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'We Were Lucky': Kids Of Holocaust Survivors Learned Their Parents' Life Philosophy

May 3, 2019
Originally published on May 3, 2019 4:57 pm

After surviving the Holocaust, Judel and Pauline Schuster resettled in Buffalo, N.Y., to start a family.

This Holocaust Remembrance Week, two of their children, Abe and Esther Schuster, reflect on their parents' joyful view of life in a recent StoryCorps conversation.

That philosophy didn't always mean following the rules.

Abe said that one evening when he was in high school, he introduced his parents to his calculus teacher and her husband at a neighborhood restaurant.

"Dad said, 'So, Mrs. Dinwoodie, how is mine Abey doing in the math class?' " Abe, now 60, recalled in a fond imitation of his father.

Mrs. Dinwoodie didn't hold back, Abe said. "She said, 'Well, he sleeps a lot in class, he stares out the window, he doesn't do his homework and he doesn't seem to be paying attention very well.' "

But Judel Schuster was unfazed.

Siblings Abe and Esther Schuster in Birmingham, Ala., for StoryCorps in February, where they remembered their parents, Holocaust survivors Judel and Pauline Schuster.
Jacqueline Van Meter for StoryCorps

"Dad said, 'You know, Mrs. Dinwoodie, you should be ashamed of yourself,' " Abe said. " 'My Abey has jobs, he works after school, he knows a lot of friends and has fun in the evenings, so of course he's going to be sleepy. And probably you are boring him.' "

Esther, now 67, knew no different. "We could do no wrong in their eyes," she said.

Like when Esther got upset about falling short of an A grade.

"And they'd go, 'Eighty-nine! That's wonderful — you did the best you could,' " Esther said. "The other thing they would always say to us was, 'The only thing that's important is you learn how to do something that you can make a living at.' Because, really, they knew that that was survival."

Abe said he first realized that he and his sister were children of Holocaust survivors around middle school.

"I knew they were from Europe. I knew they'd lost their family," he said. "But I think the first time, Esther, I really figured it out was in eighth grade."

In history class, he remembered being shown films depicting the horrors of concentration camps. "I think that's the first time I actually realized what happened to our grandparents and aunts and uncles," Abe said.

Esther said she'd known that their names alone revealed some of their family history.

"We knew we were named after people who died too soon — who there was a lot of pain about," she said.

Esther is named after Pauline's mom. For their parents, the siblings said, being named after their deceased relatives was a way of "re-creating" the dead.

"You know, like, Mom always used to say, 'You're my mother, you're my mother, and I'm so glad to have you 'cause you're my mother,' " Esther said.

As a result, she said, "I think that we had this vision of life and death that was maybe different from other kids our age."

Their parents missed out on the joys of childhood, Abe said. "They never were kids, they never played, so sometimes you can make up for things later."

According to the Schuster children, that meant their parents found pleasure in the little things. For their mom, a short trip to Crystal Beach in Ontario, Canada, involving a pit stop for orange soda, evoked pure excitement.

"You would've thought somebody bought her a diamond ring," Esther said.

Abe remembered how the neighborhood pool brought out the little kid in their dad. He would go down the water slide while the other kids watched.

"Everybody's looking at him, and I'm like, 'Yeah, that's my dad. Whatever,' " he said. "But that's how he was. He was like a kid."

"We were lucky," Esther said. "We were very lucky to have them as parents — despite their suffering, despite their pain. They were able to teach those lessons of 'Live now, love hard and appreciate everything.' "

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Sylvie Lubow and Camila Kerwin

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And it's time now for StoryCorps. This is Holocaust Remembrance Week, and this morning, we have a story about resilience. After surviving the war, Judel and Pauline Schuster resettled in Buffalo, N.Y., to start a family. At StoryCorps, two of their children, Abe and Esther, sat down to remember their parents, including a time they went head-to-head with Abe's math teacher.

ABE SCHUSTER: Dad said, so Mrs. Dinwoodie, how is mine Abey (ph) doing in the math class? And she said, well, he sleeps a lot in class. He stares out the window. He doesn't do his homework. And he doesn't seem to be paying attention very well. And Dad said, you know, Mrs. Dinwoodie, you should be ashamed of yourself. My Abey has jobs. He works after school. He knows a lot of friends and has fun in the evenings. So of course, he's going to be sleepy. And probably, you are boring him.

ESTHER SCHUSTER: We could do no wrong in their eyes. You know, I would be upset because I'd get an 89. And they'd go 89 - that's wonderful - you did the best you could. The other thing they would always say to us was the only thing that's important is you learn how to do something that you can make a living at because, really, they knew that that was survival.

When did you first realize that we were kids of Holocaust survivors?

A SCHUSTER: I knew they were from Europe. I knew they'd lost their family. But I think the first time, Esther, I really figured it out was in eighth grade. You know, in history class, we saw these movies - these Holocaust horror movies. And I think that's the first time I actually realized what happened to our grandparents and aunts and uncles.

E SCHUSTER: Part of it was even just our names. We knew we were named after people who died too soon, who there was a lot of pain about. You know, like, Mom always used to say, you're my mother. You're my mother. And I'm so glad to have you because you're my mother. I think that we had this vision of life and death that was maybe different from other kids our age. But they also taught us the pleasure in small things.

A SCHUSTER: They never were kids. They never played. So sometimes, you can make up for things later.

E SCHUSTER: I remember when we would go to Crystal Beach and there was that little store on the corner. And we would stop. We'd get an orange soda.

A SCHUSTER: Absolutely.

E SCHUSTER: And, you know, Mom - you would've thought somebody bought her a diamond ring.

A SCHUSTER: And all the neighborhood kids who would go to the pool and swim in the summer - and dad went with me.

E SCHUSTER: Uh-huh.

A SCHUSTER: Smoking - big, old belly.

E SCHUSTER: Yeah.

A SCHUSTER: And he climbed up and he went down the slide.

E SCHUSTER: (Laughter).

A SCHUSTER: And everybody is looking at him. And I'm like, yeah, that's my dad...

E SCHUSTER: (Laughter).

A SCHUSTER: ...And whatever. But that's how he was. He was like a kid.

E SCHUSTER: We were lucky. We were very lucky to have them as parents. Despite their suffering, despite their pain, they were able to teach those lessons of live now, love hard and appreciate everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENDING SATELLITES' "WE'RE FROM NEAR AND FAR")

GREENE: Abe and Esther Schuster for StoryCorps in Birmingham, Ala. That interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.