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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.


Local events heading








  Today is Thursday, July 31, the 212th day of 2014. There are 153 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: A corps of surgeons now occupies the new hospital quarters at the Garrison Hospital on the Rock Island Arsenal. A fence has been installed to enclose the prison hospital.
1889 -- 125 years ago: B. Winter has let a contract to Christ Schreiner for a two story brick building with a double store front on the south side of 3rd Avenue just west of 17th Street. The estimated cost was $4,500.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Germany sent simultaneous ultimatums to Russia and France, demanding that Russia suspend mobilization within 12 hours and demanding that France inform Germany within 18 hours. In the case of war between Germany and Russia, France would remain neutral.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Civil service offices at the post office and the Rock Island Arsenal were swamped as more than 700 youths sought 15 machinist apprenticeships at the Arsenal.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Last night, American Legion Post 246 in Moline figuratively handed over the trousers to a female ex-Marine and petticoat rule began. Olga Swanson, of Moline, was installed as the first woman commander of the post .
1989 -- 25 years ago: The Illinois Quad City Civic Center captured the excitement and interest of a convention of auditorium managers this weekend in Reno, Nev. Bill Adams, civic center authority chairman, said the 10,000-seat arena planned for downtown Moline has caught the eye of construction firms, suppliers, management teams and concession groups.








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