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Transcending Darkness

A Girl’s Journey Out of the Holocaust

Estelle Glaser Laughlin

Publication Year: 2012

“Please, Mama, I don’t want to live like this,” pleaded twelve-year-old Estelle Glaser’s older sister as they watched the bodies of friends dangle from the gibbet in the center of Warsaw’s Apel Platz. “I cannot take the indignities and brutalities. Let’s step forward and make them kill us now.” But Estelle’s mother fiercely responded to her two daughters: No! Life is sacred. It is noble to fight to stay alive. Their mother’s indomitable will was a major factor in the trio’s survival in the face of brutal odds. But Estelle recognized other heroes in the ghetto as well, righteous individuals who stood out like beacons and kept their spirits alive. Their father was one, as were hungry teachers in dim, cold rooms who risked their lives to secretly teach imprisoned children. Estelle’s memoir, published sixty-four years after their liberation from the concentration camp, is a narrative of fear and hope and resiliency. While it is a harrowing tale of destruction and loss, it is also a story of the goodness that still exists in a dark world, of survival and renewal.

Published by: Texas Tech University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 1-8


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pp. ix-xii


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pp. xiii-xiv

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pp. xv-xvi

It is strange how the legends and songs we hear in childhood stay with us to give us hope and inspiration. My favorite myth is of the phoenix that rose from the ashes and winged its way aloft whispering, “Immortality.” Like the mythical phoenix, my mother, sister, and I rose from the ashes of the death camps to start life again. ...

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pp. xvii-xviii

My gratitude and affection go to Anna Gillis, Helen Shaw, Rima Schulkin, and friends in my writers’ circle—Sally Carson, Barbara Brill, Sara Stone, and Bob Elkins—for their insightful feedback. Thanks also to Miriam Cutler for her generous help with selecting photos and coding them electronically. ...

Chronology of Upheavals that Led to World War II

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pp. xix-xx

Part I: War

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1. Strong! United! Ready!

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pp. 1-5

The morning of September 1, 1939, was serene. Tata came into the living room in a dapper suit, a hat in his hand, kissed my mother, sister, and me, and left the house to visit his clients on Królewska Street, in the heart of Warsaw. Sometime on that day a deafening explosion shook the earth. ...

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2. Invasion

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pp. 6-9

The Wehrmacht marched into Warsaw on the first of October. The thunder of their boots against cobblestones, the clang of their rifles, arms swinging in unison as if pulled fanatically by one thread, still haunt my dreams. The day was dark with anguish. Holding Mama’s hand, I joined the dismal crowd of people standing back on sidewalks to witness our fate. ...

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3. Ghetto and Moral Resistance

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pp. 10-23

A new decree panicked the community. Even non-Jews would have to abandon their homes; churches and businesses would have to relocate. Children asked their parents, “What is a ghetto? What will happen to us?” Then we went back to our world of make-believe, with hearts too heavy, and wondered, How come insane people are allowed to make laws and run the world? ...

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4. Deportation

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pp. 24-31

The rumors threw us into a state of panic. Various versions circulated: one claimed that only some would be expelled, namely, the refugees, old people, and children. Another version was that all the Jews were to be deported from Warsaw, with no exception. People reminded each other of the fate of Jews who had disappeared from other towns. ...

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5. No Place for Children

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pp. 32-36

My fears became even more troubling once the German authorities declared all children under fourteen useless to the Nazi regime. Their order meant my immediate deportation. I was contraband, my life forbidden. Mama immediately cut off my long braids and fluffed my hair to make me look older. ...

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6. Subghettos

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pp. 37-45

Abruptly, the ghetto was sliced into three separate subghettoes at the start of 1943. Each subghetto contained a German factory and became a ghetto unto itself. Only people with work identification papers could live there. All others, “the unproductive,” were to be deported. ...

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7. The Uprising and the End of the Warsaw Ghetto

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pp. 46-52

Armed resistance groups began to form after the news of Treblinka had reached the ghetto. My parents and neighbors had whispered about fighters preparing a network of underground bunkers for hiding and for entrenchment in case of bombardment a while before our bunker was constructed. ...

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8. Tata’s Last Word

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pp. 53-55

At dawn, the train jerked to a clanging halt. Those close to the bullet holes and cracks in the walls reported what they saw: “Armed Germans and Ukrainian guards and people—our people, chased.” ...

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9. Majdanek

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pp. 56-63

Things continued happening outside our command or will. Soldiers shoved and shouted orders to move forward. Where to? The gas chambers? The reality of death, of not being, was incomprehensible and horrifying. An irrepressible inner force commanded me to shrink into myself, become invisible, watch for flying bullets and whips, ...

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10. Longing

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pp. 64-68

Sometimes I plunged back into introspection about all that had been dearest in my life. I imagined that if I were free to walk past the barbed wire fences, I would find my best friend, Janka, just as she was before the time of madness—a beautiful, olive-skinned girl with twinkling dark eyes. ...

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11. Skarźysko

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pp. 69-78

Before the train reached its destination, it halted for a pit stop on an embankment. Mama and I insisted on staying in the car to avoid the guards outside. Fredka cried and pleaded that she had to go. Not to be separated, we all got off the train. We feared separation more than death. ...

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12. Częstochowa

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pp. 79-82

On a mid-January night in 1945, an earsplitting rumble of bomber planes broke the long silence and made the darkness tremble. We lifted our heads from our bunk planks and whispered, “Could it be?” In a few seconds, flares, brighter than a summer’s day, lit up the sky. Violent explosions shook the earth relentlessly. ...

Part II: Liberation

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13. A Miracle

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pp. 85-90

On a mid-January night in 1945, an earsplitting rumble of bomber planes broke the long silence and made the darkness tremble. We lifted our heads from our bunk planks and whispered, “Could it be?” In a few seconds, flares, brighter than a summer’s day, lit up the sky. Violent explosions shook the earth relentlessly. ...

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14. The Old Woman in Kielce

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pp. 91-94

We set out into a cold unknown, marched to the train station, and climbed onto a freight train. It took us a whole day to reach Kielce, one hundred kilometers away. ...

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15. The Two Russian Soldiers

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pp. 95-101

We stepped off the threshold of the old woman’s house, inched forward, looked into unfamiliar streets. “Which way do we go?” The sun hung high in a clear sky and a sparkling coat of snow covered the streets. Mama stood between Fredka and me. She reached out to clasp our hands and squeezed them tightly to her body. ...

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16. Parting with Mama

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pp. 102-111

We remained in the Russian tailor’s room in Kielce for about eight weeks, waiting for winter to pass and hoping for a miracle to get us out of our isolation. It was too cold to go to Działoszyce to look for my cousins, Max and David. Furthermore, we lacked the means to undertake the trip, even if the weather were warm. ...

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17. The Night

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pp. 112-118

Signs of approaching spring brought hope as well as terror to our hearts. “Look, the snow is melting and days are getting longer! We must leave Kielce soon. If we delay, another winter might overtake us. We might remain trapped, forgotten, lost forever in this bloody Europe,” we warned each other. ...

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18. Działoszyce

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pp. 119-126

Działoszyce sits at the confluence of two tributaries of the Nidzia River in the middle of a vast forest in Poland. It developed from a gamekeeper’s village established by Polish nobles almost a thousand years ago. Favorably situated for trade on the high road to Kraków, it was well populated by the twelfth century. ...

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19. Awakening

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pp. 127-131

Despite many harsh experiences, our stay in Działoszyce restored us. Our cousins and a small community of Jewish survivors took us in. Fredka and I were free to walk in the fields and meadows that rolled beyond the outskirts of the town. Our hearts found room to grow again. ...

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20. The Escape

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pp. 132-135

From the start we knew that our stay in Działoszyce would be limited. This was made especially clear after Max enquired at the district court about the deed to their house. Violent threats on his life followed immediately. A getaway had to be planned and carried out in utmost secrecy—an incredible challenge. ...

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21. Another Strange Town

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pp. 136-143

How much time had passed from when we were liberated from the concentration camp in Częstochowa till we were on the train to our new destination, Chorzów? We were liberated in mid-January 1945. When we arrived in Działoszyce, the world was still under a crust of ice. ...

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22. Time to Leave Again

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pp. 144-149

The graying days of approaching fall deepened our isolation and loneliness. Max and David concluded that it was time to leave and find a friendlier country before winter arrived. There was one last thing we had to do before we left Poland forever. ...

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23. Prague

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pp. 150-152

The train slowed, breathed long, heavy puffs, let out its last huff of steam, and stopped. We pulled into a wide platform lined with tracks and teeming with passengers. Hurriedly, we collected our few belongings, got off the train, and paused in the middle of a rushing crowd to get the feel of our new surroundings. ...

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24. Hof

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pp. 153-171

We left the shelter in Prague to continue on our journey to West Germany with the ultimate hope of reaching America. We had 180 more kilometers to travel by train and one more border to cross to reach the American zone. We had no reliable information about the West zone because the communist government slanted the news. ...

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25. Voyage to America

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pp. 172-178

In mid-July 1947, we finally gathered our few belongings and said good-bye to Max and David. They too had applied to go to America and awaited their turn. We were glad that they would follow us. We hugged and parted with our friends. Most of them I never saw again. ...

Part III: A New Dawn

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26. America at Last

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pp. 181-187

We disembarked the SS Marine Flasher at the New York Port Authority on a muggy third of August in 1947. We crossed an arched gateway at Pier 59 and entered a cavernous hall teeming with bewildered immigrants. We were herded through customs, and then informed, “You are free to go as you please.” ...

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27. A Place of Our Own

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pp. 188-194

Our family found a two-bedroom apartment for us in a middle-class, residential area on Bronx Park South, across the street from the Bronx Zoo. It was a walk-up flat on the fifth floor with an expansive view of dense greenery behind the zoo’s fence. I awoke each morning to the roar of lions and wild shrieks of birds, and I loved it. ...

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28. Wedding Bells

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pp. 195-205

Fredka and Sol wed in a small temple on March 7, 1948, seven months after we stepped off the SS Marine Flasher. A kind, grandfatherly rabbi conducted the ceremony. A small group of spirited survivor friends joined in the celebration. Only a few members of our American family attended. ...

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29. West Virginia and Beyond

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pp. 206-212

I had barely shaped my life in Cleveland when Henry was transferred to Huntington, West Virginia, to open a regional ILGWU local. He was happy with his new assignment. I fretted. Will I be a complete outsider in this town at the hem of the world? ...

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30. Farewell to Mama (1981)

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pp. 213-214

When she was lowered into her grave, my family stood in a tight circle, and friends were near, reverently honoring the passing of a life. How different this first natural loss felt from the countless deaths I had witnessed before. I felt agony and gratitude. ...

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31. A New Leaf

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pp. 215-222

Chuck and I married in January 1986, five years after we had met. A few months later, Chuck retired from NASA and accepted a one-year position with the Italian aerospace agency, Aeritalia, located in Turin, Italy. I took a one-year leave of absence from my teaching position to join him. ...

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About the Author

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p. 245-245

Estelle Glaser Laughlin, a child survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Uprising, and concentration camps, immigrated to America at eighteen. With only three years of public school education, she earned a master’s degree in education. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780896728004
E-ISBN-10: 0896728005
Print-ISBN-13: 9780896727670
Print-ISBN-10: 089672767X

Page Count: 224
Illustrations: 21
Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Laughlin, Estelle.
  • Jews -- Poland -- Warsaw -- Biography.
  • Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945) -- Poland -- Personal narratives.
  • Jewish children in the Holocaust -- Poland -- Biography.
  • Majdanek (Concentration camp).
  • World War, 1939-1945 -- Conscript labor -- Europe, Eastern.
  • Holocaust survivors -- United States -- Biography.
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