“I had typhus, and then they threw me onto this mountain of bodies. Your mother, and I have no idea where she got the strength to do this, was the one who pulled me out from all of those bodies and carried me to the British ambulances.”
Esther Friedman was 12 years old when she was deported from Hungary to Auschwitz. When Dr. Josef Mengele took her out of the selection line of prisoners arriving at the camp, her grandmother tried to stop him. “Get out of here, you stupid cow,” Mengele shouted, pushing her grandmother away. After overcoming a series of cruel and morbid medical experiments, Esther managed to escape and began working in a metal factory.
She was named by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial Museum, as “one of the two thousand,” the only survivor of the 2,000 people transported from Hungary, before she was deported for a second time. This time, she was sent to the Bergen-Belsen camp, where she contracted typhus. “Some of the worst images of my life are from here. There were dead bodies everywhere, they didn’t even try removing them. You couldn’t walk anywhere without stepping on a body,” she explained to Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, who visited her as a part of the project ‘Flower for a Survivor’.
Esther with IDF (Zahal) Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz
As a part of this project, IDF (Zahal) soldiers and officers meet with survivors each year on Holocaust Remembrance Day to hear their stories. This meeting, however, was unique. Malka Weiss de Gantz, the mother of the IDF (Zahal) Chief of Staff, was also a survivor of the Bergen-Belsen camp and was the one who saved Esther. “I had typhus, and then they threw me on a mountain of bodies. Your mother, I have no idea where she got the strength, was the one who pulled me from the bodies and brought me to the British ambulance,” said Esther. “Thanks to Malka, I’m here today.”
Years later, Malka sat down and told her incredible story.
Together, Malka and Esther escaped to Switzerland, where they boarded the Chaim Arlozorov, a ship for illegal immigrants destined for the State, not yet declared, of Israel. “They made us get rid of all of our belongings—everything that we had. I walked for a long time in Cyprus without shoes,” says Esther. “Your mother always dreamed of having a son who would be a general,” she says, in between anecdotes about Lt. Gen. Gantz.
Esther and Malka after the war
At the end of the meeting, Esther received a certificate, thanking her for her “contribution in the foundation of the State and her efforts in the continuation of the Jewish people in our land”. Gantz added: “I think what was said here really reflects what we think: when you ask yourself where our roots are, they’re not in Europe, they’re here. You are the living example of what heroism is.”
At the bottom of the certificate, written by hand, is the following message: “with love and personal and national thanks, Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz”.