Esther’s Story

Esther and her family survived in the Vilna Ghetto until the deportations to labor camps in Estonia began.

When they arrived at the labor camps in Estonia, it was the dead of winter. No one had the appropriate clothes or shoes. Most people were wearing rags, which could not protect them from the freezing temperatures. Esther and her mother were put in the women’s barracks and her father was sent to the men’s camp. Esther’s little sister, Miriam, was put in a children’s barracks , which was strictly guarded. The conditions for all the prisoners were sparse. There was no heat in the barracks . Every day they had to stand in a long line to get a small amount of food. Even more difficult than the hunger were the roll calls, during which the prisoners had to stand outside for hours. The Germans would punish anyone who did not obey their orders, and would even beat and abuse prisoners for no reason at all.

“They would check the lists twice a day.”
—Esther Shlapin

After roll call, the men and women were sent to different places to do hard labor. Pretending to be 19 years old, Esther joined her mother and the women workers, who were sent to a quarry and forced to crush rocks and move the remains into empty train wagons. Every prisoner had a certain number of wagons to fill, and the work was very difficult.

When Esther returned to the barracks at the end of each day, she always prayed that she would find her younger sister, Miriam, still alive. At night, she would watch through cracks in the walls of her barracks , hoping to catch sight of her younger sibling and figure out what was going on.

One day, Esther saw the children being loaded onto trucks and driven out of the camp. The children’s screaming was unbearable, but no one dared to move. Later, they discovered that the children were taken to another camp, near where the men were sent to work.

Slave laborers in a stone quarry at the concentration camp, Mauthausen, in Austria.
Slave laborers in a stone quarry at the concentration camp, Mauthausen, in Austria.

One of the men managed to bring a note back from Miriam. Someone older must have written down the words for her, since Miriam was only six years old and didn’t know how to read or write. Esther and her mother read the note, which said: “Mother, don’t worry, I am taking a shower and washing my hair. I am healthy, Mother.” That was the last time Esther heard anything from her sister.

Esther and her parents continued to be moved from camp to camp in Estonia, forced to perform hard labor under terrible circumstances. Esther’s mother soon became ill and pale, and had to sit and rest at work. Esther started completing not only her own quota of labor, but her mother’s as well. Still, her mother’s condition got worse, and one of the Estonian guards started yelling at them. When the guard got closer, however, he secretly told Esther that he would take her mother to the guards’ bonfire where she could keep warm. The kind guard reassured Esther that her mother would not be taken away. His plan was to place Mrs. Shlapin in charge of taking care of the bonfire.

Slowly, Esther’s mother seemed to gain some strength, but every time they stood in the yard for roll call Esther worried that her parents would be taken away in a selection .

TESTIMONY: “selection
“No, you’re young, you can still work.”
—Esther Shlapin

After the selection and the loss of both her father and mother, Esther understood that she was now totally alone.