I was so sad to hear that a very wonderful person, Esther Brunstein, a Holocaust survivor, who was a living link with the long history of secular Yiddish culture and Jewish socialism, died on Tuesday afternoon this week. We had heard the night before that she was in hospital very ill, and made plans to visit her the following evening knowing that we were most likely saying goodbye. We never got that chance to say goodbye.
Esther grew up in Lodz, Poland, in a Bundist (Jewish Socialist) family of textile workers. She went to a very progressive secular Yiddish school run by the Bund – the Medem Shule – named after a prominent Bundist ideologue. But her education was cut short at 11 when the Nazis overran Poland. She spent four years in the Lodz ghetto and then survived Auschwitz and Belsen. I got to know her well in the 1980s, and went to 1:1 Yiddish classes at her house. She loved Yiddish literature and poetry, and also acted in the Yiddish theatre in London. Her husband, Staciek, used to paint backdrops for the Yiddish theatre (where they met) and his poignant paintings of Jewish life in interwar-Poland were the backdrop on the walls of their house as we pored over Yiddish stories and poems.
I remember her telling me that soon after she first arrived in Britain she wanted to talk about her experiences but people didn’t want to listen, and then after a while and when she got married and had young children she found it impossible to speak about it, but carried it all the time. And it haunted her. She told me once that she had never slept right through the night since her time in the death camps. The nightmares were ever-present. And meanwhile, she said, people like David Irving were freely going round denying it had ever happened.
But she found her voice again about these traumatic experiences, in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I had introduced her to some anti-fascist comrades who were interested in Polish Jewish history of the 1930s and resistance during the Holocaust, and they coaxed her to speak at Anti-Nazi League events. She was a wonderful speaker who told her own story so movingly, and drew lessons for humanity, about the need to oppose all forms of racism, support minorities and fight for a more humane world. After a while she was speaking at so many events around the country, especially to school students. And she could empathise with them, I believe, especially because of her own very happy memories of her school and what that meant to her throughout her life.
In her later years she struggled physically but still tried to get to events that were important to her. In 2013 we were so pleased to see her arrive at the event marking the 70th anniversary of the of Szmul “Artur” Zygielbojm’s suicide as political protest. A prominent trade union leader, socialist and anti-fascist activist, Zygielbojm represented the Bund on the Polish Parliament in Exile in London. Esther spoke of her warm memories of Zygielbojm when she was a child. She was often at his home playing games with his children. As she spoke I remembered also the day in 1996 when we put up a memorial plaque for Zygielbojm and Esther read, in her beautiful Yiddish diction, his heart-rending suicide letter.
Her long-term memory remained intact but her short-term memory was failing her towards the end of her life. This had its lighter moments. At a Holocaust memorial event at which the ‘great’ and not so good were present, she introduced herself to one of the guests: “I’m Esther Brunstein, an Auschwitz survivor. I recognise your face and I’ve seen you on television.” He replied, “I’m David Cameron…” and Esther recoiled: “Oh, I didn’t vote for you!”
By a strange coincidence, on the same day on which I heard how gravely ill Esther was, I had been scanning a picture a few hours earlier for other purposes, of a group of Bundists, several of them Holocaust survivors, in London. I believe it was taken in the late 1940s or early 1950s. Esther is in the middle at the front. The values instilled in her through the Bund were the values she lived by every day of her life. I remember her telling me about her involvement with the Bund’s children’s organisation – SKIF – and her pride when she and other comrades “graduated” into the Bund’s youth group Tsukunft (Future), but by then they were incarcerated in the ghetto and the future could barely be imagined.
in 1987 I encouraged her to write a piece for Jewish Socialist magazine about her childhood memories. Here are some short extracts from it:
“There was a great feeling of belonging… we really felt we were being taken care of as little people. As people we mattered… Nothing was compulsory. The school was run on free and democratic lines… Boys and girls did everything together. We were one of the few co-educational schools at the time. There was a great sense of equality…
“At the Medem Shule we had no such thing as a religious assembly. The other schools did but it was not forced upon us. We had a hymn for the school: Lomir zingen a lid tsu der yidisher shule, vos iz alemen undz azoy tayer. Lomir zingen mit freyd un mit hofnung ful, oyf a velt a fraye a naye. (Let us sing a song to the Yiddish school, which is dear to us all. Let us sing full of hope and joy for a new and free world)…
During the school holidays our teacher organised activities at the school. Many children lived in difficult conditions so they organised outings and projects…What this school has given me …was a very strong feeling of what was right and what was just. We somehow managed to carry it within us. And… It helped me in the ghetto in the darkest hours of the war. I always retained this feeling and belief in my fellow human being. I still carry it within me.”
Koved ir ondenk (Honour her memory).