"Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart."
If Anne Frank, the young Jewish diarist of World War II had survived the Holocaust, what would she have been like as an adult?
The Dresser suggests that Estelle Glaser Laughlin's Transcending Darkness: A Girl's Journey out of the Holocaust might provide a glimpse at that question. Laughlin, along with her mother and sister Fredka, survived the Warsaw Ghetto extermination and uprising, several concentration and labor camps, extreme starvation and deprivation that continued as she and her family made their way out of a liberated prison camp into a still hostile Europe to make their way to family established in the United States who had no understanding of what she, her sister, and their mother had suffered. Yet those years of horror are not reflected in the adult voice or visage. Furthermore, Estelle Laughlin is no Pollyanna, giving wide berth to bad people.
KILLING AND BEING KILLED IN MAKE-BELIEVE PLAY
What the Dresser particularly liked was the honesty of this well-crafted testimonial that often reads like poetry.
"I took turns killing and being killed in make-believe play with friends. But I was too young to comprehend the finality that death really is. As a matter of fact, death did not terrify me as much as the possibility of being separated from my parents. I desperately wanted for us to live. But if we had to die, I wanted my parents to assure me that we would all meet death holding on to each other--like a joint transfer to the unimaginable." (Chapter 4 Deportation, p. 24)
Laughlin has vivid memories of growing up in Warsaw and living in the Warsaw Ghetto. The street where she lived became part of that ghetto which was lucky for her family since 400,000 displaced Jews, representing 30% of Warsaw's population, were forced into that walled off neighborhood of 1.3 square miles without the comforts of their former homes and possessions. Because Laughlin was only thirteen when deportations from the Ghetto began, her mother cut off her pigtails to make her look older. The Germans considered children useless to their forced labor plan. Her parents asked Laughlin and her sister to go to a convent but they were a close-knit family and neither girl would consider leaving their parents.
36 RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE
"I am sure that the humble old woman in Kielce was one of the Zaddikim. Mirrored in her humanity, I now see the beacons of my other heroes who kept my soul from dying. I see my father whose kindness and courage remain immortal. I see Dr. Janush Korczak who joined the starving orphans to be delivered to the ovens of Treblinka. I see Raul Wallenberg, Oscar Schindler, individual resistance fighters, and all the ordinary people who paid the supreme price to live by their values.
"The Lamed Vav Zaddikim may be only legend, but what if they are not? What if our fate depends on there being enough righteous people?" (Chapter 14 The Old Woman in Kielce, p. 94)
Laughlin's family were not particularly religious but her reference to the Jewish legend of the 36 righteous people, the Lamed Vav Zaddikim, was poignant in the way she related this story to heroic people she saw around her including her father and Dr. Janush Korczak, who was caring for a band of starving orphans.
THE GOOD NEWS INSIDE
"The struggle to hold on to my humanity had been a concern for me ever since Nazi boots stepped on our streets and began to trample on our lives. How do you keep your faith in love and trust when your people are being shoved, by your fellow men, into gas chambers and crematoria? With bitter hatred, I often vowed to wreak vengeance upon the barbarians." (Chapter 24 Hof, p. 169)
How does a teenager survive death camps and an escape afterward wearing only a burlap caftan and wooden clogs in the frigid cold of winter with little to eat? People often asked Laughlin why didn't she and others around her rise up and beat back the Germans and the Poles who supported such barbaric behavior? She reports seeing dead bodies on her street in the Warsaw Ghetto as well as the bloodied pregnant neighbor whose fetus was slashed from her womb.
Certainly a large part of why the author of Transcending Darkness survived was the constant contact and encouragement of her mother who had herself as a girl survived pogroms in her native Belarus. In the United States, Laughlin flourished going on to have a family of three sons with another survivor of WWII and managing to achieve undergraduate and graduate college degrees in education despite having arrived in America with only three years of formal educational training.
Anne Frank wrote, "Everyone has inside of him a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!" Estelle Glaser Laughlin managed to realize her life beyond the Warsaw Ghetto and carry forward, despite immeasurable grief, anger and frustration a life worthy of universal memory.
Revisiting the past, especially one as difficult as Estelle Laughlin's, can be difficult for the memorist but illuminating for her audience. In her poem "How the Past Comes Back," Natasha Trethewey tackles the burden of memory showing both its dark and light aspects.
HOW THE PAST COMES BACK
Like shadow across a stone,
.............. the name it darkens:
as one enters the world
.............. through language--
....... like a child learning to speak
everything; as flower,
the neglected hydrangea
.....................year after year
....... each bloom a blue refrain; as
the syllables of birdcall
....... coalescing in the trees,
a single word:
as the dead bird's bright signature--
..............days after you buried it--
....... a single red feather
..............on the window glass
in the middle of your reflection.
Natasha Trethewey from Thrall
Copyright © 2012 Natasha Trethewey