found refuge with the Zal family. They were already harboring the Lederman family – the family she would eventually marry into. After much struggle, the Ledermans took Esther as their ward.
“They were afraid to let me go. They couldn’t take me in,” she said.
The Ledermans and Esther were hidden in an attic for 22 months. During that time, they listened to BBC news from the underground and followed along on a map.
“We traced every step of the armies,” she said.
On Oct. 6, 1942, Esther listened as a radio program said Nazis forced everyone in her former town into prison camps – including Esther’s mother and sister. The two were lost in Treblinka.
“My mother never came back,” she said. “My sister never came back.”
Eventually, the Ledermans were liberated by the Russians and Esther traveled back to Lodz in search of her family. She was reunited with her father there.
Esther married Ezjel Lederman in 1946. The couple had four children. In everything they had been through, there was a silver lining.
“We had a wonderful life,” Esther said.
Still, it is her mission to keep the Gutman and Lederman families’ stories alive. Esther has done that through her book, “Hiding for Our Lives,” and speaking engagements.
Sharon Halperin started the Chapel Hill-Durham Holocaust Speakers Bureau two years ago with Deborah Long. The bureau now brings 13 speakers to surrounding areas to share their stories. Lederman is one of the most requested speakers because of her Anne Frank-like experience.
Lederman has had 50 speaking engagements in the last year and a half.
“She’s probably spoken to thousands of children in rural areas and urban areas,” Halperin said.
The speaker bureau is near and dear to Halperin’s heart. Her own parents were Holocaust survivors; her father coming from Germany and her mother coming from Poland. The two were on the run from Nazis and met in Russia. They lived at a displaced persons’ camp and later immigrated to the United States in 1947.
While some may say the Holocaust never took place, Lederman has a great response.
“I cannot tell anything to anybody who doesn’t want to listen,” she said. “This is history and this history is alive.”
Contact Kelly Griffith at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-552-5675.