“I want the world to know there was a Holocaust:” A survivor’s story

It was not until Estelle Nadel was in her forties that she was able to share with her grown children the full account  of her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Now, knowing that there are few left speak out against those who deny that six million Jews were murdered in history’s most horrible chapters, she feels compelled to share her story with the world.

Estelle Nadel [nee Enia Feld] was five years olds and living with her parents, and four siblings in  Borek, Poland, when World War II broke out. Her father Reuven and older sister Sonia worked in a nearby refinery; her older brother Moshie worked at an airport. Her mother Chaya supplemented their meager living by raising and selling vegetables. An excellent baker, she used those skills for the weddings and christenings of their non-Jewish neighbors. 

Although life as Jews in Poland began to immediately deteriorate under German occupation, Reuven, a devoutly religious man, remained optimistic. “He always told us that nothing will happen to us, that [God] will take care of us,” Estelle said. This all changed sometime in 1942, when the Germans ransacked the Feld home looking for weapons and valuables, of which they had none. 

Two weeks later, the Nazis began rounding up the Jews for deportation.  Chaya, Estelle and her two younger brothers, Stephan and Mel watched in horror crouched in a nearby field as Reuven, Sonia, and Moishe were herded into nearby cattle cars taking them to places unknown. Realizing they could not return home, Chaya procured a hiding place in the attic of a sympathetic neighbor’s  home. Three months later, Chaya was recognized by another Polish neighbor while on one of her nocturnal searches for food. She was arrested, brought to the local jail, and shot that morning by a German who was responsible for killing any found Jews. 

The three siblings remained together in their hiding place until Mel, who was fair and blonde, decided to leave and pass as a non-Jew. Soon after, the Gestapo pulled Estelle and Stephan out of their hiding spot, beat Stephan, and moved them to the same jail in Jedlicze where Chaya had been killed three months earlier. The jailer threw the two into the basement, where they spent a cold, terrifying night, certain they would follow their mother’s fate in the morning.

A small barred window high up in the cell became their salvation. First Stephan squeezed through the tight opening. A few minutes later, Estelle was able to make her escape. She realized that her brother had run away and lefter her behind. 

Distraught about her brother’s abandonment, the seven-year-old found herself frightened and alone. She wandered into a garden in a nearby home, where a woman spotted her and brought her inside. The woman, the wife of one of the Polish jailers,  refused to hide her but acquiesced to Estelle’s pleas to take her through the fields to the local  bathhouse. From there, Estelle  found her way to where her uncle, her aunt who was ill with cancer,  and their daughter were being hidden by Karowskis, a Polish Christian family. The following morning, Stephan joined them. The group hid for two years in an attic over a stable, where they could not even stand up. 

In 1945, Russian soldiers marched in and liberated the area where Estelle and her family were hidden from the Germans.  The group returned to Borek, where the aunt died of cancer and  Estelle and Stephan were reunited with Mel. Despite their “freedom,”  they knew people were still hunting down Jews. The refugees obtained false papers and left Poland first for Czechoslovakia and then Russian-occupied, Hungary. The uncle, a sister with whom had had been reunited, and his daughter left for Australia upon the invitation of another sister. The three siblings then fled to a safer haven, American-occupied Austria, where they landed in a displaced person’s camp. An American solider, hearing that they were orphans, suggested the three siblings go to America. The Joint Distribution Committee, part of HIAS, agreed to sponsor the orphans. 

After two years of setbacks and red tape, and Estelle, now 12, and Stephan arrived  in New York City on April 1, 1947, where they reunited with Mel, who had arrived earlier and had already obtained a job in New Jersey. “He already had a job in New Jersey and was all dressed up, he looked already like an American,”Estelle said.

Stephan started his own job search, while Estelle stayed in a hotel room watching American television to learn English. Soon after, Stephan told his sister that he could not care for her and she would be  better off in foster care. Initially crushed by her brother’s decision, Estelle was adapted by a family named Nadel in Long Island. They  later relocated  to California, where the seventeen-year-old Estelle met Fred, whose last name was also Nadel.  The couple married and spent most their lives in the San Fernando Valley, California. Fred ran a  scrap metal business, and Estelle operated  a jewelry business while raising their three sons. A few years ago, they relocated to Colorado to be near two of their sons and their families, which now includes five grandchildren.

It took many years for Estelle to talk about the six years of terror and displacement during WWII. Although she never hid the fact that she was a Holocaust survivor, it was only when her children were adults that Estelle was able share the details of her story with them. She took the advice of her daughter-in-law, who was a teacher, and began speaking  about her experiences in local school.   Now 88, Estelle has told her story for over forty years in hundreds of venues, including schools, religious organizations, and other public forums first in California and later in Colorado and Wyoming. She and her two brothers have also videotaped their experiences through Spielberg’s Shoah Visual History Foundation. Estelle is currently working with MacMillion publishers on her graphic novel, The Girl Who Sang: A Holocaust Memoir of Hope and Survival, which she hopes to be alive to see. 

Before their move to Colorado, Estelle returned to Poland with her two brothers and other relatives to retrace their past lives. They confronted the man who turned in his mother, who indefensibly had no remorse, and had a tearful heartfelt reunion with members of the Karowski family. Stephan had a face-to-face with the German prison guard, who said that he had placed them in that particular cell in hopes they could escape through the barred window. On Holocaust Memorial Day, Estelle and family members joined others in  the annual International March for the Living (ww.motl.org) The participants, who number in the thousands, walked  silently from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the largest Nazi concentration camp complex built during World War II.  It was there through its  Book of Names that Estelle was able to confirm her father, sister, and brother were murdered in Auschwitz. 

Estelle returned to the MOTL event four more times as both a participant and one of the survivors through the Los Angeles-based  Builders of Jewish Education, which sponsors an experiential education program for high school students to learn about their Jewish past, present and future. The two-week experience is built around the group commemorating Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) in Poland and celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day) in Israel. In 2022, after a two year hiatus due to COVID-19, the number of survivors able to physically attend has been so reduced that the  first-person accounts are now provided via Zoom, a change that saddens Estelle. She hopes to attend again in the future.

Surviving the Holocaust was a matter of faith; speaking about her experiences is a matter of truth.“It took me many, many years to be able to talk about it,” she says. “I’ve talked now, hundreds of times, and things have not changed. I still cry every time. I re-live the whole scenario.”

Although her past is filled with pain and loss, she still calls her survival and her life a miracle. As a witness to the Holocaust’s horrors, she feels compelled to speak out and to  rebuke those who deny that it happened. “There are very few survivors left, and I want the world to know that there was a Holocaust,” she says. “There’s so much denial, that every time I get a chance to tell my story, I feel like I’m doing something against it.”  She also hopes it will prevent future holocausts. “People need to remember what can happen when others demonize races or ethnicities or religions,” she says. “When the stories remain crystalline, maybe the world will see fewer genocides.”

First published in (Capital Region, NY) The Jewish World, on January 5, 2023. 

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