Estelle Glaser Laughlin’s friends know not to serve turnips to the 84-year-old when she comes for dinner.
Although Laughlin can laugh now about how much she despises the vegetable she ate morning, noon and night for more than five years, there is nothing funny about her life from age 10-15 and the many years she spent after that trying to escape nightmares caused by Adolf Hitler and his army during World War II.
Laughlin was one of millions of Jews who were imprisoned or put to death in Nazi concentration camps from 1933-45. She is now one of the few still alive and able to share her story to today’s generation.
On Tuesday, she was at Windsor Charter Academy in the morning speaking to seventh- and eighth-graders and at Greeley Central High School in the afternoon.
“I don’t know,” she said before she spoke in Windsor when asked how long she planned to continue traveling to tell her story. “But I know I’ll be doing it until one day when I am gone. I hope I’m making people realize that human beings are capable of great evil and ever appreciating the power of love.”
Laughlin traveled to Greeley from her home in Illinois as part of the “Voices from the Holocaust: Transcending the Holocaust” memorial observance week, which began Monday and includes book readings, movie screenings and guest speakers across Weld County and runs through today. She spoke Wednesday at Eaton High School and the University of Northern Colorado.
She was 10 when Nazi Germany invaded her hometown of Warsaw, Poland. She explained to students about her life living underground for the first few days after the invasion, dreaming to see the sunlight again.
“It was just a few days,” she said. “But it seemed like an eternity.”
She talked of the initial deportation of her friends and family from Warsaw.
“It took place with 20th century know how, but Stone Age values,” she said.
She talked of the choices made about who to deport and who to kill.
“Ninety percent of the children of Warsaw disappeared from the face of the earth,” she said. “Can you imagine a world without the sound of children or grandparents. Children and grandparents were the first to be killed.”
For students in the audience who were mostly 12 and 13 years old, learning that all children under 14 were considered contraband and killed was shocking.
“It’s mind-blowing to think I could be pulled out of school and taken away,” said Bailey Sawyer, 12. “It reminded me that every day is a gift.”
Laughlin talked of the day her father was killed and of the pact she and her sister and mother made that if one went to the gas chamber, they all would go. That pact led to Laughlin and her mother at one point trading places with two other women whose names were on “the list” with Laughlin’s sister and were being taken away, a list of people that everyone thought were headed for the gas chambers but ended up at a labor camp.
“Well,” she said with her thoughts trailing off when a student asked what happened to the two women who traded places with her. “They didn’t make it.”
She called herself an “average” person as a way to make the students understand they can accomplish anything.
But the students were having nothing to do with thinking of Laughlin as average.
“She was courageous to do the things she did,” said Katie Arkley, 13.
“You have to love your family so much to be able to do that,” Karrick Kaesslat added.
Mostly, the students were stunned when they learned none of Laughlin’s friends or family, other than her mother and sister, survived.
“We’re at school, and we see these people much more than family,” Jocelyn Petersen said. “Windsor Charter is a family to us. It is extremely hard to think of no more friends and having to start over. I don’t know if I could do that.”
Laughlin also spoke of the day her camp was liberated and how the idea of being killed by an Allied bomb was an honorable death. She described how her family wandered in the cold and snow of Poland in January trying to find a place to call home and how they eventually ended up in the United States.
During the afternoon session at Greeley Central, students were interested to hear how Laughlin reacted last year when she returned to Warsaw for the first time with President Barack Obama.
Laughlin said, for the most part, it was uplifting to see the city recover but bittersweet as only the street names and corners looked the same.
“Misery is a choice, however. And suffering does not have to make us bitter,” she said.
Other students asked if she had any mementos or other items from her childhood. “No, only memories,” she said.
And one student was curious if any of the Nazi soldiers were nice.
“Not personally,” she said. “But I have to imagine that there were some with a conscience that just lacked courage.”
However, Laughlin said it best when she told everyone why she still shares her story 70 years later.
“An average person is capable of a great deal,” she said. “And our inspiration came from the darkest places. Our inspiration to become the best we could be, to reach and develop and express the most we were able to do came from the darkest places and developed in our bunker when our world was crumbling around us and going up in flames. … If you are motivated, very few things can get or stand in your way.”
— Greeley Tribune intern Allison Dyer Bluemel contributed to this report.