March 12, 2015

Wallenberg Foundation to declare an entire Polish village as “House of Life”

In October 1947, Estera Borensztajn, then fifteen years old, recalled her amazing story. She was born on 15 December 1932 in Sobolewo near Warsaw. Today she lives in Haifa, Israel.

Watch the video. Interview to Estera Borensztajn

“My daddy had died in 1942. Me, mommy and my two younger brothers all lived in the little ghetto in Sobolew. Later the Germans started transporting all the Jews out. We had to go. It was autumn 1942. For three months, we would hide in the woods during the day and sleep at night in the barns, cellars or attics at the homes of the peasants of our acquaintance.

In October 1942 the Germans announce the organising of “rest-ghettos” in the Warsaw District. They also declare that human transports will stop. With time, this information reaches the hiding Jews. December comes.

Lured by the promises made and also desperate as a result of the increasingly difficult conditions of hiding in the woods, the Jews – Estera’s mom with her kids among them – decide to come back to the Sobolew ghetto. The place is overflowing with incomers. Estera’s family has to share a single room with two other families.

Already in January 1943 it transpires that the Germans will not keep their promises. They gathered all the Jews from the Sobolew ghetto in one square. Selection starts. The elderly are killed on the spot, the young were packed into railway carriages. The last transport departed from Sobolew on 10th January.

It was stuffy and dark inside, with neither standing nor sitting space. My little brother gradually suffocated to death. Me, I also thought I would not live through this, because of the lack of air. When the train moved, everybody fell and the people at the door squashed the people behind them. I felt slightly relieved, because I ended up at the top of the pile. The number of corpses inside kept growing and with this, we were gathering some space.”

Estera Borensztajn, Haifa, 2014

The train journey takes hours. It’s Estera’s idea to jump out. “It’s better to die than to continue suffering like this. This is neither life nor death” – she tries to persuade her mother. The woman asks her daughter to jump out first. The girl refuses. She wants to make sure that her mom will also take the leap. This is how she describes the situation, years later at the orphanage in Bytom:

“My mom jumped out and I saw through a small window that she got up and ran. Some people gave me a boost and then I only clung to the window by its hooks. I was afraid to jump but the people tore my hands off the hooks and I fell into the snow. The guards shot at me but I was not hurt. Yet I could not find mommy and I didn’t know which way to go. A Pole that I met told me that I was heading towards Treblinka and advised me to go in the opposite direction, to Siedlce.”

It’s the middle of winter. The fields and roads are deeply covered with snow. Estera seeks shelter. “I went from cottage to cottage and no one would help me” – she testifies. Finally, an old woman living at the end of the village takes pity on the girl. The name of the village remains unknown. The woman takes the girl in for the night, saying that only a day before another woman had been asking locals about her daughter. Is this true or is the old lady trying to give the terrified child courage to continue on her journey? I do not know. Estera is convinced that this must have been her mother. She sets off in the morning, following the footmarks left in the snow but the meeting that she so much craves for never happens.

“One evening, after three days walking with temperatures below zero, I reached the house of the people that had once bought my grandfather’s estate. I told them openly who I was. They were amazed but afraid to keep me. Meanwhile, I really had nowhere else to go. Finally, together with the other villagers, they decided to keep me in all the houses in turns, so that everybody would be guilty and no one would turn anyone in. They formed a unity of sorts. The village’s name was Osiny”.

The board of the Wallenberg Foundation, an educational NGO chaired by Eduardo Eurnekian and created by Baruch Tenembaum, has decided to declare “House of Life” the entire village of Osiny.

About Houses of Life

“Houses of Life” is a unique educational program lead by the International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation aiming to identify, pay tribute and spread the actions of solidarity of institutions or individuals that extended a hand to the persecuted by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

The program is taking place throughout Europe with the cooperation of Aleteia, the Catholic news agency, with direct involvement of its Editorial Director, Mr. Jesús Colina and Institutional Relations Manager, Ms. Silvia Costantini,

The purpose of “Houses of Life” program is to identify and honor those who reached out and helped people in need by risking their own lives, as well as the life of family and friends. There are public places such as convents, monasteries, churches, schools, and privately owned homes, where Jews persecuted by the Nazis were sheltered and were given food and medicines. “Seventy years after the end of the Second World War this educational proposal has an impact as it acknowledges and awards those who were on the front line and risked everything to help their fellow man” stated Mr. Eduardo Eurnekian, president of NGO International Raoul Wallenberg Foundation.