COLORADO — Estelle Nadel was only 7-years-old when her sister, her brother, and father were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and killed in the gas chambers there. She and her brother were later jailed and escaped. They hid with other family for years in an attic over a stable, where she could not even stand up.
Now, she is 87 and living in Colorado. She sat down with News 5 Anchor Dianne Derby to share her remarkable story of survival.
Life before the war
Estelle Nadel was born in the small village of Borek, Poland. Estelle describes her village as mixed with both Jewish and non-Jewish people living in the area. She describes her home as "very primitive." Her family had a farm with a lot of land, but they were very poor. She said her mother would plant vegetables and try to sell them at the market on Mondays. When asked about her parents, she said he mother was well known in the village because she was a great cook, and she used her skills for christenings and weddings for other families in the village. Estelle's father worked at a refinery, and she describes him as a very religious man who would pray to God three times a day.
"He always told us that nothing will happen to us, that he will, God, will take care of us," says Estelle.
Estelle had four older siblings. Her older sister worked at the refinery with her father, and her oldest brother worked at the nearby airport.
She remembers that things began to change for the Jews in 1939 when the Germans invaded Poland. She said her father would assure the family that things would get better and that it was just the economy, but she says as time went on things began to get worse. She says she remembers hearing rumors that a lot of Jewish men were being taken away, and that her father would have meetings at her home to talk about what to do. Eventually, she said, some of her cousins left Poland and went to Russia.
When everything changed
One day in 1942, when Estelle was seven years old, the Gestapo sacked Estelle's home looking for weapons. She said they didn't have anything, and the incident was "very frightening."
Two weeks later, Estelle says her sister ran home from work one day and told the rest of the family, which included Estelle, her mother, and her two brothers, to go out into the fields for the day. Estelle says her mother begged her daughter to join them, but Estelle's older sister assured them that she would be safe because she knew a lot of the Germans. Estelle and her family gathered some of her cousins and they all went into the fields for the day. While they were in the fields, Estelle says the Germans surrounded the refinery, because there were too many Jews working there. They then made two lines, Estelle's sister would run to their father in the right line. She says her sister, father, and older brother were taken by train to Auschwitz and were put into the gas chambers. Estelle says she learned of their fate just five years ago and had always thought that they had been shot that day. She said the people in the left line, which included her uncle, were taken to a ghetto to keep working at the refinery. her uncle would later escape.
When nighttime came, Estelle said they had learned it was not safe to go home, so they went to the house of a friend who was able to hide them for a night. She said her mother would seek out another friend, who was an old woman in the village, and the woman agreed to hide them. They stayed in the woman's attic, which had a thatched roof. Estelle says her mother would go out three times a week during the night to get food from people she could trust in the village.
Estelle says one night, a 19-year-old Polish man recognized her mother, and she was caught by the Gestapo. Estelle and her three brothers were told by a family friend that there was a German soldier who would come in the morning when Jews were discovered during the night, and that their mother was shot that morning.
Estelle and her two brothers would stay in the attic by day and look at the peepholes to entertain themselves, and at night they would go downstairs to breathe the fresh air. Eventually, one of Estelle's brothers decided he wanted to leave the attic and get work in a neighboring village where no one knew who he was. Estelle said because he was "fair" he believed he could pass as a non-Jew. From that moment on it was just Estelle and her one brother.
A life in hiding, and on the run
Estelle and her brother stayed at the old woman's house for several weeks, but were eventually caught. She said it started when the old woman confronted the neighbors about their children stealing from her garden.
"The woman said to her, if you don't be quiet, I'm gonna report you to the Gestapo that you're hiding Jews. When she came back and told us that we knew we needed to leave," said Estelle.
Estelle and her brother decided they would go away for two weeks and would eventually return to the old woman's house when suspicions died down. However, shortly after they returned, the Germans broke down the door and captured Estelle and her brother.
Estelle says they beat her brother in the courtyard of the village and took them to Jedlicze jail. When they arrived, they were interrogated and were asked if they knew about other Jews. Estelle says she remembers crying so much that the man in charge of the jail tried to console her. Estelle and her brother were thrown into the basement cell, which Estelle describes as very small, with only a single wooden bed. There were no covers, and Estelle and her brother had to cuddle at night to keep warm.
Estelle says after a while her brother became restless and asked her to help get the wooden bed by a window. Estelle says her brother told her the window was at the same level as the sidewalk and that he was going to try to squeeze through the bars. The first time he tried he got stuck. Before he tried again he gave Estelle instructions. He told Estelle that she would have to squeeze through the bars after a guard turns the corner and that she would then have to cross the street, climb over a big fence, where he would meet her. Estelle described herself as "hysterical" as her brother was pushing for them to escape. She says at the time "she was ready to die."
On the second try, her brother was able to squeeze through, and it was then Estelle's turn. Estelle says when she saw the guard turn the corner she was able to squeeze through the bars easily because she was smaller. When she reached the other side of the fence, she realized she was in someone's garden, and she couldn't find her brother.
Estelle says a woman came out to meet her, Estelle told the woman that she was Jewish and that she had just escaped from the jail across the street. Estelle asked the woman if she could hide her, but the woman revealed herself to be the wife of the jailer and couldn't hide her. The woman took Estelle inside her home where she was having drinks with another couple. While the adults were discussing what to do with her, Estelle asked the woman to take her to the public showers in Borek, since Estelle says she knew how to get to where her aunt and uncle were hiding from there. The woman eventually agreed to take Estelle through the fields to the public showers. Estelle says she waited for a bit before going to her aunt and uncle because she didn't want someone to follow her and know where the rest of her family was hiding.
"I was so very lucky that the lady didn't take me back to the jail. I mean, she could have been an anti-semite and, and, and, you know, hell with this kid, you know, she's Jewish," said Estelle.
The rest of Estelle's family were hiding in an attic over a stable. Estelle says when she arrived, at first, her aunt and uncle were angry with her because they were worried someone might have followed her. Estelle says her brother came to the stables that morning and they were reunited. Estelle, her brother, her aunt, uncle, and her cousins would stay in that attic for over two years. Estelle said she could not stand in the attic because the floor was very weak, and they could only crawl or lay down. Estelle said when they were eventually rescued their legs were so atrophied they had to be carried out, only her brother could walk since he would leave at night to get food.
"People complain that, that the COVID... you know, the virus, they're not able to do things... People complain that they're stuck in there, they were stuck in their house. They couldn't go out to a restaurant. They're so lucky. They have beautiful homes and they have plenty of food."
Liberated, but not safe
Eventually, the Russians rescued Estelle and her family. Estelle said she could hear the Russian artillery moving in, but that the rescue didn't happen overnight and it took several weeks for the Russians to reach her village. She said that the Russians were good to them, but eventually had to leave. She said they realized they weren't safe anymore since there were still people trying to find Jews, and that they had to get out of Poland.
Estelle and her family got false papers and decided to go to Hungary. Estelle says her other brother, who had left earlier, had reunited with them, but was hesitant about leaving and even thought about converting to Catholicism. However, Estelle says her brother eventually decided to join them as they went to Hungary. She says one night while they were staying in Hungary, her Uncle and her cousins left them because they had a relative in Australia who would take them, but not Estelle and her brothers.
Estelle says things began to deteriorate in Hungary on the Russian side, so she and her brothers paid a guard to smuggle them to the American side in Austria. Estelle and her brothers eventually ended up at a displaced persons camp. She and her brothers had originally planned to go to Israel, but one night a female American soldier came up to Estelle after she had sang in a performance at the camp.
"She wanted to meet my parents. And I told her, I don't have any parents. She said, Who do you live with? And I said, I live with two brothers. She says, How would you like to go to America?" said Estelle.
Estelle said she did not exactly know what "America" was since she had no education and was going to Hebrew school in the displaced persons camp. When she told her brothers about the soldier, they decided to change plans and go to America.
The process to get to America was a long one, Estelle said back then you had to be in perfect health and that she had to get x-rays and vaccinations. She said there was a list posted every week on who could go to America, she said one day her brother checked and their names were on it, but not Estelle's. She was told that there was a spot on her lungs in her x-rays, but they agreed to let her re-take them. Estelle and her brothers decided that the younger of the two brothers would go to America, and her other brother would stay behind with Estelle. It was later discovered that someone had mixed up the x-rays, and Estelle was eventually cleared to go to America.
Estelle and her brother then ran into another hurdle, on their way to America their ship broke down on the English Channel, and they had to wait for a different ship.
After a long journey, Estelle and her brother finally reached America on April 1, 1947.
Life in America
When Estelle arrived in America she was met by her younger brother who had gone ahead.
"He already had a job in New Jersey and was all dressed up, he looked already like an American," she said.
Estelle and her other brother were put up in a hotel in Manhattan while her brother searched for a job. However, during that time, Estelle's brothers had decided that she "would be better off" in a foster home, because they couldn't take care of her. That decision broke Estelle's heart.
"I really wanted to be with my brothers, but my brothers would not take me in," she said.
Estelle said her older brother had been the "rock" during the difficult time and she believes when they got to America he had reached a breaking point. She said she was eventually able to forgive her brother, but she was never able to fully tell him before he died.
She says her brother eventually got a job at a factory in New Jersey, and Estelle stayed in the hotel by herself. Before she was placed in a foster home, Estelle said the hotel manager gave her money to go to the movies every day, which she says is how she learned English.
"I didn't know how to speak English at all. And I would watch the movie from Wednesday. The following Wednesday was a new movie. I didn't understand at first what was happening. But as time went on, I began to understand and able to speak English."
Estelle was placed in a foster home in the Bronx and started 6th grade that Fall. She said it was very difficult at first because while she knew how to speak English she couldn't read or write in it. Estelle's brothers later informed her that there was a couple in Long Island that wanted to adopt an older child after they lost their son in the war when his plane was shot down. Estelle moved in with the couple, and in 1951 the family decided to move to California, where Estelle would spend the majority of her life.
Estelle later met her husband there and married him when she was seventeen. Her husband told News 5 that he knew the moment he saw Estelle that she would be his wife. The couple has three children and five grandchildren, and one of their sons lives in Colorado. Estelle would go on to start a jewelry business.
Revisiting the past
Estelle said she couldn't speak about her experience for years, and she wouldn't tell her children the full story until they were adults. She became more open to talking about it when her daughter-in-law, who was a teacher, encouraged her to speak at local schools.
Over the years Estelle and her brothers have kept in contact with the relatives of the families who hid them during the war.
She would eventually return to Poland, which included a visit to Auschwitz, where she would learn about the fate of her father, sister, and brother after seeing their names on a scroll.
Estelle and her brothers were also able to confront the man who turned in their mother. However, Estelle says the confrontation was "not satisfying" because she says the man had no remorse and told them that the Germans would have killed him if he hadn't turned in their mother.
Estelle's brother would also come face-to-face with the prison guard of the jail they were kept in. He would find out that the guard had purposefully put Estelle and her brother in that cell hoping that they would escape since they were small enough to fit through the bars.
Estelle says not a day goes by where she doesn't think about her experience, but despite the pain and the loss, she calls her experience a "miracle."
"Never give up hope, no matter how bleak things look, you always have to look at the something good will happen. Yeah. And it did. It did happen. Good happened."
For more information on the Holocaust and survivors:
- The Greenberg Center for Learning and Tolerance
- Center for Judaic Studies - University of Denver
- International Holocaust Remembrance Day
Watch KOAA News5 on your time, anytime with our free streaming app available for your Roku, FireTV, AppleTV and Android TV. Just search KOAA News5, download and start watching.