Anita Epstein, who chronicled her infancy during the Holocaust, dies at 76
WASHINGTON — Anita Epstein was born in the squalor of the Krakow ghetto in Poland during World War II. To save her from the Nazi dragnet, her parents gave her up at the age of 4 months.
Hidden in a leather valise and sedated lest her cries betray her, she was smuggled past SS guards. Her father, Salek Kuenstler, deposited her with a Polish family that obtained a false birth certificate and had her baptized into the Catholic Church to conceal her Jewish identity.
He would die in a Nazi concentration camp, along with his father and brothers. But Anita’s mother, Eda Kuenstler, survived Auschwitz and then Bergen-Belsen. Months after her liberation, she appeared at the home of the Catholic family in Poland to reclaim her daughter. Anita, then 3, did not recognize her as her mother. She already had a mother.
She ‘‘told me I had a name I didn’t know, a family I didn’t know, and a religion I didn’t know,’’ Mrs. Epstein later wrote in a memoir, “Miracle Child: The Journey of a Young Holocaust Survivor,’’ recalling her mother’s return from the camps.
‘‘I don’t want to go!’’ Anita screamed, as she left the only home she had known. ‘‘Please, momma, don’t let her take me!’’
In her memoir — co-written with her husband, Noel Epstein, and published last year — Mrs. Epstein described the “recurring anxiety’’ her mother suffered during the Holocaust, wondering whether her ‘‘baby girl” was still alive. ‘‘They are the ones to whom I owe everything,” Mrs. Epstein wrote of her parents.
For several years, she and her mother lived in displaced persons camps around Europe until they found passage in 1949 on a ship to the United States.
‘‘I have managed to have a full life, if a deeply scarred one,’’ Mrs. Epstein wrote in an article published in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2010. She had a husband, two daughters, five grandchildren, a house in the Washington suburbs and a good job. She died June 27 at 76 at her home in Silver Spring, Md. The cause was complications from Parkinson’s disease, said her husband, Noel Epstein.
Anita Kuenstler was born Nov. 18, 1942, in what passed for a hospital in the Krakow ghetto. Her mother, Anita later recalled, described it as ‘‘a cold room, the window covered with a sheet, a single candle for light.’’
Since the summer of 1941, her parents had been living with three other families in a single room in the ghetto. Corpses littered the streets. Garbage piled up everywhere, and the rats multiplied.
‘‘When my mother’s pregnancy began to show she sought to keep out of sight of the SS lest they murder her as they had other pregnant Jewish women,” Mrs. Epstein wrote.
After the birth, her father, the son of a well-to-do Krakow family that ran a leather business, made arrangements for his infant daughter to be cared for by gentile friends, the Sendlers.
Zofia Sendler, already the mother of two sons and a daughter, christened and renamed her. A chain with a small silver cross was placed around her neck.
After the war, Mrs. Epstein recalled, many survivors looked upon her as a “miracle child.’’
According to Patricia Heberer Rice, a senior historian at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, “few babies or very young children, not rescued or hidden, survived the Holocaust. The estimate is that 1.2 million to 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Holocaust.’’
Arriving in New York with her mother in 1949, Anita spoke little English. She attended the city’s public schools and was placed in a class for children with developmental delays. But she later excelled academically, and in 1966 she graduated from Brooklyn College.
Mrs. Epstein worked as a lobbyist for 30 years, specializing in North American trade issues, and was government affairs director for the National Association of State Boards of Education.