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A survivor’s tale

By Madison Mathews
Johnson City Press

Estelle Laughlin has experienced extreme darkness and violence in her life, but it hasn’t stopped her from trying to inspire everyone she meets.

Laughlin is a Holocaust survivor who volunteers with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. She travels around the country sharing her incredible eyewitness account of the experiences she faced during her time in several different concentration camps.

Laughlin spoke to a group of students, faculty and members of the community at Milligan College on Monday night.

“The reason I’m sharing my story is because I feel that the world is like a family. If something bad is happening to one member of the family, everbody suffers,” Laughlin said. “We want to learn from the mistakes and the bad things that people suffered from as a result of their own behavior.”

Originally a native of Warsaw, Poland, Laughlin spent four years in the Warsaw ghetto where she lived with her family. She was only 10 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland. Laughlin’s father was a member of the small Warsaw resistance that fought against German soldiers who marched more than 500,000 Jews to concentration camps.

During her years spent in the ghetto, Laughlin attended underground schools where she learned to love reading and experience other arts.

“My father would always tell us that art reflects the best in us, and it must be cherished,” Laughlin said.

She described going to plays as one of the only escapes from the harsh reality that was going on around her.

“I would be transported to another place with the plays. I don’t remember which ones I saw, but it brought to life the magic of how godly we are,” she said. “This is how we kept our souls and kept our humanity.”

She was inspired by the teachers who taught in the underground schools in the Warsaw ghetto, and learned that “teaching is communication,” which is something she has carried with her throughout her life.

Laughlin and her family were discovered and sent to the Majdanek camp in Poland. During the time spent there, Laughlin’s father died of tuberculosis.

After her father’s death, Laughlin made a pact with her mother and sister.

“If one of us died then all three would go along,” Laughlin said.

One day at the camp, Laughlin and her sister went to sort through the piles of belongings from dead Jews. An overseer saw Laughlin’s sister pick up a photo and severely beat her.

Laughlin’s sister was chosen to be sent to another area, where Laughlin and her mother thought she would surely be killed. To keep the pact they made, Laughlin and her mother traded places with two other women in the camp to be transported along with her sister.

“We were sure we were all going to die, but we were transported to a slave labor camp,” she said.

The three of them survived the camp and were sent to another slave labor camp before being liberated by the Russians in 1945.

Laughlin enjoys sharing her story with young people, because she believes that the young generation can learn from the mistakes of the past and build a better tomorrow.

“The purpose is not to curse the darkness of the past, but to illuminate the future,” Laughlin said.

Johnson City Press Article


MILLIGAN UNIVERSITY is a Christian liberal arts university in Northeast Tennessee whose vision is to change lives and shape culture through a commitment to servant leadership. The university offers more than 100 majors, minors, pre-professional degrees and concentrations in a variety of fields, along with graduate and adult degree completion programs.  To learn more about Milligan University, visit www.milligan.edu or call 800-262-8337.

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