Peppy and Esther

Posted 1/31/24

The workshop was well underway when the door opened and a woman trailing a wheeled suitcase appeared, accompanied by the workshop director, who introduced her as Peppy, our missing colleague. There …

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Peppy and Esther


The workshop was well underway when the door opened and a woman trailing a wheeled suitcase appeared, accompanied by the workshop director, who introduced her as Peppy, our missing colleague. There were nine of us in this class called “Tell It Slant,” a three-day writing workshop for nonfiction writers near Cape May, NJ.

Peppy was more harried than peppy by the time she arrived, having been misdirected to a building on the opposite side of the conference center. Her temples were wet with perspiration even as her coiffed hair stayed put. As she squeezed behind me to reach her seat I could hear her labored breathing. She was a heavy-set woman, meticulously groomed, and I sensed she was uncomfortable making an entrance. She soon offered that she was also unfamiliar with writing professionally. 

But Peppy had a story to tell. The daughter of Holocaust survivors, she was born in Zeilsheim, a Displaced Persons camp set up by the U.S. in Germany for Jewish survivors who could not go home after the war. Most of her family was brutally murdered in the Nazi concentration camps. As the war was ending, her mother joined the Death March from Auschwitz, shoeless, wearing only a thin cotton prisoner shift. When she collapsed in the snow a Russian soldier picked her up from the road and brought her to a nearby farmhouse, where she was cared for by British medics and transported to a hospital, her years-long horror ended.

Peppy’s story, which includes her immigrant experience coming to America, speaking only Polish, needs telling now more than ever, even here in the world’s greatest free country, lest it happen again. Her writing is terse and without added flourishes, but the story it tells is powerful. She tells it to groups all over the country in synagogues and churches and universities, but now she needs to write it for history, which led her to our workshop.

Less than a week after meeting Peppy, I met another Holocaust survivor while volunteering for our local service organization, Growing Older Together. I was asked to drive her to Walmart for groceries. It was on one of those frigid days after a snowstorm and she said she would walk out to her mailbox to meet me because her driveway wasn’t plowed. I thought that was awfully brave of her until I found out she is a tank gunner. Esther’s parents both died in concentration camps and she was adopted after surviving the same Death March that Peppy’s mother lived through. 

While Peppy spends her retirement giving Powerpoint talks about the Holocaust, Esther serves in the tank division of the Israeli Defense Forces. She has served in seven wars since 1967. In this war, her Commanding Officer called to ask if she could still walk and would she be able to get inside a tank again? Esther was offended by the question. Whether as a lawyer representing Israel at The Hague, or as the grandmother of eight, Esther is ready for anything. She told me she writes weekly opinion columns for seven different news outlets, including Der Spiegel and France-Soir. 

These women are among the last of their generation. As they watch the world turn upside down once again, each of them tries to serve history in their own way, hoping for a better outcome for the rest of us. Writing is a way to shine a light on their trauma hoping to give it meaning for others. It can be cathartic for the victim. It is instructive for all of us. 

From the Washington Post:

“Soviet Red Army troops liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 27, 1945, with about 7,000 prisoners there, children and those who were too weak to walk. The Germans had evacuated tens of thousands of other inmates on foot days earlier in what is now called the Death March, because many inmates died of exhaustion and cold in the sub-freezing temperatures.”

peppy and ester, rivermuse, holocaust, survivor


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  • hope

    Thank you for making the time to write and share the story of these courageous survivors.

    Tuesday, February 13 Report this