Esther Bem describes her life and death encounter with a German SS officer.
Esther Bem (née Schwabenitz) was born in 1930 in Osijek, the former Yugoslavia. At age 4, her family moved to Zagreb, Croatia where Esther enjoyed a comfortable, happy life along with her parents and two older sisters. At home, the family spoke Croatian, and Esther spoke German with her maternal grandmother. No one could have imagined the important role that languages would play in the family’s survival during the Holocaust. (Image below: Esther with her older sister, circa 1938 in Zagreb.)
When the German army occupied Croatia in 1941, Esther and her parents fled to northern Italy where they hid, living openly under false identity papers. It was a time of great danger for the family, as the slightest misstep could reveal their true identity as Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution.
Esther took on increasing responsibility within the family, and her fluency in Italian enabled her to become the spokesperson for her family. Esther and her parents survived the treacherous times and were liberated in May 1945 by the British army and finally free to reveal their true identity and live openly as Jews.
The Schwabenitz family returned to Yugoslavia, and in 1950 Esther immigrated to Israel. In 1966, now married, Esther immigrated to Canada along with her husband and young family. Esther was a long time speaker with the Neuberger Holocaust Education Centre (formerly the Holocaust Centre of Toronto) and inspired generations of students and learners by sharing her experiences of survival during the Holocaust with them.
Esther Bem died in 2010 and her full testimony is part of the Canadian Collection of Holocaust survivor testimonies. It is preserved in the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive and accessible through the Ekstein Library.
If he would have doubted and started to investigate, we would have been hanging at the Piazza of San Zenone next morning.
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