In 1944, at age 16, Esther was sent from Estonia back to Poland, to a concentration camp called Stutthof. There, she and the other women were forced to have their heads shaved, were showered and disinfected from lice , and were then instructed to rummage through a mound of old clothes and rags in order to find something with which to cover their bodies.
Then, they were all forced into the barracks , where countless women were cramped together to sleep on rows of wooden beds. Inside, it was tremendously crowded. When they were called outside, however, no one was sent to do any work at this camp. Instead, they were forced to stand outside for what seemed like hours, waiting for everyone to be counted.
TESTIMONY: “COLLECTIVE PUNISHMENT”
“I jumped through the window…”
Esther spent 11 months in this camp. At the beginning, Esther tried hard to maintain some sense of her own humanity. She joined together with a few other girls, and they shared the weak coffee they were given not only to nourish themselves in order to survive, but also to use the liquid in washing their bodies. As the time went by, however, many people changed for the worse. People lost their sense of humanity and became cruel in order to survive. One time, Esther’s daily ration of bread was snatched away by a fellow inmate, leaving her with nothing to eat. Esther tried to make new friends so that she would have some help and protection, but her efforts became more and more futile. Every day, additional people were missing or dead.
Then, one day during roll call, the women were ordered to start marching. Esther and hundreds of women passed through the camp gate and onto the roads, under guard. It was the winter of 1945, and the Nazis were fleeing back to Germany with their prisoners. They called this movement a Death March because they did not expect to return with any live witnesses of their atrocities. They expected the women to die along their route. As they walked, the women could hear explosions in the far distance and knew that the fighting was getting closer.
Out of the large group that left Stuffhof, only some of the women survived to cross the German border. When the group crossed the border, they all stopped in a small village and the women were held captive in a pig sty for six weeks. Then, one evening, the German soldiers ordered the women to start their march once again. With great effort, Esther tried to climb out of the pig sty. She found it difficult to move and get up, let alone walk. Then, just as she finally managed to make her feet move and start up the sloped path to the road, a German soldier ruthlessly kicked her back into the pig sty once again. As the other women and the soldiers continued on the Death March , Esther and a very small group of weak women were left behind to die.
Then, one night, Esther saw some soldiers approach.
TESTIMONY: “liberation ”
“I told them that I don’t want to go.”
The Soviet soldiers took the women to the homes of the local Germans. They demanded that the local population take care of the women properly and help them recover. Esther was finally in a real house again with walls, a stove, furniture, and a table, but she was very weak and could not even move. She had to be fed, clothed, and cared for daily. Esther spent the next three months in this house, never going outside. During this time, she grew stronger and gained weight, but did not talk very much. Though the war was over, it would take a long time for Esther to begin to recover from all she had experienced.