The Legacy of an Enduring Hero
Author and playwright Richard Rashke calls Holocaust survivor Esther Terner Raab “An Enduring Hero.” He knows of what he speaks.
This compelling collection of letters from children to Esther Raab follows a film and a play by Rashke about the horrors of the Sobibor death camp in Nazi-occupied Eastern Poland in World War II. The film, “Escape from Sobibor, “ dramatized the uprising of 600 Jews at Sobibor in October 1943, in which 300 escaped and 50 survived the war.
One of those Jews was Esther, who told her story to Rashke starting in 1981, who in turn immortalized it in both the film and the two-act play “Dear Esther.” They were true partners in bringing this true story to life.
But Rashke said he did not feel the story was complete: “Once I finished “Escape from Sobibor,” I knew something was missing, but I couldn’t quite identify it. The children’s letters to Esther Raab showed me what it was. Missing from my painful book was hope and healing.”
When CBS aired the film and script as part of its “Read More About It Program,” New Jersey’s public school system embraced the work and showed it to students across the state. The answer to the missing part was in the making.
Esther began receiving requests to speak, rising from a trickle to a flood. There was a hunger for information about that time in history and for an understanding of how something so horrible could happen on this earth. She became a compelling yet gentle witness to this brutal piece of history, and she particularly wanted to tell her story to children. Writes Rashke, “she would tell children because the of the prejudice, intolerance, and hatred of their elders had not yet poisoned their minds and hearts.”
Esther started giving talks, a classroom at a time, and the children responded with letters. She received more than 2,000, which became the basis of Part I of Rashke’s book. “Their letters were a chorus of hope. Their love for Esther became a healing poultice.”
Each presentation was an act of courage. It took Esther back into the excruciating labyrinth of Sobibor. After each talk or interview, she couldn’t sleep for days. “She was trapped inside the Nazi death camp—afraid, raging, clutching the straw of hope,” Rashke writes.
But she gave the talks and interviews nonetheless for 20 years, experiencing two decades of acute pain. Rashke quotes her character 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.”
The next step after the film and play became clear: to weave the letters into that envisioned manuscript of healing and love. This resulting book, published by pace-setting Historic Heroines in 2016, compiles a selection of the letters and combines them with the children’s poetry and drawings.
The letters are themselves witnesses to history. They represent a new collective memory of the Holocaust – voices of innocence against the experience of death and destruction. They are light shining forward from the darkness. They are contagious forces of good in a sea of evil.
Rashke’s Memoriam to Esther, who died in 2015, the letters, and the play constitute
the book. Together they ignite a fire of outrage at such evil and suffering, and that is one of the reasons the book is so riveting. So too are the photographs from the film and the ones Rashke took of Sobibor after its closure.
The book maintains the little misspellings and unique word choices of children writing from the heart as they put themselves in Esther’s position – in Sobibor, in her escape, in her creation of a new life. Some found a model for surviving their own traumas. Others wanted to know what she was thinking when she was escaping through the fields, and others even broached the sensitive subject of survivor’s guilt.
There is no apparent barrier to their reactions, giving the reader an intimate view of the inside of children’s emotions and aspirations. What shines through is the repeated expressed hope and commitment for a future free of Holocausts: “As leaders of our world, we will make sure that the treatment of the Jews is not forgotten.”
The letters are honest, compelling, transformational. They speak to the power of the human spirit — for fairness, compassion, transfiguration, and gratitude. They transcend the boundaries of historic time and space, and in effect rail against horrific situations in other countries like Cambodia. They stir the deep desire for connection, appreciation, understanding, and continued interaction.
Children ended their missives simply and endearingly: “Thank You, “ “Your Friend,” “Sincerely,” Ever yours,” or “Love.”
They praised Esther’s courage, honesty, and resilience, wondered at her ability to endure the pain of recounting her story and surviving her experience, and thanked her for telling her story.
Many expressed a desire to hear from her again, to learn about other survivors, to become pen pals, to stay in touch.
The letters reflected an array of emotions and insights: “some things are just too horrible to forget,” “hope it never happens again in New Jersey, but it could,” “Just
thinking what happened to Jews gives me the [sic] shills.”
Esther was prescient in always keeping the children at the forefront of her audience. In responding to the idea of a play, she said she wanted “something children could understand.”
Again and again, this contrast pulls the reader into a swirl of impressions that speak well of the new generations and reflect an innate hope for the future.
History has a sweep to it, and there is truth in that, but it is also absorbed in smaller pieces, individual stories, specific times and places. In this case, the story of one woman, played across the stage of history, delivers the message of the destruction prejudice can create and the road forward built on tolerance, hope, and love.
Rashke introduces this book with a memorial tribute to Esther. It bears reading and rereading. The words are etched with pain and transcendence, a fitting commemoration to “An Enduring Hero.”