I met Esther Raab for the first time in 1981 during an International Liberators Conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. Medal-chested soldiers from fourteen countries had gathered in Washington, D.C., my hometown, for the special two-day remembrance. But I didn’t attend the conference to learn how they had liberated Nazi camps across Europe and what horrors they had seen.
I came to see Esther who had liberated herself in 1943 from Sobibor, a death camp in German-occupied Eastern Poland.
Esther had agreed to give a short talk about the prisoner revolt at Sobibor in October 1943 during a conference workshop on “Uprisings.” It would be her first major public appearance as a Holocaust survivor-witness, the beginning of a new phase in her life and a new chapter in mine.
When Esther stood to deliver her prepared speech, her hands shook, her face muscles tightened, and her lips trembled. I had taught public speaking at a Pennsylvania high school for five years and I knew stage fright when I saw it. But that afternoon, I was wrong. Esther wasn’t terrified at the thought of standing in front of an audience and making a fool of herself. She really wasn’t in the conference room that day. She was back in Sobibor. Afraid of Nazis. Seething with rage. Hungering for revenge. Feeling helpless as she held onto God’s hand. Clinging to a fragile thread of hope. As she stood in that State Department conference room facing her survivor-peers, she didn’t know if she would cry, sob, scream, sit back down, or run out of the room.
I had already seen what “going back to Sobibor” did to survivors more than a dozen times during my interviews in the U.S., Brazil, Poland, Israel, and the Soviet Union. Most survivors had honed disassociation to an art. To distance themselves from Sobibor, they had learned to stand outside their bodies and watch themselves. Every now and then the distancing technique failed and memory broke through their protective wall. Sometimes, the pain was so acute, they couldn’t contain it.
That afternoon in 1981, as Esther recounted her escape from Sobibor, she didn’t cry or scream, or run. She finished her talk and quietly sat down to a round of polite applause. After the workshop, I introduced myself and told her I was writing a book called Escape From Sobibor. I needed help. Could I visit her at her home in Vineland, New Jersey, and hear her story?
For hours at her kitchen table, she talked and I listened. The next day she talked some more. She spoke with quiet strength as she walked back into the death camp and invited me to follow. I found her memory graphic in its specificity. Her story was not only compelling but it miraculously defied the odds of surviving Nazis, anti-Semitic Poles, and the wages of World War II.
Over the next several months, I came to rely on Esther’s memory and instincts as I struggled to weave nineteen interviews with Sobibor survivors into a cohesive story. Esther became my essential sounding board and fact checker.
When my book finally came out, Esther was a fierce promoter, proud of her contribution that no one but I—and a few perceptive readers—could see. When Marstar Productions asked for the movie rights to the book, I agreed to grant them on one condition—it had to hire Esther as its survivor-consultant. Producer Martin Starger agreed. As part of my Marstar contract, I had to secure the film rights of six Sobibor survivors. Esther was one. I offered her a modest sum.
Esther was excited about the movie and granted me her rights. But she refused to accept any money. And she gladly agreed to serve as a film consultant, but wouldn’t take a dime. Marstar told her that she had to accept something to make the deal legal. Esther told them to write a check for one dollar. She never cashed it.
When it was time to shoot the movie in a camp constructed in a forest in Slovenia, Esther paid her own airfare. She spent a month advising the director, line producer, and set designers. She held the hands of actors who were having trouble with their emotions. And she paid her own hotel and food bills.
The movie had a huge impact on Esther’s future, even though the tall, skinny actor who played her in the film didn’t resemble her in the least, and even though more of her story ended up on the cutting room floor than on the screen. It was the crawl at the end of the movie that changed her life one final time. It told the viewing audience that Esther Terner Raab had survived the rest of the war in a barn, had eventually emigrated to the United States, and was now living in New Jersey.
Public school students who had seen Escape From Sobibor as part of New Jersey’s Holocaust education program found her. Invitations to visit and speak at middle and senior high schools in the state began to trickle in. Esther was gratified, but torn. Should she accept? Could she handle it? Would she be safe?
Esther called me after the first invitation landed on her kitchen table. It was from a teacher at a middle school near Atlantic City. Her students had seen the movie and were eager to meet her. She wouldn’t have to face the entire student body, the teacher said in her letter. Just one classroom. And she wouldn’t have to give a speech. Just answer questions.
“Richard, they’re not Jewish,” she said. “Why would they want to hear an old Jewish woman?”
I listened as she argued with herself. “New Jersey is filled with rednecks. Maybe someone’s father will come after me.”
By the time Esther ended our call with her signature “Be Vell,” she had talked herself into accepting the invitation…and the one after that…and then the next one…for more than twenty years. She became a woman with a mission. Moments before the escape, Leon Feldhendler, Sobibor’s spiritual leader and a co-planner of the escape, had jumped up on a table and told those who could hear him above the restless murmurs:
“If anyone survives, let him tell the world what went on here.”
Esther heard him with her ears and her heart. And the answer was yes. The courage of that “yes” cannot be overestimated. Esther Raab paid a heavy price every single day because she chose not to escape from Sobibor.
Every time Esther told the world—children or adults, NPR radio or national television or newspapers—she willingly went back inside Sobibor and allowed herself to feel the pain and panic all over again. She told me that after every talk or interview, she couldn’t sleep for days. She was trapped inside the Nazi camp—afraid, raging, clutching the straw of hope. It was a pain she accepted, she told me, because she promised Leon and herself that she would tell the world about Sobibor. But especially, she would tell children because the prejudice, intolerance, and hatred of their elders had not yet poisoned their minds and hearts.
When I suggested weaving into a play some of the thousands of letters she had received from students who saw the movie and heard her speak afterwards, she pounced on the idea and agreed to cooperate. I was both shocked and humbled when she declined to read the final draft of my play. I didn’t want to surprise her on stage.
“I trust you,” she said.
Dear Esther, it turned out, caused Esther Raab intense pain. In my interviews with her while I was developing the script, she told me she had not cried since Sobibor. “First, the Nazis took our laughter,” she said. “Then they stole our tears.” And in the play, as Esther touches her face, she says: “I wish I could cry one more time before I die. Wet and warm on my cheeks.”
Esther and her family attended the first staged reading of Dear Esther in a suburb of Washington. She sat behind me during the performance. After the audience applauded and before their tears had time to dry, I turned to face Esther with a knot in my stomach. Using her own thoughts and the poignant letters from children, I had dissected her on stage as daughter, victim, and survivor.
Esther was crying.
She told me later that she cried during every subsequent performance of Dear Esther she attended, always surrounded by hundreds of children. She willingly endured the pain and agreed to take the stage to answer questions afterward.
There was another side to Esther’s generosity I have never shared with anyone. It seems fitting that I do so in this tribute to her life and courageous dedication. One day she called me to say that she had been selected to receive a “Poor Richard’s” award in Philadelphia. Named after Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, the award was presented each year by the Poor Richard’s Club to a person who had made a significant contribution to humanity. Esther informed me that she had agreed to accept the award, but only if the club made me co-honoree, and only if I agreed to stand on the podium to receive it with her.
On another occasion, Esther called to tell me that The History Channel was planning to show Escape From Sobibor and that it would be introduced by veteran broadcaster Sander Vanocur. Would she agree to be interviewed by Mr. Vanocur? The exchange would be aired midway through the movie. Esther asked me if it would be worth her while to travel up to New York and face the camera.
I told her that The History Channel was offering her a great opportunity to tell her story to an international audience. Her interview would make the movie more real, more powerful, and more memorable.
“I’ll do it,” Esther said after a moment’s reflection. “But only if you are interviewed too.”
After Mr. Vanocur was finished with me, it was Esther’s turn to sit in the heat of the studio lights. By the time she said the final “thank you for inviting me,” Vanocur didn’t bother to wipe away his tears and everyone else in the studio—from cameraman to producer—was weeping. Yes, it had something to do with what she said. But what really prompted the tears was the painful soul-stripping of an unpretentious woman who had walked back into Sobibor one more time.
Esther’s character says in Dear Esther: “There is no escape from Sobibor. Not for me. Not for Germany. Not for Poland. Not for the world. Not even God can escape from Sobibor.”
Well, my dear Esther, at the age of ninety-two, you have finally escaped from Sobibor. May you now rest in peace, in the bosom of Abraham.
Copyright © Richard Rashke 2015