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Holocaust survivor builds life with multilingual skills
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Esther Schiff, a native of Poland, is the last living survivor of the Holocaust in the Quad-Cities.
EAST MOLINE -- It's a long way from the forced labor farms in Munich during World War II to a sunny room at Hope Creek Care Center, but Esther Schiff has made that trip with her cheerful disposition intact.

As the Quad-Cities' last living survivor of the Holocaust, it would be understandable if she held grudges, but she said she doesn't. "It's very hard to judge people -- appearances don't mean anything."

At age 87, her memory still is amazing. "I speak German, Polish, English and some French. I once saved lives because I could speak French. I was in a wagon that was hauling potatoes, and the horses got spooked and took off. I grabbed the reins and said something in French, and they stopped and everybody was saved."

That skill with languages may have saved her life when she was forced to work at farms near Munich, during the war. "I was liked at the farm because I learned German fast. The Nazis would get frustrated with the people who only spoke Polish, but because I knew German, I had a better time of it. It's similar to Yiddish. I was a good B student at Catholic school -- all the public schools in Poland were Catholic."

After the war, moving to America was an easy choice.

"I didn't have anybody in Europe; my family had been killed by the Nazis. I had family in America," Mrs. Schiff said.

While other refugees were wondering where they would go, she had the opposite problem.

"At first, everybody wanted me to stay with them," she said.

Another typical immigrant problem was finding a job, and again, Mrs. Schiff didn't have to worry.

"In those days, you had to have a job to come here, and my brother had a business, so I went to live with him in New Jersey. He paid me a salary, but I didn't have to do much."

She soon grew restless and found a new place to work that kept her busy.

"I got a job in a factory making trim for shades," she said. "The boss told my brother I made more in bonuses than salary because I worked so fast. I learned English fast. I was around it so I picked it up fast."

Many people had heard fantastic stories about America, but the former Esther Stiller was more sensible than that.

"I never believed the stories people would tell about America, like how the streets were paved with gold. I had relatives here; I knew better! My American relatives were always writing us letters."

She married Saul Schiff on Nov. 16, 1946, in Jersey City, N.J. They met in Germany when Saul was serving in the U.S. Army and Esther was working as a mess-hall waitress. They remained happily married until his death in June 2012.

Her mother-in-law wasn't happy about the marriage at first.

"His mother asked him why he was marrying a girl with only $300 in the bank, but I earned all that money."

The couple eventually made their way to Moline. "We had two children -- Jackie, who was a teacher, and Stephen, who became a psychoanalyst in New York City."

Mr. Schiff worked as an engineer, and Mrs. Schiff stayed home off and on.

"After I got married, when money was tight, I helped clean houses. I was good at everything I did. I worked part time in a factory sewing coat linings, doing piecework. I made a good amount of money. If I had a problem with my English, Jackie would help me."

Mrs. Schiff is popular with the Hope Creek staff and residents, who enjoy listening to her stories. She still smiles, even when she talks about those years in Munich. She uses a walker to get around, and she isn't shy about telling perfect strangers all about her life or about the importance of hard work and education.

While she's had to slow down, she still keeps as busy as possible.

"I read these days but don't do much sewing."


Poland

-- Location: Central Europe, east of Germany.

-- Population: 38,415,284 (July 2012 estimate). No. 33 in the world.

-- Languages: Polish (official) 97.8 percent, other and unspecified 2.2 percent (2002 census).

Source: CIA World Factbook.


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  Today is Saturday, April 19, the 109th day of 2014. There are 256 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: Miss McCorkindale has opened millinery rooms over Gimbel's dry goods store, where she offers a choice lot of millinery goods, which she will manufacture to order.
1889 -- 125 years ago: The little South Park Presbyterian chapel celebrated it first Easter decorated with flowers for an afternoon worship service attended by a large congregation.
1914 -- 100 years ago: The Wennerberg Chorus of Augustana College has returned from a 2,000-mile tour in the Eastern states and Illinois.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Col. Charles Lindbergh has stated that he is convinced that Germany's air force is equal to the combined sky fleets of her potential European foes.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Small gas motors may be permitted on boats in the lake to be built in Loud Thunder Forest Preserve. The prospect was discussed yesterday at a meeting of the Rock Island County Forest Preserve Commission.
1989 -- 25 years ago: The annual Dispatch/Rock Island Argus Spelling Bee continues to be a family tradition. Ed Lee, an eighth-grader at John Deere Junior High School, Moline, is the 1989 spelling bee champion from among 49 top spellers in Rock Island, Henry and Mercer counties. He advances to the competition in Washington, D.C. Runnerup was Ed's sister, Susan.






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