During the Holocaust, WIZO lost 14 federations in Europe and tens of thousands of members. This is the story of one of them – Esther Sawczycka, who founded the WIZO chapter in Baranowicze, Poland. Esther was never satisfied with her domestic life; she was always involved and active in various Zionist activities and committees in her town.
Before World War II, Poland was WIZO's largest federation with over 100 chapters and 10,000 members.
On her way to Palestine in 1935 to attend the 8th World WIZO Conference, the first to be held in Eretz Yisrael, Esther Sawczycka travelled with one suitcase filled with dry toast to save money on food. Although her husband was totally against her trip, Esther, who had founded the WIZO chapter in her hometown of Baranowicze, Poland, was determined to attend. Nothing was going to stop her from being in the same auditorium with Dr. Chaim Weizmann, Golda Meir and David Ben-Gurion to see history in the making.
Despite the fact that she was not the balabuste type, Esther financed the trip by dismissing her Polish maid two years before the conference, doing all the cleaning and the cooking herself. Every month she put away the salary she would have paid the maid into her “Palestine dream fund.” She managed to save half the money she needed, and borrowed the rest from friends.
How do we know all this? Esther had written soulful, intimate letters to a childhood friend, Yocheved, who had emigrated from Poland to California. After the war, Yocheved gave the letters to Esther’s surviving daughter, Eva, (born in 1924). The letters provide a rare glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of a Jewish woman, a Zionist, living in a small Polish town before the war.
Letter dated October 5, 1936
“When I returned [to Poland], I paid back some of the debt each month. It was difficult because other than domestic work, I also help in our business. I also had an obstacle from Fishel (her husband) who was dead set against the trip. I overcame all the odds. And the trip was so beautiful that I am not sorry for all the tears I shed. I am not sorry about the extra work. I am not sorry about anything,”
Upon her return Esther convinced her husband to make aliya. It was a hard sell because Fishel did not share his wife’s passion for Zionism. However, a local man was among those killed in the Arab riots of 1936 in Palestine and Fishel decided that Poland would be safer. Six years later that decision would cost the family their lives. Only their daughter, Eva, survived.
Letter dated March 28, 1937
“I don’t belong to that group of women for whom domesticity fills up their entire existence,” Esther wrote to her friend. “I am valued for my Zionistic activities. I gave a few speeches [to my WIZO group] that were well received. It is easy to rise to the top in a small town.
I feel healthy and full of zest for life. I don’t feel the weight of the years. I suppose that spiritually I have not grown older at all. In fact, I think that maybe I feel too young, maybe even childish. Imagine that I still love to read travel books, I love Joseph Conrad. I love Jack London. I dream about travels. Reading these books I fantasize about being swept away to faraway places.
I love waking up early in the summer and riding on my own on a bicycle far away from town. I pedal my way up hilly roads to have the thrill of riding a wild ride down. I go to the movies often. And if we have a theater company coming to town, I would not dream of missing it.
In one word, I still feel light and young. It’s a shame that circumstances forced me into a monotonous way of life. Fate likes to taunt us.”
Esther was shot and buried in a mass grave in the old Jewish cemetery of Baranowicze on December 17, 1942 along with four other members of her family. Feisty to the end, she was one of 14 women who were members of the ghetto underground. Her husband didn’t approve of that either.
Esther's full story will be in the next issue of WIZO Review, to be published in the summer.