Esther Lupyan was born in 1936 in Minsk in the Soviet Union, which today is the capital of Belarus. Esther grew up in Minsk with her elder brother Gershon and her mother Bella. Her father was absent from her life during this period, because in 1936, shortly after Esther was born, her father was accused of being a dissident to the Stalinist government. Her father was jailed in Minsk and then sent away with other prisoners to a Russian camp in Vorkuta, near the polar circle, where he worked mining coal for the Soviet government. Meanwhile, life in Minsk was very difficult for Esther, Greshon, and their mother. Because Esther’s father had been arrested by the government, everyone in Minsk began avoiding the family. Food was scarce and, many times, her relatives had to sneak food in through the window of their house during the night so no one would catch them. Eventually, Esther’s mother was able to find work in a firm, working as a bookkeeper.
During July 1941, Esther was staying at a kindergarten summer camp outside of Minsk with other children, whose parents worked in the factory where Esther’s mother worked. One day, all of a sudden, the teachers began rounding up the children in the kindergarten and ushering them onto trains back to Minsk. On their ride back to Minsk, their train was bombed; however, Esther’s train car made it safely back to the train station in Minsk. At the station, hundreds of frantic parents were searching for their children. Isaac, Esther’s younger uncle, spotted Esther on the train and grabbed her, bringing her over to her mother. Esther, noticing that everyone at the train station was upset and crying, including her mother, realized for the first time that something was amiss. Days later, men in green uniforms (the Gestapo) began marching the streets of Minsk as German occupation began in Russia.
Not long afterward, a ghetto was established in Minsk. Esther’s family was forced to relocate to a small apartment building within the confines of the ghetto, living with at least five other families. Esther, not knowing exactly what was taking place, perceived that something was immediately wrong, as almost all discussion of any kind began to cease. Esther’s mother also had to explain to her that she was not allowed to move outside the barbed wire fence that enclosed the ghetto, or else she would be shot by the German officers. Esther’s mother was then forced to work in a kitchen for the German army, and, more often than not, her mother brought Esther to work with her, afraid of leaving her daughter back in the ghetto while she worked. Meanwhile, Esther’s brother Gershon, who was about twelve years old at the time, was considered too old to bring to work, so he was left on his own in the ghetto during the day. Unbeknownst to his mother at the time, Gershon became a messenger in the underground Jewish resistance in Minsk. Among his duties, he conducted families through underground passages out of the ghetto, went to nearby villages to ask for food and collected scrap metal that could be melted down and made into weapons.
After a while, the German officers informed the women working in the kitchen that they were not allowed to bring their children to work any longer. In order to get around this, many of the workers hid their children under their skirts, as they marched to work each day. The children, including Esther, had to learn to walk in unison with their parents’ steps, while remaining hidden under their mothers’ dresses. Once they arrived at work, the children hid under work benches or in other areas. However, one day, while Esther was playing on a broken centrifuge outside the kitchen, she saw a man lying on the ground, who asked her to bring him some bread. Esther wandered back into the kitchen and asked her mother, whether or not she could have some bread. Once she received the bread, Esther brought it back to the man lying outside, who, in return, gave her a small toy as a reward. Unfortunately, an SS guard who was patrolling the area, noticed Esther going back into the kitchen. He grabbed Esther by the hair, sat her down on a bench in the kitchen and pointed a gun to her forehead in front of all the women workers. Esther’s mother and the other women pleaded for the girl’s life. The SS man said this was the last time he was going to spare a child if he saw one again in the kitchens.
As time went on in the ghetto, the conditions deteriorated. Every day the ghetto became smaller and smaller, as more people began disappearing. One day, German officers came by to inform all the families living in the ghetto that each family had to volunteer one member to report to the plaza that day. Esther’s grandfather said he would go, but his wife did not allow him to leave without her. Esther’s grandparents left together, and it was the last time Esther saw either of them. On random days, the Gestapo also barged into the houses and shot anyone they saw. Most of the time, Esther hid with her mother in a vegetable cellar underneath the ground, but, one day, Esther did not make it down there. Hiding in the room, she witnessed an old man, who could not get out of bed, get shot to death in front of her eyes. During this terrible time, Esther also lost her uncle Isaac and her brother Gershon. Isaac, who was working in the resistance effort, was responsible for helping destroy at least five German trains, but he was later shot on one of his missions. Gershon, on the other hand, was turned over to the German soldiers, when one day someone living in the ghetto saw him crawling under the barbed wire fence. Gershon was arrested and loaded onto a truck, never to be heard from again.
When 1943 came, the Minsk ghetto was close to liquidation. One night, Esther’s mother tried to leave her daughter at an orphanage on the outskirts of Minsk for her protection. Esther, not wanting to be without her mother, chased her down and refused to leave her side. Later, Esther found out that the orphanage had been bombed sometime afterwards, and all the rescued children there died. Not long afterwards, Esther and her mother were rounded up at the Minsk train station, where SS soldiers were loading Jews onto gas chamber trucks. Instinctively, Esther’s mother sensed imminent danger. She led her daughter away from the train station, while the SS guards were busy, fleeing to the kitchens where she worked. On the road, Esther and her mother came across a member of the underground resistance, who asked them where they were going. He helped to remove the yellow star on Esther’s mother’s dress and to patch up the dress. He then informed them to hide in a haystack at a nearby farm and to wait until night fall to flee into the woods.
For nearly a year, from 1943 to 1944, Esther and her mother hid out in the Russian forests. Usually at night, they asked for lodgings in nearby villages, before fleeing back into the forests during the day. Eventually, Esther and her mother met up with other Jewish refugees that were hiding out in the forests. Sometimes they slept in bunkers, where partisans to the resistance effort were housed. When the war finally came to an end in Russia in 1944, the Red Army housed Esther and her mother in a former police station for the Gestapo in Smilovichi, a suburb outside of Minsk. Esther’s mother received work at a school in Smilovichi, and Esther was finally able to attend school herself. A few weeks later, when Esther and her mother returned to Minsk, Esther’s mother noticed a letter posted on a notice board. The letter was from a man in a Russian prison camp, looking anywhere for his wife and children. To Esther’s mother’s utter shock, the notice was from her husband, whom she had not seen since 1936. Esther and her mother immediately boarded a train, and they met up with him at a Moscow train station, when he was allowed leave from the labor camp. For some time, Esther and her parents remained in Northern Russia, but Esther’s father was eventually released, on the condition that he did not try to leave Russia. Esther and her parents eventually moved back to Minsk. Esther continued on with her schooling, and she studied chemistry at a university in Leningrad. Later on, she married and had two children Boris and Miriam, before immigrating to the United States in 1989. In 1995, she finally became a citizen.
Date: July 23, 2007
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 2 hours 03 minutes
Format: Video Recording