Two Jewish girls in hiding walk down a street in Warsaw.
Photograph | Photograph Number: 49589
Circa April 1943
- Variant Locale
- Photo Designation
RESCUERS & RESCUED -- Poland
- Photo Credit
- United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Esther Wagner
Two Jewish girls in hiding walk down a street in Warsaw.
Pictured on the left is Esther Willig who was living under the name Paulina Wilanska.
- Esther Rivka Wagner (born Esther Willig) is the daughter of Rabbi Shraga Feivel Willig (b. 1870) and Sarah Chaya Blei (b. ca. 1890). Esther was born on March 2, 1934 in Buczacz where her father served as the rabbi and mohel of the city. Rabbi Willing died a natural death in 1941 exacerbated by the events of the time. Sarah Chaya Blei was the second wife of Shraga who had six children from his first marriage. Esther was their only daughter; she grew up with two much older stepbrothers. They lived in an apartment adjoining the religious court where Rabbi Willig worked. The city had 10,000 Jews and 2,000 gentiles most of whom lived on the outskirts of the city. Esther attended a Zionist nursery school and then was privately tutored at home since her father did not want to expose her to the Catholic traditions and symbols in public school. In the afternoons, she first attended the Tarbut School and later Beis Yaakov which her father helped establish. Esther spoke Yiddish with her parents and Polish with her friends.
When Esther turned 14 her father received a letter from Rabbi Shmuel Wagner of Lvov regarding a "sidduch" (match) for his son Yisrael. For several years Esther did not want to hear about this but when she was 17, she agreed after Rabbi Wagner traveled to Buczacz. By this time the Soviets had expelled Esther and her parents from their apartment, and they were living in a carpentry workshop. The Russians wanted to draft Yisrael so he decided to flee to Buczacz and live with the Willigs as well.
In June 1941 Germany occupied Buczacz. Her father was called to City Hall, ordered to form a Judenrat and given a list of other demands. All Jews were required to wear armbands, abide by a curfew and relinquish their fur coats and trimmings in spite of the harsh winters and lack of heat. Esther worked in the local soup kitchen. The Germans also began deporting Jews. Esther and her family found a trapdoor leading to a cellar of the carpentry shop where they lived and hid there together with Yosef, neighbors, and cousins. However before long, a neighbor informed the Germans that the family had not reported to the marketplace as ordered. Esther and the others were soon found, marched to the railway station, and separated by age and genders into cattle cars. Esther felt she was suffocating and together with another person managed to pry open two tiny windows which were closed with wooden planks and barbed wire. She stepped on a barrel and jumped out while the train was still moving. Another girl jumped as well, but the Germans began shooting started as soon as they noticed what was going on. Esther landed in a corn field and overheard two men speaking Yiddish. They were merchants who knew the roads well. Esther accompanied them to Buczacz and returned to the carpentry shop as did her brother Moshe and his family.
Esther learned that most of the people on the train, including Yisrael, were sent to the Janowska labor camp. His brother, who had Aryan papers, helped Yisrael escape. Yisrael then wrote to Esther's brother saying hat he no longer wanted to live since he believed that Esther was no longer alive. Esther wrote back immediately. Chaim purchased false papers for Esther under the name Paulina Wilanska which he paid for with her engagement ring. Yisrael and Chaim, and their sister Luba, joined Esther in the workshop. Luba obtained a job as a maid taking care of children in the family of a Christian woman married to a Jewish convert to Catholicism. The others remained in the workshop until it became too dangerous. Luba found work for Esther in Warsaw with the sister of the woman she worked for. Esther began her work there in December 1942. This didn't last long as a visitor recognized her. However, the family was compassionate and allowed her to use their summer home in the Praga district until she found another job. She soon found other employment since she had the proper registration papers. It was difficult, but she lived there for another 8 months until she felt she had to move again as there was suspicion that she was Jewish. The next position that she found was with an older couple where the man of the house was a Volkdeutsch and who were fairly kind to her although he had a drinking problem. In 1944 Esther was sent as a messenger for her boss. At this time, Luba was staying with her since she was suspected of being a Jew in the town where she was living. Both girls therefore were traveling together when the Polish uprising against the Germans broke out. They got off the trolley and walked for several hours until they reached their house. Two days later the Germans came by and began burning the houses of the Poles, including theirs. They were brought to an assembly are in Warsaw. Esther and Luba managed to escape and by luck met a sympathetic German who offered to help and drove them to Blotnica. Since Luba knew German and how to type, she worked in an office while Esther found work in the kitchen. However after a few weeks, the girls became nervous and wanted to leave. The same German who brought them there was kind enough to take them out. He took them to a camp not far from the village with an anti-aircraft unit that was shooting down Russian planes. They were taken into their unit and spent the next eight months going back and forth from the Russian occupied territory to Poland. They reached as far as Danzig when they learned that Hitler was dead. They were sent up by boat to Schleswig-Holstein and arrived on May 8, 1945. There they remained for another eight months still using their false names. Esther worked as a waitress in the English Officer's mess, and her sister-in-law found another job. Luba also met her future husband Bill who was with the British air force and came from Israel. Esther left the area as soon as she could reestablish her identity with the help of the UNRAA. She took up her old name of Ester Rebecca Willig and moved to Celle, a DP camp near Bergen-Belsen. Esther worked in the camp's Beis Yaakov and also as an interpreter as she knew some English from Schleswig. Her fiancée Yisrael Wagner found her in Celle after searching for her for a year after the war in Warsaw and other displaced persons' camps. They married in Salzburg, Austria on Lag B'Omer on May 19, 1946. Esther was employed by UNRAA helping survivors fill out questionnaires searching for family members.
From there Esther and her husband left on false papers for Belgium where they remained for 6 months and then immigrated to Bolivia where her husband was employed as a Rabbi in La Paz. They stayed there for several years, gave birth to their first son, but later moved to the United States.
- Photo Source
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial MuseumProvenance: Esther Wagner
Record last modified: 2009-08-03 00:00:00
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