"We were marched through the streets. The ground beneath us trembled. The air thundered with detonations. The buildings crumbled to our feet." Listen to Estelle Laughlin describe living through the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943. Learn more about some of her experiences and the choices she was forced to make during the Holocaust.
The Jewish people began to organize themselves into an armed resistance. They started to build bunkers. As I pointed out the buildings were practically vacant, so whoever, most of the people moved to the ground floor. The resistance fighters started to build bunkers in the basements. My father was a member of the underground and we had a bunker too.
The floor in our powder room, the whole floor lifted, commode and all, and then you’d step down in, down a flimsy little ladder and you were out of sight. Well, the resistance fighters built a network of bunkers and they dug tunnels so that they can move from bunker to bunker and tunnels underneath the wall to get to the other side, to the Christian side, and hopefully obtain ammunition and arms from the Christian underground.
The real fighting began when the armored cars, tanks, brigades of soldiers, bomber planes, trucks with loudspeakers, announcing, “You better all report or else we’ll kill you.” And of course we did not obey, we bolted into our bunker. And you can imagine when we pulled the trap door closed and we stepped into this damp darkness, the ceiling closed in on us. The walls pressed me and the few people who were with me in the bunker were my whole nation. The flickering of the carbide light was the substitute for the sun. The ticking of the clock was our only connection with the universe outside, that’s how we knew when morning was rising, when the sun was setting. How abandoned I felt. How I craved for the open horizons, for the crispness, blue crispness of day.
And while we were in this bunker, the freedom fighters confronted a twentieth century army. Just a small group of poorly clad, poorly fed, poorly armed freedom fighters climbing up on rooftops, meeting the tanks on street corners, standing in front of open windows and lobbing Molotov cocktails and whatever explosives they could find. They fought so bravely, they fought for four weeks, even after the ghetto was declared cleansed of Jews the Jewish fighters were still fighting. It is really noteworthy that the Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw ghetto fought longer than it took for France or for Poland to capitulate. I think that is remarkable.
Well, “Boom!” there was this horrendous explosion. I thought that my head was blown off. Dust was flying, splinters were flying around me. In one instant our hiding place was invaded by a bunch of barbarians and they chased us out of the bunker. At that point there was not even a corner that we could hide in. We could not even, we didn’t even have the freedom to fall to our knees and form fists and smash the earth. We were marched through the streets. The ground beneath us trembled. The air thundered with detonations. The buildings crumbled to our feet. The flames, the flames were enormous, enormous tongues of flames licked the sky and painted it in otherworldly colors of iridescence. The smoke, towers of smoke. People lying in congealed blood. I tried to turn my face away not to see it. I couldn’t understand what death meant. All I hoped for is that I meet it with my mother, and sister, and my father. But I couldn’t turn my face away from the people who I cannot forget, and they marched us onto Umschlagplatz onto freight trains, crowded like sardines.
Estelle (Wakszlak) Laughlin was born in Warsaw, Poland, on July 9, 1929, to Michla and Samek Wakszlak. Estelle also had an older sister, Freda, who was born in January 1928. Michla tended to the home and children while Samek ran a jewelry shop. Estelle and Freda attended the local public school.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. The siege on Warsaw began a week after German forces invaded Poland. On September 27, a ceasefire was called, and soon after, German forces entered Warsaw. Estelle and Freda were no longer able to attend the local public school. In October 1940 German forces decreed the establishment of a ghetto. The Wakszlak family and more than 400,000 Jews from the city and surrounding areas were forced to live in a 1.3 square mile area and to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. The food allotments rationed to the ghetto by the German authorities were not sufficient to sustain life; however, Samek was able to get extra food for his family from the black market. From July to September 1942, more than 260,000 ghetto residents were deported to the Treblinka killing center. During this time Estelle and her family hid in a secret room to escape the deportations.
In April 1943 German forces made one last push to deport the remaining 55,000-60,000 Jews from the Warsaw ghetto to forced labor sites or killing centers. Samek, who helped to organize the resistance movement, built a bunker in which he and his family could hide during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. As SS and police units began roundups, resistance fighters met them with artillery fire from resistance fighters. In retaliation, the SS began razing the ghetto, block by block. The bunker where Estelle and her family were hiding, which was in the basement of a house, was exposed by a bomb. The Germans dragged the Wakszlak family out onto the street, marched them to a central gathering point, forced them to board freight train cars, and transported them to the Lublin-Majdanek concentration camp.
Upon arrival at Majdanek, the SS separated the women and men. Estelle, Michla, and Freda were chosen for forced labor but Samek was murdered in the gas chamber. The women moved soil from one place outside the camp to another. At one point Freda was badly beaten by a German guard and could not work. She hid in the barracks, but was discovered. The Germans put her name on what she suspected was a gas chamber list. To stay together, even if it meant they would die, Estelle and Michla switched places with two women who were on the same list. Michla, Estelle, and Freda were, instead, sent to the Skarżysko concentration camp to work in a munitions factory, and were later transferred to another weapons factory at the Czestochowa concentration camp.
Soviet forces liberated Czestochowa in January of 1945. To escape pogroms in Poland the three women moved to Allied-occupied Germany in August 1945 and lived there until 1947, when they moved to the United States to join Michla’s two sisters and brother in New York City. Estelle is a volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.