Esther bat Nachman v
For her grandchildren, Danit, Adi, and Eran
In every age, the Jewish people saw the echo of the
Scroll of Esther and the Festival of Purim in their
struggle to survive.
Out of the darkness, "Layehudim Hayetah Orah v
Simchah" for the Jews, there shone light and joy.
For my mother, out of the darkness, there came the
light and joy of not only surviving, but of creating
Purim provides the metaphor for my mother.
You see, my mother Irene Weinberg, Irka as she was
nicknamed, was in Hebrew, Esther.
Esther was the name of public record for Hadassah.
Esther was the name Hadassah used to save herself
and her people.
In the ancient languages of the Middle East, Esther
was a pagan goddess, the morning star, Ishtar, Venus
- but in Hebrew, Esther was derived from "nistar"
By hiding her identity as a Jew and pretending to be
a pagan on the outside, Hadassah, Esther becomes the
Queen and saves not only herself but her people.
In later Jewish lore, she is publicly
the Queen, but in truth she is married
to her uncle, Mordecai, the political
figure and advisor.
You see, my mother, Irene-Esther, saved
herself and others by hiding in plain
Irene was the older child of Norbert Gottdenker
and Helena Iger, born on January 25, 1922.
A year later, her younger brother Karol was born.
Even the city she was born in had many identities.
Just four years earlier, it had been Lemberg,
Galicia in the province of the Austro-Hungarian
At the time of her birth it was Lwow, Poland, and
now L'viv, Ukraine.
It was a city of 110,000 Jews out of a population of
some 300,000, the rest being Polish or Ukrainian.
Karol Gottdenker (Irene's brother), date
Helene (Hinda) was daughter of Nissin (Nathan) and
Chaya Sas Iger; his great-grandfather was the
leading rabbinic scholar of his day, Rabbi Akiva
Norbert (Nachman), son of Koppel Gottdenker and
Sossia Zarwanitzer, could trace his family line
through his grandmother to the Kahana's of Sighet
and a long line of rabbis through the Middle Ages.
was also cousin to William Weinberg of Dolina (then
in Galicia and now in Dolynia, Ukraine-
ed.), later to be
the Mordecai to Esther, and marry my father.
Norbert had been a soldier in the
Austrian army in the Great War, as it was called,
and had been captured by the Russians.
Helen was from the border town of Podwolochisk, and
was among those who volunteered to be allowed to
look after fellow Jews who were ill or injured; that
is how they met.
Helena Gottdenker, date unknown
Norbert brought her to Lwow where he worked as a
supervisor for a lumber company's rail
transportation system, owned by his maternal
grandfather Moses Zarwantizer and his son Judah.
At some point, he brought the family to Bolechów, a
city adjacent to Dolina.
A family acquaintance, Jack Greene (Grundschlag)
knew them and wrote this:
"The Family Gottdenker lived in our neighborhood.
First in an apartment of Martin Bilinski in Dolinska
street, and then up three doors up in a nice garden
All of them were brunettes and good-looking.
Irene's brother Karolcio commercial attended high
school in Stryl in the 1937-1938 school year.
Mother was a pleasant good-looking lady.
Irene was a tall beautiful young lass, very long
He added further identification of photographs in my
"We lived in the same neighborhood as the
At the age of ten to twelve years, we used to play
together with Carol in the neighborhood and then in
the school year 1937-1938, I attended together with
Carol, a commercial high school in Stryl, traveling
daily to the Stryl and back.
Occasionally we used to do our homework together.
Thank you for the photos you enclosed - it is of
Carol after 1938.
In the other picture, on the right-hand side of the
photo is Irene and the girl on the left, her name
was Ella Heftman.
I was told she survived the war in Russia and
visited Bolechów in 1990 for two days [and] then
returned to Russia.
The boy in the back of the photo, looks to be her
As I mentioned before, the Gottdenkers were all
brunettes of happy disposition, and all
Yiddish-speaking was the mother Gottdenker."
remember Nachman as a tall, very thin man.
I remember participating also in his funeral on a
summer's day, I was at the time ten years old.
I went to high school for one year from 1937 to 1938
with Carol before they moved back to Lwow." (Jack
Greene plays a major role in the book "The Lost" by
Daniel Mendelsohn [about] the Jews of Bolechów).
His business travels often brought him to Vienna,
Austria, where often he visited his relatives, the
Weinbergs, who had settled [there] during the war.
On at least one trip, he brought the family along,
and the ten-year-old Irene met her older cousins,
Benjamin and William, then in their early thirties.
From left: William
Weinberg (Irene’s husband), Jonah Gelernter and
Benjamin Weinberg on vacation before the war.
Irene was skinny and a picky eater, which frustrated
Next door there lived a large Polish family, so she
had Irene sit with the neighbors' children; the
neighbor fed each child a spoonful of porridge, and
Irene opened her mouth to be like the others and
My mother had a little dog.
One day it was very cold and she took pity on the
dog, so she put him in the oven door.
It was an old coal-burning oven and it was still
warm from the previous night's cooking.
She forgot about him.
Later on, her mother went to the kitchen stove and
lit the stove on the bottom.
Soon, they heard a "pip pip" - it was the dog
getting hot - and they pulled him out before it was
She would tell me of a carefree
childhood, of cross-country skiing, of
summer hikes in the hills.
Unlike most Polish Jews who lived in primarily
Jewish neighborhoods and spoke Yiddish as their
native tongue, she lived in a mixed neighborhood and
had friends of all backgrounds - Jewish, Polish,
She remembered that her Catholic girlfriends from a
neighboring orphanage would look at her with her
long braids, and say "You are so beautiful.
We could pray to you like to Mary."
She spoke clean Polish, without any
trace of accent, and knew Ukrainian from
her neighbors, and German from her
She knew some Hebrew from attending Bais Yaakov
School for Girls, which was an Orthodox school, but
progressive in its day in its openness to the
secular education of girls.
She was familiar with Yiddish, but not fluent in it.
Weinberg with friends. Bolechów,
Her first tragedy struck with the death of her
father, Norbert, in 1935 or 1936 from complications
as a result of stomach surgery, apparently to treat
cancer; he was just in his forties when she was just
He was the first of the key people in her life that
Irene Weinberg’s aunt
on her neighbor’s porch.
Her mother relied on her husband's
pension and raised Irene and her
brother, Karol, with help from her
sister, Dora Iger Kitzay, whom I recall as Tanta
Tanta Dora would described herself as a "Jewish
gypsy" (she appears in one photograph playing with
her deck of fortune-telling cards), and had worked
as an administrator in a company in her home of
She claimed to remember seeing Trotsky in his early
years when he was rousing the workers against the
She had a knack for reading cards and for
In 1938, when Irene was sixteen, the family moved
back to Lwow where she started a music and arts
studies at the Lwow Conservatory.
She had a beautiful voice, mezzo-soprano, and an eye
for art, which she dreamed would become her calling
Life, however, did not allow her formal
It did train her, however, in mastering what came
down upon her.
In this parable of the Purim story, Hitler is
obviously the stand-in for Haman; Ahashverosh in
this account is represented by all the government
officials of Germany and the conquered lands who let
Hitler call the shots under the veneer of law.
In September of 1939, the Germans invaded Poland and
thereupon began the official start of WWII.
Bombs fell on Lwow.
Irene refused to go to the bomb shelter, a bomb hit
the house but did not explode, while another bomb
hit and exploded on the shelter.
"Father is protecting me," she felt.
As agreed upon with the Soviets, the Germans took over
the western half of Poland and the Soviets took over
the eastern half, supposedly as the protectors of
Lwow fell under the Soviets.
Irene had to interrupt her studies and found work as
a bookkeeper in "Trust", the largest department
store In Lwow.
She now added Russian to her trove of languages.
Shortly thereafter, her second cousins came to stay,
having fled from Austria on their way to the Soviet
It is here that William played the Mordecai to
Esther, because from him and his brother, Benjamin,
she learned first-hand what had happened to Jews in
Germany, then Austria and Czechoslovakia, since
Hitler took power.
She understood that she would need to be prepared to
use her wits to survive and, as in the original
Megillah, never to reveal who she was.
Weinberg (Irene’s husband).
ID photograph, late 1920s or early
My father, William Weinberg, had been a Zionist
leader in Vienna, and in 1932, went to Berlin to
enter rabbinic school, under the last great rabbi of
Germany, Leo Baeck. Hitler came to Berlin in 1932 at
the same time, to be The Chancellor of the Reich. In
1935, my father was arrested, and he spent two years
in a Nazi prison for helping his fellow Jews to
escape with some of their property. He finished his
rabbinical studies by correspondence with his
teachers, was released and ordained in 1937. He
escaped to Austria, and with his brother, Benjamin,
a lawyer, managed to get their parents out to
Switzerland; when the Nazis took over Austria, they
escaped to Czechoslovakia. In 1938 Chamberlain gave
Czechoslovakia to the Germans, and my father and
uncle were caught and arrested as politically
dangerous suspects and placed in a concentration
camp. When the Germans divided Poland with the
Soviets, they dumped these political suspects on the
Russians. My father and uncle were able to get away
from their Soviet guards and made their way to Lwow
where they stayed for six months, learning chemistry
as a practical means of surviving the coming years
of trouble. When the fighting broke out again, they
made their way to Stalingrad and then the Frunze
In 1941, the Germans invaded the eastern part of
Poland and occupied Lwow.
The victorious Germans marched in with bands and
leaflets about liberating Poland from the Soviets
Everyone went out to greet them, since the Russians
had made themselves unloved by their harsh rule over
the Poles and the Ukrainians.
Jews too went out to the streets to greet them,
because they thought naively that anything could be
better than the Soviet occupation.
Nobody wanted to believe the reports about what the
Germans were doing to Jews; These were "fairy
The "fairy tales" turned out to be nightmares.
Germans used the locals, especially the Ukrainians,
who saw them erroneously as their allies, and called
upon these former neighbors, friends and classmates
to find the Jews they knew, pull them out of the
crowds and deliver them to the Nazis or wreck havoc
Helena was caught in the dragnet and into a school
building; the Nazis and their quislings set attack
dogs on them who mauled the people inside.
She was saved by a Ukrainian friend who risked his
life to enter the building and pull her out (there
were among the Poles and Ukrainians Righteous
Gentiles who saved Jewish lives).
Some 4,000 Jews were killed in pogroms at this time
and 2,000 more shortly thereafter.
The German regime was forcibly segregated all
Irene immediately lost her job and her family was
forcibly removed from their home at 12 Grundwalska
without being able to take any of their possessions.
Her mother was again caught and sent into the
Janowska labor camp.
Helena was executed by machine-gunning in a mass
killing at the Piaski (sandy hills) outside Lwow;
she was made to fall into her own grave.
(This was reported to my mother by connections she
had with people in the underground.)
Irene was able to hide out in the dark and dank
cellar of the house while the friend secretly
brought her food to sustain herself with.
By the summer of 1942, she had to vacate the cellar,
as the Germans were beginning to hunt down Jews by
use of tracking dogs.
Survival now depended upon having a piece of paper
that proved that the bearer was a Pole or a
Ukrainian, not of Jewish ancestry.
Among the false names she used was "Pilsudskowa",
similar to the name of Poland's first President,
Later, she would use her jobs in various government
agencies to get access to government stamps and
forms, and with her art school training, was able to
make the false papers look authentic.
What she was able to do herself, she also did to
help others survive.
Dora Iger, Irene
on the porch with her neighbor.
Her brother Karol escaped with false papers to
Buczacz to the east, and lived there with a Polish
Local underground helped him and he brought food to
In the last days of the war, the Nazis rounded up
every available man among the Poles to draft in to
At the checkpoint, they must have discovered he was
circumcised and they killed him.
(My mother for many years had hopes of finding her
brother. This fact was reported to Tanta Dora to her
contacts, and she never told my mother what she had
known. Irene only found [out] about it in a letter
she found among Dora's papers after she passed away
thirty years later.)
Her aunt Dora got false papers and found
refuge with Irene in an apartment
One day, Nazis came in a massive roundup of Jews to
that is a building.
They found a hiding space in one apartment, and the
tenant's son came to the door when the Nazis
They asked if there were any Jews inside.
He said, "No Jews here" and the Nazis went away.
They came back with police dogs, but instead of
looking in the apartment, they searched the basement
and then the Nazis left for good.
Irene got false papers from someone who also got her
a job; the connection was a German officer from
Czechoslovakia, who was secretly a Jew who had
passed himself off as Aryan to save his wife and
brother-in-law after his own parents had been
killed, and [he] used his position to help other
She started as a nanny is a German family and then
worked in a personnel department in a lumber office.
She learned to constantly be on the
move, and they went to a section of
Her aunt moved off to another section and was hidden
by a man named Kitzay (she adopted his last name).
They knew that families that separated had a chance
to survive, and since Lwow was a big city it was
possible to remain anonymous.
"My eyes saved me." She had blue eyes, while Polish
Jews had dark eyes; she spoke Polish without any
trace of Jewish and German dialect as well, so she
could claim to be a Pole of German national origin.
From her childhood friends, she had learned enough
of their religion to act like a Catholic.
The German invasion of Russia began to get bogged
down at the battles of Stalingrad and Leningrad.
Life in the German-occupied territories became more
difficult as a result, and Irene's position at work
Portrait of Irene Weinberg. Frankfurt.
At the same time, she was Identified and stopped on
the street by a Jewish woman who blackmailed her. "I
know you, your mother, I know where you live." Irene
continued walking alongside the woman, and spoke
softly and calmly to avoid drawing attention.
She agreed to pay and had her walk in the direction
of a building where some Ukrainian trusted friends
"Stay outside, and I will bring you your money," she
told the blackmailer.
She made sure that the blackmailer could not see who
she went to for the money.
She came back out, gave money to the other woman,
but Irene knew she would continue to follow her, so
again, she continued to walk alongside the woman
till she came to a building she was familiar with.
Again, she asked her to wait outside, while she
picked up some personal items.
This time, she slipped through a back passage to the
adjacent street, escaping the blackmailer.
new papers, kept her name Irene, changed the last
name, and her birthplace as listed, and she knew
that village had been destroyed completely in the
One of her papers had her listed as a male, which
she could not change, so she folded and refolded the
paper until the crease of the fold was just over the
A little bit of dirt and spit, and the paper looked
frayed, and naturally torn just as that word.
On the same day that she was blackmailed, Lwow was
It was impossible to know the real progress of the
It now became a day-to-day existence.
Irene just lived with hope, therefore she survived.
She told herself, "God forbid, if something happens
tomorrow, I think I will still survive."
She took the first train out of Lwow.
The conductor of the train was the father of the
same boy sent away the Nazis when they carried out
their first round-up of Jews.
She saw that he recognized [her], and she knew she
could not take a chance.
She got off at Krakow to the west, and began to
search for information on a man (a half-Jew) in
Warsaw who had promised to help her.
She found the man's contact in Krakow, gave him an
excuse about her story of why she was going to
Even though his contact was half-Jewish also, for
security [reasons] no one revealed key facts to
She went on to Warsaw and was able to
notify Dora of her new location; her
aunt met up with her there.
She managed to get jobs in government agencies, such
as the Ministry of Agriculture as secretary to the
Secretary of Personnel, and had access to official
stamps and seals; with her training in art she could
She saw to it that her boss, a drunk, had plenty to
drink, and (to continue with the metaphor of Purim,
he was the Ahashverosh of our story, a drunk who
signed off on his royal documents.)
Again she escaped detection several times; one time
she survived in an underground cellar in Sw. Janska
13, an old section of Poland, helped again by a
Iger-Kitzay, the sister of Helena
Iger-Gottdenker and Irene Weinberg’s
Was it easier to survive as a woman?
"Yes, soldiers are always susceptible to a smile."
One time she obtained residence in an apartment
building used by German army officers in exchange
for taking care of the apartment.
Occupants were regular army officers supposedly but
my mother knew that they secretly belonged to the
Secret Police; They did not know she was Jewish, nor
did they realize that she knew who they were.
She was able to get Dora in, got her a fake ID (with
Irene's picture on it) and fake employment papers in
She hid her aunt, Dora, in a closet in her own room,
inside the apartment of the Nazi officers and she
could only go out of the closet when the apartment
However, they were at all times true "officers and
gentlemen" and never touched Irene or went into her
Even times of persecution had lighter moments.
Once, my mother came back to the apartment, and
could not find her aunt.
She was in a panic, and searched high and low, and
then went to the closet.
As she was going through the clothes, a hand touched
her from behind.
My mother's heart dropped - it was Dora, playing a
prank on her.
At another time, the officers brought
back a turkey and asked her to cook it
They were going to take it with them for the
My mother was in a panic - she could paint and sing,
but not cook.
She agreed, on the condition that they stay out of
the kitchen and allow her to work patiently.
Men of honor, they left her to her own in the
Dora sneaked in, started to cook, and whenever the
officer's queried, "Is it ready," my mother would
pop out, with work apron and gloves smeared, and ask
them to wait patiently.
The turkey was cooked, given to the officers, then
[they] left to go for their holiday.
During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in
1943, she frequently took the local
streetcar that went past the ghetto to
see what was happening.
She had to pretend that she was visiting her
parents' grave at the opposite end of the city to
explain what she was doing so often on that route.
She knew many of the people fighting inside, heroes
that attacked German tanks with Molotov cocktails by
throwing themselves under the tank.
During the last days of war, in August
of 1944, Russian and Latvian troops
approached Warsaw; they used especially
Latvian and Kalmuks forces, who were
feared as savages and less likely to befriend Poles
than their Russian counterparts.
Warsaw was in a panic, there was widespread looting
and burning all over. The Germans took fifty people
from Irene's office at rifle point, and put them on
trucks to use as hostages to cover their escape.
They stopped some fifteen kilometers
from Warsaw, a labor camp, but all was
The Germans fled, and then the hostages jumped out
of the truck windows and were hidden by the local
Poles; they all split up.
Irene made tried to make her way to Krakow, which
was not yet engulfed by the fighting, took a train
out, but ended up in Silesia.
Irene at work in an office. Lwów, 1942.
As she fled towards Germany to get away from the
fighting on the Russian front, she was caught, this
time as a Volks Deutsch Field.
Since she spoke German.
Ukrainian and Russian, they put to work in a vinegar
factory, part-time in [an] office, part-time in the
factory washing bottles.
Also she was put to work in a labor camp three times
a week near the Oder-Niesse line to dig anti-tank
trenches, to stop the Russians, first in Miszkowa,
then Gleiwitz, Ober-Silesia.
The tank traps failed, as the Russians circled from
behind. Germanyss Wehrwolf (seniors drafted into the
army) fled and fell into their own trenches.
During the last three days of fighting
in Silesia, there was anarchy; as the
Russians came, people ran amok and wild.
A German friend offered to help Irene, but when the
Russians approached, he was afraid, "The Russians
Will Tear Us Apart."
Irene took the opposite tack.
She and her friends dressed up in the best clothes.
The Russians soldiers came upon them, were stunned
to see them, just a preliminary survey, and left.
She then also left.
1945, her war ended.
She stayed in a small town, where there
were no rations, so she survived two
months on water and bread and could only
sleep all day to fight the hunger.
"You cannot forget it.
The mental torture is worse than the physical.
Friends discovered her and brought her food.
At least the war was over.
She wandered from town to town (mostly coal mining
towns), still using her Aryan papers.
She returned the ticket to Warsaw and looked
everywhere for her aunt, until she found a note left
in her last hiding place telling of the small
village where she was escaping [to].
She stayed there, and then went on to Czestochowa,
and worked in a drug company.
while buying her share of rationed
After war's end, she stayed in Poland for about a
When the massacre of Jews at Kielce took place, she
decided to head to Palestine (now Israel) and joined
the Bricha (the movement to bring Jews into
Palestine from the refugee camps at that time).
The agents responsible for ferrying Jews had trouble
believing that the beautiful Pole was truly a Jew;
she had to prove what she remembered from her Bais
Yaakov days, her Shema and other prayers.
She made it over the mountains and across borders,
pretending to be "Greek".
When border guards stopped them, they would speak to
each other in Hebrew, claiming they were talking
Greek; the guards believed them and let them
Irene with friends
after liberation, 1945.
Once in Vienna, she was brought to the Rothschild
Hospital to await travel arrangements to Israel.
My uncle, who with my father had fled from Germany
to the Soviet Union and back, used to go [there]
daily, hoping to find lost family or friends.
There he saw Irene, whom he had known from her
visits to Vienna as a child and from their stay in
Lwow when they were fleeing to the Soviet Union.
He brought her home and she fell for my father who,
although twenty years older, was still good-looking
and had some status in his work with refugees. He
worked at the refugee camps in Hallein, Austria, in
the shadows of Mozart's Salzburg, in charge of adult
education and established a University for the
training of DPs (displaced persons) for their new
They married there.
In 1948, he was chosen as Landesrabbiner (State
Rabbi) of Hesse (Frankfurt and the surrounding
regions), and they moved to Frankfurt, where she
bore their only child, Norbert Weinberg.
Finally the Purim story drew to its conclusion; as
Haman was destroyed, the Jews survived, and Mordecai
and Esther were united.
In 1951, they came to New York.
My dear father, Rabbi William Weinberg, passed away
in 1975 (on Shushan Purim) after years of service to
the Jewish community in Europe and America.
His documents are archived at the United States
Holocaust Memorial Museum.
My dear mother, Irene Weinberg, Esther bat Nachman,
passed away on July 15, 2007 in West Hollywood,
California, survived by one son, Norbert,
married to Ofra, and three grandchildren and three
great grandchildren who carry on the tradition.