Esther Geizhals, Larchmont
photo by Toshi Tasaki
Born in Lodz, Poland, in 1929, Esther Geizhals (née Zucker) remembers having to stand in line for bread when the Germans first invaded her country in 1939. By the following year, her family had lost their fruit and vegetable store and they were relegated to living in the Lodz Ghetto, along with 230,000 other Jews.
“There was no water, no coal, no sanitary means, no school,” says 82-year-old Geizhals, who was only 11 at the time. “People started dying of starvation. Their swelled-up bellies scared me.”
She, too, fell ill. “My mother got her hands on an apple, made me applesauce, and brought it to the hospital,” she says. “To this day, I wonder how she got the apple.”
In 1944, her family was sent to Auschwitz. When they arrived, “we saw Germans with green uniforms and boots waiting with their ferocious German shepherds. Right away, they separated us, men on one side and women and children on the other.” Josef Mengele, the SS officer known as the “Angel of Death” who ran the human experiments at Auschwitz, deemed Geizhals fit for work and sent her to the right. Her mother, though, was carrying a neighbor’s young child and refused to give the girl up. Mengele sent her and the child to the left, and Geizhals’s little brother, Pinkas, who suffered from TB, followed her.
“I cried and I cried, ‘My mother, my mother.’ I felt a sadness and pain that has never left me. I knew that I would never see her again.” Geizhals remembers being corralled into a shower and having her head shaved. Her mother and Pinkas were exterminated in one of Auschwitz’s seven gas chambers.
“I don’t really know how I got through it,” Geizhals says. “I really believe there’s a higher power that guides us.” Six weeks later, at almost 15 years of age, she was sent to the Bergen-Belsen and Rochlitz concentration camps, imprisoned there for almost a year. Because there was no room in the barracks, she and her fellow inmates slept in tents, pitched in the snow and ice of northern Germany. “All I had was a blanket. One night, I slept very close to a Hungarian woman for the body heat. She told me to keep strong. When I woke up the next morning, she was dead next to me.”
Towards the end of the war, Geizhals and thousands of other survivors—malnourished, sleep-deprived, and barely alive—were forced to walk for miles and miles to railway stations to be transported to other camps so that the SS could destroy evidence of their camps. “I don’t know why they didn’t kill us, except that they didn’t want to waste their ammunition. We looked like skeletons. We were starving, eaten by lice. My girlfriends and I ate blades of grass. One night, the group stopped to spend the night at a barn and we hid under the hay in the loft. When the guards called everyone the next morning, we didn’t go down. We knew the Nazis would shoot us if they found us, but they didn’t look and moved on.”
After the war, Geizhals managed to return to Lodz, where she was reunited with her father. He remained behind in Poland, and, with an uncle, she smuggled her way to a displaced persons’ camp in the American zone in Germany, where she met her husband, Benek Geizhals, another survivor.
“On Valentine’s Day in 1947, when I was seventeen, I came to America,” says Geizhals, who came with a youth group, arranged by the American Consulate in Frankfurt. “That’s when my life began. I love this country with all my heart.”
The Geizhals family made a life for themselves in New Hyde Park, where they raised three children. Their eldest son, Benjamin, is an attorney on Long Island; Michael, the middle child, is an accountant and lives with his family in Israel; and Jacqueline is a supervising nurse living in New Rochelle. Benek died 12 years ago, and Geizhals moved to Larchmont, where she remains very close to her children and nine grandchildren. She makes a point of telling her story. “I’m one of the youngest survivors, and I’m eighty-two. We’re dying out. My only wish is that people remember us.” She then adds, “The pain of what happened to me is always with me. I don’t think it will ease in any of us, but it made me realize how precious life is. And I still believe in my fellow man.”