Welcome to the Quad-Cities -- QCQ&A
Progress 2010 Page


List of Advertisers

Holocaust survivor builds life with multilingual skills
Comment on this story
More photos from this shoot
Photo: Todd Welvaert
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 Wednesday, April 23, the 113th day of 2014. There are 252 days left in the year.

1864 — 150 years ago: Some persons are negotiating for 80 feet of ground on Illinois Street with a view of erecting four stores thereon. It would serve a better purpose if the money was invested in neat tenement houses.
1889 — 125 years ago: The Central station, car house and stables of the Moline-Rock Island Horse Railway line of the Holmes syndicate, together with 15 cars and 42 head of horses, were destroyed by fire. The loss was at $15,000.
1914 — 100 years ago: Vera Cruz, Mexico, after a day and night of resistance to American forces, gradually ceased opposition. The American forces took complete control of the city.
1939 — 75 years ago: Dr. R. Bruce Collins was reelected for a second term as president of the Lower Rock Island County Tuberculosis Association.
1964 — 50 years ago: Work is scheduled to begin this summer on construction of a new men's residence complex and an addition to the dining facilities at Westerlin Hall at Augustana College.
1989 — 25 years ago: Special Olympics competitors were triple winners at Rock Island High School Saturday. The participants vanquished the rain that fell during the competition, and some won their events; but most important, they triumphed over their own disabilities.




(More History)