For the first 15 years and 364 days of her life, Esther Basch experienced the joy of being a rural kid in Eastern Europe. The only child of a rabbi and his wife, Esther grew up sheltered by her parents and grandparents on a farm in the Carpathian Mountains, which then was in Hungary and now is in Ukraine. The girl was quite the tomboy, racing her friends to climb trees and collect fruit.
All that changed on May 28, 1944. “She got off the train in Auschwitz on her 16th birthday, was separated from her parents, and never saw them again,” said Esther’s daughter, Rachel Turet, referring to Nazi Germany’s brutal actions during World War II.
Rabbi Mendy Deitsch said Chabad of the East Valley is fortunate to host Esther, because her message of hope and positivity and her understanding of the resilience that humans possess is important to share, especially with young people. “We are humbled by the opportunity to host Esther because she is a symbol that, regardless of what a person goes through in life, what kind of traumas they have to experience, we, as human beings, can find the inner strength to grow and be productive, contributing members of society,” Deitsch said.
Esther is among a dwindling number of survivors of the Holocaust which, as defined by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of 6 million European Jews by the Nazi German regime and its allies and collaborators between 1933 and 1945.
In 1944-46, she was imprisoned for nearly a year, including almost four months at Auschwitz, Nazi Germany’s largest concentration and extermination camp in southern Poland. There, Esther was starved, slept in shabby, crowded barracks, and stripped of all dignity. She spent most of that year in a slave labor camp at a munitions factory, Turet said.
In April 1945, toward the end of the war, she was led on a Death March with other women to the Salzwedel concentration camp in Germany. “American military was approaching, so the Nazis were retreating and closing down,” Turet said. “The Death March took a couple of weeks and many died en route. When they got there, they were locked in, without food or water for the two weeks before they were liberated.”
Esther was able to reclaim her life, and eventually married, had four children, two of whom still survive, and she also has eight grandchildren. In 2007, she met Max Lieber, one of the American soldiers who liberated her camp. These days, she travels the country to share her story in a poignant way that moves and motivates others. Esther is the subject of a future documentary, “The Honey Girl,” which will enable her to share her message globally. Turet said her mother plans to speak out “until her dying breath,” because when “history is forgotten, it makes way for it to repeat itself.”What cannot be forgotten, Deitsch said, is that, although there will always be evil in this world, “We can overcome it with goodness and kindness, and bring light even into the darkest of times.“
There are many more heroic, caring, liberating people in this world, and we hope that each and every person who attends (Esther’s program) will be empowered to live a life of understanding the responsibility and unique gifts they were given to make this world, a better, more inhabitable, tolerable world,” he said. Esther’s story is especially important to learn today, Deitsch said, when many people tend to give up or run from challenges in their lives. “Her story shows us what we can become, even though there are some who may hate, who may be bigoted or spiteful,” Deitsch said. “We cannot let the evil people in this world control the conversation.
By Janie Magruder