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      Current Exhibitions >> To Honor and Preserve

Megillat Ester: The Story of Irene Weinberg

presented with love by her son Rabbi Norbert Weinberg



The Scroll of Esther

Irene Gottdenker Weinberg

Esther bat Nachman v Hinda


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 new life.

      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" [or] "Hidden" [in English].

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 sight.

     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 Empire. 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 unknown


      Helene (Hinda) was daughter of Nissin (Nathan) and Chaya Sas Iger; his great-grandfather was the leading rabbinic scholar of his day, Rabbi Akiva Eger (Iger). 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. He 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 cottage.

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 pleats."

      He added further identification of photographs in my mother's possession:
      "We lived in the same neighborhood as the Gottdenkers. 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 brother Vovke. As I mentioned before, the Gottdenkers were all brunettes of happy disposition, and all Yiddish-speaking was the mother Gottdenker."

      "I 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 her mother. 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 ate.

      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 too late.


      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, Ukrainian. 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 school. 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.


Irene Weinberg with friends. Bolechów, mid-1930s.

      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 only twelve. He was the first of the key people in her life that she lost.

Dora Iger, Irene Weinberg’s aunt
on her neighbor’s porch.
Bolechów, mid-1930s.

       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 Dora. 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 Podwolochisk. She claimed to remember seeing Trotsky in his early years when he was rousing the workers against the Tsar. She had a knack for reading cards and for shrewdness.

      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 in life.

      Life, however, did not allow her formal schooling.
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 the Poles.
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 Union. 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.

William Weinberg (Irene’s husband).
ID photograph, late 1920s or early 1930s.



      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 (Bishkek), Kirghizia.

      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 and Stalin. 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 tales".

      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 on them.

      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 Jews.
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, Pilsudski. 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 Weinberg’s aunt,
on the porch with her neighbor. Bolechów, mid-1930s.

      Her brother Karol escaped with false papers to Buczacz to the east, and lived there with a Polish family. Local underground helped him and he brought food to the partisans. In the last days of the war, the Nazis rounded up every available man among the Poles to draft in to their defenses. 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 building. 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 knocked. 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 Jews. 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 Lwow. 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 ended.

                                                                   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 lived. "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.

      She obtained 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 fighting. 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 word "male". 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 bombed.

      It was impossible to know the real progress of the war. 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 Warsaw. Even though his contact was half-Jewish also, for security [reasons] no one revealed key facts to anyone else.


      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 forge documents. 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 Polish friend.

Dora Iger-Kitzay, the sister of Helena Iger-Gottdenker and Irene Weinberg’s aunt.

      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 addition. 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 was empty. However, they were at all times true "officers and gentlemen" and never touched Irene or went into her room.

      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 for them. They were going to take it with them for the holidays. 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 kitchen. 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.

Irene, cir 1943.


      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 in disarray. 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.

      In Feb. 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.


Irene while buying her share of rationed goods.

      After war's end, she stayed in Poland for about a year. 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 through.

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 life. 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.



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