Ester, Holocaust Survivor & Grandmother of 5, FL
Ester is a Holocaust survivor and grandmother of five. She currently lives in Boca Raton, Florida and was interviewed by her granddaughter Rebecca, who is a RE-ENVISIONED Catalyst.
Okay Grandma. Take a moment and think about a child that you care about. And then tell me about that child. What makes them unique and special?
That’s a tough one. I hope I don’t hurt anybody’s feelings, but it’s Daniel.
[Laughs] Okay that makes sense, he is your first grandchild…
Yes, he was the first birth in the family which meant so much to your grandfather and me. And the relationship that Daniel only remembers with your grandfather, unfortunately you children never had the privilege. Even though your grandfather wasn’t very well educated person, he had common sense and he was a very, very special person. Seeing Daniel walking with Papa and talking about things and asking, “Grandma, how come you don’t know that?” And I stood by observing, watching generation to generation, giving the wisdom from elderly to younger people. And I hope, as much as possible, that I give some – I wouldn’t call it wisdom, but some – path to others to being as bright as my grandchildren are, and how they see the world as it should be.
How old is Daniel now?
What do you hope for him in his life now, as an adult? What makes a good life for him?
Happiness. Happy marriage. Beautiful children, my great-grandchildren. And being the person he is. A good person. A person who cares. A person that sees the world the way I would love to always see the world: as it should be.
Is he living the good life you imagined for him?
Yes. Because both of them [Daniel and his wife] have very emotional reasons for what they’re doing. Both of them being in education, to me, is one of the most beautiful things one can do.
But he’s living the life he wants, and that’s the most important part. Because I didn’t live the life I wanted. And there are days now when I can’t sleep and I wonder, “What would I have done differently?” And the only conclusion is, I still would’ve married your Papa, that’s for sure! [Laughs]. But maybe I would’ve gone to school more than I did. And I go back and forth, because I had to support my mother and I had to work when I was very young, and maybe it was a little bit childish that I associated with men who really weren’t good for me, but at the time I wasn’t aware of it. I was just so impressed when anybody said, “I have a high school degree.” That meant so much to me because I didn’t have one. I don’t know if I would’ve been better or worse if I had it, that’s something that I’ll never know.
"Schooling is everything. Having a teacher to admire as an example of what I wish to be. Having a relationship with your teacher is a very strong thing. Seeing the teacher’s life as an example- 'I would like to be part of that.'"
You just described this good life, being a caring person, being a thoughtful person, being happy, having good relationships. What is the role of school in achieving a good life?
Schooling is everything. Having a teacher to admire as an example of what I wish to be. Having a relationship with your teacher is a very strong thing. Seeing the teacher’s life as an example- “I would like to be part of that.” Because if you don’t have anybody that you can look up to, you might just look out to a dirty street. To me it’s very important that school gives you a beginning, as you would like your life to be. The information and the ability to follow somebody that you admire. Because you don’t have to admire always your parents; they’re your parents regardless.
Wisdom comes with schooling. In my opinion, if you don’t have good schooling, you’ll never get smart. You’ll get smart from the street and the street smart is not good for you. It’s not good for you, and it’s not good for society, or for the growth of our country. I wish there were more underprivileged people that could build up economically like I did. Because I came with nothing. Oh, excuse me, I came with a set of dishes. And by working and then getting married and working to make life better for your aunt and your father. If I didn’t send your father to college, where would you be today? Nowhere. Because he wouldn’t have given you an example of who to be.
But it’s the idea that by working I succeeded, in my opinion, in living comfortably and giving my children opportunity. You know the story of when Papa said your father has to go to college but if we don’t have money, your aunt doesn’t need to? I said, “I’ll scrub floors so she can go to college.” I thought college would give them education, wisdom, surround them with people of the same drive instead of being on the streets. Having examples around you of what to strive for, and how to improve your mind and your ability, and being around people with those abilities. But of course even in college if you have a professor that you look up to, it’s very, very important. Because they become an example- “You know, he is smart, maybe I can learn something.” And by learning something from one person or two people around you, you might expand.
Do schools play the role you think they should, do you think they’re playing that role right now?
No. No. No. Because many teachers are not an example for children. Maybe in some places, yes- but in Florida, definitely not. Actually, correction: there’s one school- Donna Klein [Jewish Academy], which is a private school- maybe they do. But unfortunately that’s only for certain amount of people, not everybody. When I speak [as a Holocaust survivor] at Donna Klein, I can see they look up to the chemistry teacher, they told me he is a terrific example. That to me is the important part: the teachers.
But in general, I believe schools are not spreading knowledge or emotional feelings of humanity. We have so many schools where children are making fun of other children. If your leg is crooked, other kids make fun. And that should never happen on school premises. It should be emphasized, “Maybe he has to walk that way, but he’s such a nice person.” Instead of, “Can’t you walk better?!” And that’s what’s happening in schools, at least that’s what I hear. Maybe I’m wrong because I’m following what’s in the newspapers and the television.
I’m hearing you say that you think schools play a moral role, that they have a responsibility to teach some kind of moral and ethical way of being to kids.
Yes. Humanity. Schools should teach humanity, because if we would have humanity, we wouldn’t have present situations in the world which we have, which are above and beyond any reasoning. After the horror of the wars, we should have learned something. We didn’t learn anything. [Schools should be teaching] communication, understanding, and influencing young people to think about other human beings.
"But to me, still the most important thing is making young people see the world as it should be, not as it is"
You described a vision for what you think a good life is. And schools have a role in making that happen. And I’m trying to understand, what do you think school’s role is in making that happen? And how can you achieve a good life in the world we live in today?
You know it’s very funny. I don’t know if you know that Daniel went to private school. When your aunt informed me of that, to me, that was a shock. Why? Because to me, the privilege of public schooling was so important, that I could not see- if you had that privilege, why you would simply toss it away or not take advantage of it? But in those schools, he would have been the minority. And being in the minority is a very tough thing to overcome. There’s a habit of always looking to each side of you and asking, “Am I in the way of anything?” I was the minority in my school. I had to stay in the hall when they had religion classes, and I could not understand it as a small child. I didn’t do anything wrong.
That sounds very marginalizing, the experience of being a minority in the school you went to. Can you think about a learning experience that was very empowering, that sent you the message you could be anything you wanted to be?
You know, when I went to FAU classes, when I came to Florida after Papa died, Professor Warton was the most wonderful person to me. He said, “Read the biography of Truman!” And I had such a different opinion before, and I realized, maybe I was wrong? And I was wrong! And then when I read Churchill’s biography, I said, “What a brilliant, brilliant man!” And then when I read Eleanor Roosevelt’s biography, how brilliant this woman was! She should’ve been the first woman president! Professor Warton is a very young man, but he could give you a lecture for one and a half to two hours without reading a piece of paper. And I said to myself, “Is that smart? Is that just a good memory?” I really saw how brilliant he was.
If you can think of the most ideal schooling experience for kids today that allowed them to live the life they wanted for themselves, what do you think it would be like? What would schools be doing differently and better in your mind than they’re doing now?
Positioning teachers to educate but also to be the moral idol for a child who is underprivileged and doesn’t see that idol anyplace else.
And what’s preventing that from happening now?
Because our schools are underpaid. We worry about a beautiful mall, we worry about other things that are important, I’m not disagreeing, but not as important as schools. And I don’t care the beauty of the classroom. I do care about the food, that we don’t feed the children the right thing, and our first lady is beautiful in saying that, that she would like to change the menu. She emphasizes it so much and I think it’s really important because the children sometimes don’t eat right at home. And our brains grow with the food you eat. And it’s important to give the children the knowledge of good food.
So what I’m hearing you say is that because there’s such a difference in the neighborhoods kids grow up in, school should be a place that provides for all children the opportunities that perhaps kids like Daniel and me had. That goes for food, role models, knowledge, interactions with others… so in a way schools play a role that’s equalizing in society. Is that right?
Above everything. When my father was growing up, he had the opportunity to travel and see different life. My father wasn’t religious at all. But he learned that there is something above a “kainstatle” – a little village town that goes to synagogue and that’s all life is. And he learned to travel. Travel was very important because by traveling, you see "How do the Hungarians live?" Then you go to Germany and the culture is different and you see how the Germans live. So your mind opens to different experiences. And that’s what I learned from my father really; it’s learning from school and your surroundings and environment, people who behave different and have different opinions and lifestyle. Otherwise you don’t see. It’s a different way of learning.
"Relationships. Relationships with your children, relationship in your marriage, relationship with the people around you. And hopefully the relationship of countries, which is a big question mark, in my opinion. I just have hope. I’m not concerned about me. And maybe I am wrong not to be concerned about my grandchildren. I’m concerned about my great-grandchildren, the generation that will come. And I wish for them much more peace, much more happiness, and much more understanding of humanity."
So you think the ideal school should be not necessarily reflective of neighborhoods, but integrated with lots of different kinds of people? Why do you think that doesn’t happen now?
I really don’t know. I partially think it’s a business. They feel that this district will be much more successful- you know where I was so amazed? When we were invited through Children of the Holocaust by bus to go to a black school- did I tell you about it? I was so impressed that our book made those teachers could talk to the children about the Holocaust. And I thought to myself, “So it IS up to the teacher!” Because that brilliant teacher thought, “Oh maybe we can invite the people so the kids can see them.” When you read about something, you read about it and put it away. And after a while it becomes history. But if you see the person and touch them, it’s much, much stronger than any book. You think, “I see you and you were there, so I can trust you to tell me. You were there!” It’s not that somebody wrote it who thinks it happened, maybe researched very well, but still, wasn’t there. But if I was there, and you are questioning me and saying, “Oh gosh, this lady was in the attic. How would I feel sitting in the attic for 13 months? How would I feel not having any friends? How could I say to a girlfriend – ‘isn’t that boy handsome?’ - if you don’t have that girlfriend when you’re in the attic?” It’s building emotional connection. And that’s what really, really impressed me about that school. That’s what needs to happen everywhere. It was emotionally very strong for me.
You know in my interview, when I was asked about an empowering educational experience that I had, I talked about when you came to my classroom and spoke to me and my classmates about your experience in the war. And then you and I got to go and travel and visit those places and it made it so real for me, so it’s very similar to what you’re talking about that learning comes from the connection and the relationship and the experience that follows.
That’s right. If you go and see it, I can’t take it away from you. Because it stays with you. It’s very important to have that impression. But to me, still the most important thing is making young people see the world as it should be, not as it is. Now it’s still a question of land and money. No- religion, land and money. And all those three things are beside the point. Land is something that’s very easy to disappear. Money is very easy to disappear. And religion can disappoint you.
So what are the things that last?
Relationships. Relationships with your children, relationship in your marriage, relationship with the people around you. And hopefully the relationship of countries, which is a big question mark, in my opinion. I just have hope. I’m not concerned about me. And maybe I am wrong not to be concerned about my grandchildren. I’m concerned about my great-grandchildren, the generation that will come. And I wish for them much more peace, much more happiness, and much more understanding of humanity.
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