Though the family continued to live in Warsaw, in 1939 Mrs. Shlapin took her children back to Drujsk for a visit with their grandparents. Mr. Shlapin was to join the family later, but Nazi Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and Warsaw was attacked. When the situation finally settled down, Mr. Shlapin was able to join the family in Drujsk, reporting that he had to travel by foot for three weeks in order to reach them.
As part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact between Germany and the Soviet Russia, Drujsk came under Soviet rule, while Warsaw was under the Nazis. The Shlapins had to stay in Drujsk, and tried to keep life as normal as possible. Esther turned 12 years old, started going to a Soviet school on the outskirts of town, and joined a Communist youth group.
TESTIMONY: “UNDER SOVIET RULE”
“But this happiness lasted a very short time…”
In June, 1941, Esther’s daily life changed dramatically once again. First, on a personal level, her dear grandmother died from an illness. Within two days, her beloved brother, Yisrael, decided to leave Poland with a group of friends and head for the Soviet Russia, where he believed he could build a better life for himself. As Esther later realized, he left just in time, before the Nazis broke their pact with the Soviet Russia and invaded their town. Then, the lives of all the Jews in Drujsk were changed dramatically, and a reign of complete terror began.
TESTIMONY: “FEAR AND TERROR”
“And those two weeks were terrifying.”
When the Nazis entered, they started taking Jewish men out of the city on a daily basis to participate in various work projects around the area. No one knew exactly where they went or what happened to them there, but when they returned someone was always missing.
As for the women, the Germans distributed yarn and ordered them to knit socks and mend sweaters for the German army. Every Jewish family had a quota to fill, and if they did not meet the requirements, they would face severe punishment. Esther’s mother taught her how to knit and she did her best to help, always afraid that if they didn’t reach the quota, her mother would be punished.
Other rules and regulations soon followed. There was a curfew. No one dared to go out at night. Esther was home all day, since school was now closed. Esther’s father had to work all day, and came home late at night to sleep.
Then one day, after about six months, Esther was terrified to suddenly hear soldiers yelling and dogs barking on the street. She heard that the Jews were instructed to pack up their belongings and leave their homes immediately. Parents and children struggled to stay together in the confusion as everyone was forced to walk though the streets, carrying their belongings, to an unknown destination, deported from their homes.
Finally, they arrived in a place which they were told was a ghetto, in a small town near Vilna called Swienciany. All the Jews from Drujsk were shoved into a synagogue, and everyone had to sleep on the floor. It was crowded and there was not enough food. It soon became unsanitary, and there was an outbreak of typhus . Many people got sick, lying on the floor with a high fever, stomach aches, and diarrhea, and there was no medicine to help them. Whenever the Germans would enter the synagogue, the healthy Jews would surround the sick ones, hiding them and protecting them from being taken away from their families.
The children also tried to help. While they innocently passed the time playing games in the streets, they also used this opportunity to be on the lookout for the approach of German soldiers. If the Germans got close, one of the children would sneak away from the game to warn the adults. One day, after about six months of living under these conditions, German soldiers finally did arrive for a final raid on the ghetto, yelling and pushing all the Jews out of the synagogue, onto cattle cars .
On the train, Esther found herself with no food, no water, and no ventilation, but at least she was with her family. Then, the train suddenly stopped in the middle of a forest.
TESTIMONY: “WHEN THE TRAIN STOPPED”
“It was night. And we stood still.”
After the trains arrived at their final destination in the Vilna Ghetto, Esther and her family tried to set up their lives once again, with many of the same problems as before. Men were often taken for forced labor and never returned. Food was scarce, and everyone was hungry all the time.
Hoping to find a way for the family to survive in this new place, Esther’s mother decided to use their small amount of food to make pancakes and sell them on the streets. Many people were trying to sell all sorts of goods in order to make a bit of money. Sacrificing their food for this cause, Esther and her mother fried the pancakes and set up a stand, calling out to the passers-by. They hoped that the onlookers would not only be hungry, but also have compassion for the young girls. But while Esther, her sister, and their mother stood out in the streets, not a single person stopped to buy anything from them.
Under these conditions in the Vilna Ghetto, Esther was devastated to see her grandfather die. It was a confusing and difficult time.