A Chance Encounter with Two Women from the Lodz Ghetto

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly seventy years since the Holocaust, one of the darkest periods of human history, which took away millions of lives, including 6 million Jews. Some miraculously survived. Unfortunately, the number of Holocaust survivors left is shrinking every day, so when I have chance encounters with them, I tend to seize the moment.

A few weeks ago, I was able to bring two such survivors together from the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, Esther Geizhals, and Dr. Salomea Kape. Both live in my small town in Larchmont, New York. I met them separately, and when they learned of each other’s existence, they were keenly intrigued and eager to meet each other. They know as well as I do that it is getting harder and harder to find other survivors from this time in history.

According to the United Jewish Appeal (UJA), there are more than 500,000 survivors worldwide, including over 200,000 in Israel — but the numbers are dwindling. Data by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, at least one survivor in Israel dies every hour. The number is far greater if you look at it globally. Organizations like the American Defamation League and the Shoah Foundation at UCLA are making sure that stories get recorded and that their legacies never die.

A total of 204,000 Jews passed through the ghetto; 800 remained when the Soviets arrived, and about 10,000 survived the war in other places.

I’ve been interviewing survivors for several years as part of a project at my synagogue. My experiences talking to them have been varied. For many of them, remembering this time is extremely painful. Whether they were sent to a concentration camp or went into hiding, it was a haunting time for them. Their memories have remained etched in their minds every day of their lives and their attention to detail is astonishing. They remember virtually every detail of their horrific Holocaust experiences, all these years later.

Reconnecting with each other remains a vital part of their existence, and it’s one that they are hungry for. It gives them a chance to reflect on the better times before their lives changed forever during World War II and reminds them how lucky they are to have survived it. It also allows them to bear witness, together, about something the world must never forget.

The story of Lodz is well known. It was the second-largest ghetto established in German-occupied Poland, after Warsaw. Originally intended as a temporary gathering point for Jews, the ghetto was transformed into a major industrial center, manufacturing much-needed supplies for Nazi Germany. There were tailors, cobblers, tanners, quilt cover-makers, carpet weavers, a sausage factory, a rubber making workshop, carpentry workshops producing furniture from pieces taken from Jewish homes and a fur workshop that used garments taken from Jews. It was this productivity that helped many survive, while other ghettos in Poland were being liquidated and sent to concentration camps.

The ghetto managed to run until August 1944. Despite reverses in the war, the Germans persisted in liquidating the ghetto: they transported the remaining population to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most died, most near the end of the war. A total of 204,000 Jews passed through the ghetto; 800 remained when the Soviets arrived, and about 10,000 survived the war in other places.

It’s hard to imagine enduring the life there during the war — Jews were locked up in a tight area surrounded by barbed wire with no electricity or water. They were starving, at risk for deadly disease and lived in fear of deportation daily. In January 1942, deportations from Lodz to the Auschwitz and Chelmno death camps started. The murder of the Jews of the Lodz ghetto and the surrounding areas continued intermittently until January 1945 and more than half the population was destroyed. It was extremely difficult to survive. Some were deported, some were not. Regardless of where they ended up, the conditions they were forced to endure were inhumane.

Esther and Salomea were two women born in the same place, but with very different Holocaust experiences and memories.

Esther was born in Lodz, in 1929. At the age of 10, she and her family were moved to the Lodz ghetto where they lived under the terrible conditions described above until 1944. At that time she was transported to Auschwitz extermination camp. She remembers being corralled into a shower and having her head shaved. She later found out that her mother and brother were exterminated in one of Auschwitz’s seven gas chambers. Six weeks later she was moved again to Bergen- Belsen concentration camp and on to Rochlitze concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. In 1945, as the allies were advancing, the whole camp was made to walk for days without food or drink and just a few hours of sleep on fields. Many died and later this was known as the “death march.”

She remembers being corralled into a shower and having her head shaved. She later found out that her mother and brother were exterminated in one of Auschwitz’s seven gas chambers.

Esther and four other people escaped during the death march and worked their way to the next village where they were liberated by the Russian army. Eventually she managed to get back to her hometown of Lodz in the hope of finding any survivors of her family. She was fortunate to find her father who was the only survivor of her family and relatives. She smuggled her way from Poland to the American zone in Germany, where she lived in a displaced persons camp until 1947 at which time she came to the United States with a youth group. Esther married, had several children and has lived in New York since the age of 22. After her first husband died, she took over his effort of educating the general public about what happened to them during the Holocaust so everyone would know what happened to them. She admits that she has never stopped carrying the pain of what happened with her and still talks about it in disbelief.

Salomea was born in May 1926. In 1940 her family was imprisoned inside the Lodz ghetto along with other Jews. She attended the ghetto high school. Her mother worked as a midwife in the ghetto hospital. It was that position that saved their lives. The family stayed there during the liquidation of the ghetto and lived as normal a life as they could, though the conditions were horrible and Salomea had her own near brushes with death, living under Nazi rule. Once she skirted death during a Gestapo round-up by hiding in a closet reading All Quiet on the Western Front.

Salomea has spoken often about the horrible living conditions in the ghetto and how hard it was to survive on one bowl of soup as a child. Her mother delivered a woman’s baby while nearly bleeding to death in their final days in the ghetto and taught Salomea the importance of helping others. They lived there until liberation by Soviet forces in January 1945. Afterwards, she was able to complete her education. She graduated from medical school in 1952.

Once she skirted death during a Gestapo round-up by hiding in a closet reading “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

In 1957, Salomea and her husband Mendel left Poland. Their son was born in 1963 in Israel. Her family moved to New York in 1966 where she has lived ever since. She retired just about eight years ago from the medical field. She is extremely prolific and is writing a book about her experiences that is being published in Poland this summer. Salomea also translates work for the Museum of Jewish Heritage in NYC and has recorded testimony at the United States Holocaust Museum.

I met Esther first about a year ago, after interviewing her for an organization I am working with to collect testimonies. When I recently met Salomea by chance in a cafe in the town where I live, it wasn’t long before I learned she was from Lodz. I told her about my acquaintance, she eagerly asked for a meeting. She couldn’t believe that there was another woman from Lodz living in the same town. The funnier thing is that their two apartment buildings touch, they are so close.

When they met for the first time in Esther’s apartment, it was calm and collected, not as emotional as I had expected. Here we had two women with similar yet very different backgrounds and lives, even though they were from the same place. One had gone to the death camps and endured excruciating circumstances and fled to the U.S. right after the war, marrying young and going into business with her husband, also a survivor; the other had stayed in the ghetto until the end of the war and stayed to attend medical school there. She didn’t move to the U.S. until twenty years later with her husband and son after spending time living in Israel.

At first their differences stuck out like a sore thumb and there was some discomfort. Finally, when it sunk in that they were children from the same place, their memory wells opened up and the stories started to unravel.

Esther and Salomea remembered streets, synagogues, shops, what is was like before things changed for the worst. They talked about better days before Hitler came into power, which brought smiles to their faces, as well as the lives they came into after the war. Esther talked about the vegetable shop her parents owned before the war and Salomea talked about where she went to school. There were moments of familiarity, of remembrance.

But lurking in the back of their minds was a feeling that permeated the air throughout the meeting was the fact that Esther had suffered a great deal more than Salomea. She was sent to death camps and had endured the unimaginable. She kept shaking her head and saying, “What I went through, you can not imagine.” Salomea could not disagree. Neither could I.

There was so much sadness that passed between Esther and Salomea, but also joy. The joy of lives led despite the fact that they were both nearly killed all those years ago. There is no denying the connection made between two Holocaust survivors. It is a bond like no other.

I wish I had more to tell you about the hour I spent with these two women. The truth is that I kept my note pad in my purse and listened to the broken Polish being spoken, without asking for translations. I preferred to take in the meeting of these two women who Hitler had tried to remove from this earth so that the memory would be etched in my mind. I wanted them to know I was genuinely interested in getting them together. I didn’t want them to think I was just there for the story.

But what a story it is regardless. I will never forget what it was like being in the room with two Holocaust survivors who may have passed each other in the streets seventy years ago in the Lodz Ghetto.

Holly Rosen Fink has a career that spans the world of television and publishing, including positions at Lifetime Television, Nickelodeon/MTV and John Wiley & Sons. She now runs her own marketing consultancy, Pivoting Media, and is a freelance culture and travel writer.