Pioneering "New Dimensions In Testimony" interviewee passes away at 85
USC Shoah Foundation is saddened to learn of the passing of Aaron Elster, a Holocaust survivor whose steadfast refusal to counter hate with more hate will echo for years to come. He was 85.
Born Nachman Aaron Elster in 1933, in Poland, Elster escaped persecution and came to the United States in June of 1947. There, he gained an education in Chicago, served in the armed forces during the Korean War, married and had children. To remain in touch with his heritage and to spread awareness about his experiences and lessons learned from the Holocaust, he served as vice president and gave regular talks at the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center.
His service and devotion to the Jewish community and to storytelling also found their way into one of USC Shoah Foundation’s major projects – New Dimensions in Testimony, which allows Elster’s stories and lectures to live on in the form of an interactive video representation.
Project Manager Kia Hays got to know Elster when they worked together on New Dimensions in Testimony.
“Aaron firmly believed that each person he spoke to was one more person he could convince to always choose hope over hate” she said. “You couldn’t help but feel connected to Aaron after meeting him, and I will carry him with me always. I will forever be grateful that I had the opportunity to learn from him, and incredibly proud that students for generations to come will be able to, as well, and that through this we can continue to fulfill his need to touch hearts.”
Elster’s stories often began in the same place – with a message preaching away hate and welcoming understanding. One of two in his town of 2,000 children to survive the war, Elster lived in the Sokolow Ghetto with his two sisters, mother and father until the ghetto’s liquidation in Sept. 1942. On the morning of the liquidation, his mother woke him and told him to get dressed. In his recorded testimony for USC Shoah Foundation, Elster recalled how the moment felt.
“[She said] we have to go and hide. And I remember the fear, because I knew what was going to happen to us.”
His father told him to run and he did, all the way to a house that belonged an uncle of his.
“About 200 yards from that house was the barbed wire fence, and normally, it had barracks there [but] I didn’t see anyone,” he said. “There was a Polish woman who stood outside of the ghetto. An old woman with a babushka and a long dark brown skirt, and she kept motioning to me and hollering in Polish, ‘Come!’”
For a brief time, Elster hid in various farms until he was briefly reunited with his mother, who told him where the family had sent one of his sisters – Irene – to keep her safe. Elster fled to the Polish couple’s home and finally found refuge in their attic, where he stayed for the duration of the war.
Following the war, he lived in several orphanages throughout Poland and then was smuggled through various displaced persons camps in West Germany, always keeping with him both the memories of his childhood before the war – he went to Hebrew school and his family owned a butcher shop serviced mostly by gentiles – and his memories during and after the war.
“When we got out of the hiding place, I think I weighed maybe 50 pounds. My sister maybe a couple more,” he said. “Of the 5,000 Jewish people from our town, only 29 survived. Only two children survived – my sister and I. I had trouble adjusting to life and I dealt with hate and I had to overcome that because as a teenager, I wanted Germany bombed out of existence. And then you start realizing that if you continue to hate, you’re destroying your own life.”
After working through the pains of speaking about his experiences with a psychotherapist, Elster co-wrote the book “I Still See Her Haunting Eyes: The Holocaust and a Hidden Child Named Aaron,” which captures the Holocaust through the eyes of a young boy and is titled for his little sister.
“We mourn the loss of this wonderful man, but we take comfort in knowing what a rich life Aaron lived,” said USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Stephen Smith. “Aaron had a delightful sense of humor, but also a deep passion for sharing his story. He was immensely proud of his work with both the museum and for New Dimensions in Testimony, which will ensure that his words will remain vibrant for generations to come.”