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Wooden comb and handmade paper case given to a prisoner by a friend in Kaiserwald concentration camp

Object | Accession Number: 2012.310.1 a-b

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    Wooden comb and handmade paper case given to a prisoner by a friend in Kaiserwald concentration camp

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    Brief Narrative
    Wooden comb and paper case given to 21 year old Esther Dykman by a friend on December 27, 1944, when they were slave laborers in an AEG Factory in Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. The friend found the comb on the side of the road and made the holder from materials taken from the factory where she and Esther worked. Germany invaded Soviet controlled Poland in June 21,1941, and three days later occupied Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania) where Esther lived with her parents and 8 year old sister Cyla. By July, they enacted policies to persecute the Jews. German mobile killing units, aided by Lithuanian auxiliaries murdered 5000 Jewish men in the nearby Ponary forest in July and another 3500 in August. Esther's father was killed in this pogrom. Esther, her stepmother, and sister were kept in the Vilna ghetto until September 1943, when Esther was sent to Kaiserwald concentration camp. Esther worked as slave labor in the AEG factory in Riga. She later was transferred to Stutthof concentration camp and then Thorn subcamp in August 1944. The camp was evacuated as Soviet forces neared. Esther and a friend escaped a forced march in January 1945 and were liberated in Torun, Poland, on January 22. When the war ended in May 1945, Esther returned to Poland to search for family members, but she found none. She met Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who was arranging for orphans to be sent to Great Britain. Esther was too old, but he agreed to lie and say she was 16 and she was sent to England in 1946. In London, she met Morris Gastwirth, a survivor originally from Tarnow Poland. They married in June 1946 and had a son in 1948. The family immigrated to the United States in January 1951.
    received:  1944 December 27
    received: Kaiserwald (Concentration camp); Riga (Latvia)
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Esther Dykman Gastwirth
    Subject: Esther Gastwirth
    Estera (Esther) Dykman was born on December 27, 1923, in Vilna, Poland (Vilnius, Lithuania), to Mojzesz and Fruma Bernstein Dykman. Mojzesz was born in 1894 and Fruma in 1898 in Vilna. Mojzesz had brothers who lived in Warsaw. Fruma had two brothers and four sisters. Sonia, Etia, and Chava. Sonia, the oldest, was married to Aron Kowarski, a pharmacist, with a drugstore in Ekan, and had a daughter Bella. Chava was married to Meyer and had two young daughters. Mojsesz and Fruma wed in 1922. Mojsesz owned a factory that produced stockings and the family had a comfortable life. Esther's sister, Cyla, was born in 1933. Esther attended a Jewish school. Jews had fewer rights than Polish citizens and antisemitism was a common experience. After a lengthy illness, Fruma died of tuberculosis in 1939.

    In September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. A few weeks later, in accordance with the German-Soviet Pact, the Soviet Union occupied eastern Poland, which included Vilna. Mojzesz built a secret room in their home to hide their valuables so they would not be confiscated. The Soviets nationalized land holdings and businesses and arrested people they called capitalists. Many were deported to camps in Siberia. All religious, cultural, and political organizations were banned. In 1940, Mojzesz married Liza Gershater, who was born in 1902 in Vilna.

    On June 22, 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and occupied Vilna on June 24. In July, the Germans issued anti-Jewish decrees: Jews had to wear Star of David badges and could not go in certain areas or walk on sidewalks. In July, German mobile killing units, aided by Lithuanian auxiliaries, began a series of mass arrests. Three German soldiers entered the Dykman home to take their valuables and arrested Mojzesz. The next day, an acquaintance told Esther that her father had been shot and killed in the Ponary Forest. Five thousand Jewish men were killed in July and at least 3500 in August. On September 6, the Germans established two ghettos in Vilna. Ghetto #2 was for Jews considered incapable of work; the ghetto was destroyed and the residents killed in Ponary in October. Esther and her family were sent to Ghetto #1 in the old Jewish quarter of Vilna which was where their home was located. They were able to stay in their home, shared with many others. Esther was assigned work in the ghetto. She washed clothes for the Germans and later worked in a garden that had previously belonged to the church. Food in the ghetto was rationed and extremely scarce. Esther smuggled food into the ghetto when she came home from work. The Germans continued to arrest people at night and sent them to be shot at Ponary. Esther’s grandmother and aunts Elia and Chava were taken in this way. News of the liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto in May 1943 reached Vilna and resistance groups organized. Esther attended a few meetings but she felt it was safer to not take chances. In late September 1943, the Vilna ghetto was liquidated. Before the announced round up, Esther and Liza went into the secret room in their house and divided the hidden gold between them. They were then marched to the garden where Esther had worked. Esther was able to stay with Liza, Cela, and her friend Raya. They were held in the garden in the rain all night. In the morning, the Germans began the selections: Esther was separated from Liza and Cela. She and Raya were put into cattle cars and transported to Kaiserwald concentration camp in Riga, Latvia. Upon arrival, the Germans forced them into a barn and told them to surrender their belongings. Esther hid her father’s thirty-five gold Russian coins on her person and among the discarded belongings. The next day, she was given a wash cloth, a tin cup, and soap and put the gold in the soap. She was shaved and given a coarse, gray striped dress and kerchief. Esther sewed the gold into the hem and hid some in her shoes. Their days consisted of standing for roll call in the cold and rain; sometimes dogs were set on them. They received subsistence rations, with bread made of straw and frozen potatoes. Esther and Raya formed a close circle of friends. One of the prisoners who sorted the clothes taken from them upon arrival found a picture of Esther and her family and gave it to her. Esther worked at a hospital in Riga scraping cement from bricks in the yard. She was chosen to go inside and make fires for the doctors. She did not know how, and one of the doctors helped her. She showed him the picture of her family and he threw it in the fire. It was very hard and dangerous to keep the gold, but they were desperate for food. Esther used it to buy bread which she shared with her friends. Being part of this close group helped them survive. They looked out for each other, shared their hopes and fears, and killed the lice on each others backs. Esther and her group of friends were sent to live and work at Allgemeine Elektriziats-Gesellschaft (AEG) factory in Riga, where they made electrical parts for planes and fixed thick rubber cables. They worked at heavy machinery and made holes in asbestos and injuries were frequent. The foremen were Latvian men and all the workers were Jewish women. They were able to wash themselves daily, but the lice were a constant problem.

    As Soviet troops closed in on Riga in August 1944, Esther and her friends were transferred to Stutthof concentration camp and then to Thorn subcamp, in Torun, Poland. They worked in an underground factory with guards with guns and bars on the widows. They carried very heavy things and fixed thick cables. After a few months, they were transferred to another factory. They had no barracks and had to sleep on the muddy floor of a barn. The Red Cross visited and they were ordered to tell the Red Cross that they were fine. As the Russians approached Thorn, the German guards chased them out of the barn and forced them on a march. They were finally allowed to rest in an abandoned building. Esther was so exhausted she collapsed and could only crawl. She and Raya found a hole in the wall and hid. They stayed behind when the march resumed the next day. With 22 others, they hid in the building for a week. Some local Polish people brought them soup. One day, a Polish man came in and announced that they were free on January 22, 1945. She left the building with Raya and while walking down a road they were confronted by three Soviet soldiers. They were told to go to a building in Torun where Jews were being held. She was given different clothes to wear. Esther and other women were provided a house in which they could live. Esther stayed in Torun and then in Bydgoszcz until the war was over in Europe on May 7, 1945. She relocated to Gdansk, then to Łódź. An organization there published names of survivors in newspapers to assist in finding loved ones. She still hoped that her stepmother and sister were alive, but she had to accept that they had perished. Her mother's sisters and their families were all killed by the Germans. Her maternal uncles had fled to Paris when the Soviets invaded Vilna and survived in hiding. Esther visited Majdanek, a former concentration camp in Lublin, Poland, having heard that her family had been sent there. Esther met Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, who arranged for Jewish orphans to be sent to Great Britain. He agreed to lie about 22 year old Esther’s age and he sent her to England as a 16 year old in 1946. She lived with a Jewish family in London. She met Morris Gastwirth, who was born on June 9, 1912, in Tarnow, Poland. Morris had fought with the Polish Army and been imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp. His first wife and two young children had been killed during the war. Esther and Morris married on June 22, 1946, and had a son in 1948. The family immigrated to the United States in January 1951. They settled in New York and had a daughter. Esther wrote a book about the Holocaust called Determination, Courage, Destiny, and later wrote fictional short stories. Morris, age 101, died on August 17, 2013, in Palm Beach, Florida. Esther, age 89, died on November 30, 2013, in Palm Beach.

    Physical Details

    English Polish
    Object Type
    Combs (lcsh)
    Physical Description
    a. Rectangular, light brown wooden comb with rounded short edges and notched, close set teeth on both long sides. The teeth are narrower on one side than on the other. The comb is stained on the front.
    b. Rectangular, handmade comb case made from one piece of brown cardstock folded in thirds and hand stitched with blue and white thread on the short sides. The top section extends into a triangular flap with a rounded tab with edge stitching which tucks under a horizontal bowtie shaped strap with edge stitching for closure; the tab is sewn to the short sides. The letters E and D are stitched into the front of the tab. There is a handwritten inscription in English on the back.
    c. A small, folded piece of discolored white grid paper with a handwritten note was kept inside the case.
    a: Height: 2.125 inches (5.398 cm) | Width: 3.750 inches (9.525 cm) | Depth: 0.125 inches (0.318 cm)
    b: Height: 2.625 inches (6.668 cm) | Width: 4.500 inches (11.43 cm) | Depth: 0.375 inches (0.953 cm)
    a : wood
    b : paper, thread, ink
    b. back, handwritten, black ink : This was given to Esther Dykman / in Kaiserwald Camp by a / friend 1944 / AEG Factory in Tovum, Poland
    b. front, embroidered, blue/white thread : E D
    c. note found in .b, cursive, pencil : Esterka! / MP 16. V-48 / Jesli mo[?]s[?] poczekaj na / mnie, bo dzisiaj wyjezdzam / Musik [Esterka!/ MP 16.V-48/ If you [?] hold on for/ me, because today we leave/ Musik]

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    No restrictions on access
    Conditions on Use
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    Keywords & Subjects

    Administrative Notes

    The comb and case were donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2012 by Esther Dykman Gastwirth.
    Record last modified:
    2022-07-28 18:26:58
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