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Missing in Mechelen.

The Search for Estera Pesa Nasielski

To commemorate the eightieth anniversary of the resistance attack on the twentieth
Jewish convoy from Mechelen, Belgium to Auschwitz Birkenau, Poland
on 19 April 1943.


By Will Stone.


Today there is no one left alive who remembers Estera Pesa Nasielski of Brussels as a living person. She exists only by name in a handful of yellowed documents and is recorded on the bottom row of a visual roll call of Jewish victims of Nazi genocide, sixth from the left, just a small vertical rectangle, a uniform window holding one more stranger’s face. Estera, along with her mother, were just two of some twenty-five-thousand Jewish men, women, and children in occupied Belgium deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau (45 percent of the total Jewish population of Belgium) on successive transports from the Dossin barracks in Mechelen between the spring of 1941 and autumn 1944. The great majority were lead directly to the gas chambers on arrival and vanished within hours. Most of these Jews were refugees from Germany and Eastern Europe, who had found a toehold in the larger cities of Belgium between the two world wars and where they imagined they had found security in a cosmopolitan western democracy. Only 6 percent were native Belgian Jews, and in a grimly ironic shadowing of racial prejudice, these indigenous Jews saw themselves as something of an elite, a superior caste to the incomers and their foreign cousins as having less legitimacy for Belgian citizenship.

These were our kind, with their different trades and backgrounds, all going about their ordinary lives, who never suspected such a lethal fate could befall them in the progressively modern civilized continent of Western Europe.

We hear much about the French Jews deported from the infamous Drancy camp in the Paris suburbs and Dutch victims dispatched to Poland from Westerbork in the remote Drenthe region of northern Holland, but rarely is the Belgian vestibule to death in Mechelen popularly cited. Yet on the edge of this quiet historic Flemish town conveniently sited midway between Antwerp and Brussels, the SS created their holding depot for Jews and others in their hierarchy of undesirables destined for ‘resettlement’. Until the imposing new Holocaust Museum was constructed here a decade ago, this once notorious and feared enclave on the edge of the town received only a handful of curious scholarly pilgrims and eluded the attention of the wider western world. There was little here then to engage the attention of passers-by, who walked past the drab barrack buildings long since made over into flats, quite oblivious to the horrific events which unfolded in them during the war. The new museum, or rather ponderously named ‘Kazerne Dossin — Museum, Memorial and Documentation Centre of the Holocaust’ was inaugurated in 2012 across the road from the site of the deportations and now looms high over the Dossin complex. When I first entered it in 2013 I immediately beheld the vast wall of ‘the lost’, a vertiginous mosaic of tiny black and white portraits of just a portion of the Jewish victims who passed through the archway of the barracks across the road to the train of carriages or cattle cars awaiting them. This painstakingly assembled wall of faces, like some diabolical chessboard of doomed humanity, does what it is designed to do with methodical efficiency, by coolly suggesting the unimaginable scale and existential implications of the greatest of all crimes perpetuated by mankind.

The ungraspable scale of the events now termed The Holocaust is something everyone who receives a school education now acknowledges, learns from testimonies and documentaries, has become familiar with, must live alongside, but does not have faculty to imagine, let alone understand. The wall at the Dossin Museum acts as a necessary reinforcement so that ‘industrial’ killing becomes not a vague concept concerning people who only existed in black and white in a world and time far removed from us, but the systematic loss of every one of these richly coloured, blood infused individual lives, the only proof of whose existence lies within the boundary of their vertical rectangle. The wall, though a uniform mass of faces, paradoxically serves to illuminate the individual, giving the sense that each face, of equal size in its identical window, was an innocent living person leading peaceful lives very similar to our own, people who might have resembled us or someone we know. These were our kind, with their different trades and backgrounds, all going about their ordinary lives, who never suspected such a lethal fate could befall them in the progressively modern civilized continent of Western Europe. Each is surrounded by similarly mounted strangers they don’t see, likely never met until their deportation as members of a Jewish ‘race’ brought them together, strangers with whom they now share a fate, staring out from the wall, smiling or serious, reserved or gregarious, captured by the lens at a random moment of their lives. How could they know that this image selected for its suitability for identity papers or passport, the image which showed them in the best light, may be all that is left?

A discreet plaque on the wall by the arched entrance and a modest bronze sculpture are all that belie what happened here.

The new edifice faces the actual Kazerne, a quadrangle of brick barracks which housed the former much smaller museum and research centre. Today these buildings which once were crammed with the condemned have morphed into an innocuous looking modern apartment complex and beneath the once cobbled yard where those selected for transports to the East formed up and where day and night military trucks disgorged fresh victims from across Belgium, there is a pleasant landscaped garden with benches above a smooth asphalt ramp which carries the well-off tenants air-conditioned BMWs and Mercedes into a convenient and secure underground car park.  A discreet plaque on the wall by the arched entrance and a modest bronze sculpture are all that belie what happened here.

Dossin barracks today

In striking contrast, the new museum into which were ploughed some 25 million euros, asserts itself in bold geometric statements of concrete and glass, with its flags, banners, and ubiquitous requisitioned empty cattle truck parked on a cemented in sliver of railway track. The visitor is treated to six floors of changing displays and interactive accoutrements, lifts, and escalators, a cinema, podcasts, facilities for school groups boast an impressive learning experience, and space for reflection as the early twenty-first century memorial experience demands.

But few are aware that all the initial work to remember who the lost actually were was done by the dedicated handful who laboured on their lists in the old museum; here they set themselves the task of recording everyone who had passed through Dossin and had been dispatched on a transport to Poland, to establish which transport they were on and if possible whether they survived or not. In this laborious detective work they were no doubt urged on by the thought that with each new name logged they were at least giving an identity back to the anonymous multitudes. The average transport carried between eight hundred and fourteen hundred people and out of each of these transports only very small numbers survived, sometimes not even in double figures, if it were as many as twenty or thirty then one could speak of a miracle. The impeccably researched lists say it all, clinically repeating the roll call of calamity. ‘Of 1067 victims on Transport 3, only twelve survivors’. ‘Of 1200 victims on Transport 5, only 17 survivors’. ‘Of 985 victims on Transport 12, only 5 survivors’. This relentless recording of the statistics is an effective method by which those who concern themselves with the overwhelming death toll of deportees can seek to impact on an audience, to reiterate the inconceivable scale of the crime. This exhaustive repetition of numbers, of tallies and quotas, almost echoing the German mania for lists and scrupulous records is most effectively employed by the director and author Claude Lanzmann in his film Sobibor 14 October 1943 (2001) when at the end he simply lists every Jewish community across Europe and the numbers lost in that community one by one, so they roll on like film credits, but interminably. Who in the stunned audience will dare move out of his or her seat and leave? None; they will remain for ten long minutes monotonously reading village after village, town after town with their final figure of the lost.

Thus in the outflow from the twisted logic of the Auschwitz system, it was far easier to confirm the identity of the instantly murdered than those destroyed more slowly.

Through analysis of passports, birth certificates, Jewish identity cards and the SS lists of deportees made in Belgium as well as recordings of arrivals in Auschwitz, the researchers at Dossin were able to ascertain the probable fate of each Jewish victim. Next to every image is a symbol denoting that fate, whether they were chosen for work duties on arrival and later perished, or in a few rare cases survived, or whether they were murdered immediately. When I met Laurence Schram, the experienced and knowledgeable head of this research operation at the museum, she told me that it was possible to work out whether a person had been gassed immediately with a little inadvertent assistance from the SS themselves. With bureaucratic zeal the camp authorities carefully recorded all those who received the infamous Auschwitz number tattoo on arrival. Through documents left behind by the SS as they fled in January 1945, Schram and her colleagues were able to ascertain by a process of elimination, cross referencing the Auschwitz list with the transport list, who had died immediately, because their names would be absent. The SS did not bother to record those who were murdered directly on arrival. Determining the fate of those who were tattooed and earmarked for hard labour, things became far trickier and often the trail petered out into ambiguity. Thus in the outflow from the twisted logic of the Auschwitz system, it was far easier to confirm the identity of the instantly murdered than those destroyed more slowly.



So why did the SS choose this particular location for their deportation collection point? Mechelen, or Malines, in the French as it was then known, lies halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, the two biggest urban centres of the country. Thus it was perfectly situated for the Nazi occupiers to enact their murderous design. Mechelen was well served by major road links and rail services. The Jewish victims could be easily transported there from across the country. Here they would stay in crowded barrack rooms and attics for weeks or months in states of tension and anxiety, torn from their families, humiliated and abused by guards, until their place on a transport was finally allocated. A railway siding adjacent to the Dossin Barracks meant that the victims could be loaded and shipped on site without disturbing or involving the town beyond. As the people of Mechelen slept, transports slipped out of the sidings into the darkness and the occupants of the cattle cars began their infernal four-day journey to Poland without food, water, or sanitary facilities. Mechelen was also ideal for the SS as it was a twenty-minute drive from the notorious SS and Gestapo prison fort Breendonk, memorably explored by the writer W.G. Sebald in a passage of his novel Austerlitz (2001):

I still had an image in my head of a star-shaped bastion with walls towering above a precise geometrical ground-plan, but what I now saw before me was a low-built concrete mass, rounded at all its outer edges and giving the gruesome impression of something hunched and misshapen: the broad back of a monster, I thought, risen from this Flemish soil like a whale from the deep…

The brutal commandant Philip Schmidt was conveniently in charge of both Dossin and Breendonk.

This face was of a girl, perhaps fifteen or sixteen I surmised, a girl with a certain noble seriousness in her gaze, a sense of watchfulness and sensitivity.

But what of Estera? I had in fact encountered her a decade earlier in Brussels during the autumn of 2007, when her face and the strangers who shared her faith and fate were emblazoned over the ornate wrought iron perimeter fence of the Royal Park. This haunting procession of the lost stretched the length of the park as I remember, winding round the old enclosure like some mournful memorial ribbon and it was impossible to pass by without pausing to return the glance of those unfortunate casualties of the recent past, to respectfully address them. This was when I first encountered Estera Pesa Nasielski. I stopped and scanned the faces. I focused on a few, an elderly man with a pince-nez, a sensitive looking young man, perhaps a student, a proud middle-aged woman in a fox fur, a shy boy in sailor outfit; homing in on features hoping to gain some purchase on the regimented squares of passport-like portraits staring back. Others stopped and also scanned the portraits, pausing for varying lengths of time and then mostly moved on, soon slipping back into their busy metropolitan lives. I remained, for I was drawn to one face, or rather the dark eyes of an attractive yet melancholy face framed by smoothly brushed ebony hair ending in two plaits sensibly secured with silk ribbons. This face was of a girl, perhaps fifteen or sixteen I surmised, a girl with a certain noble seriousness in her gaze, a sense of watchfulness and sensitivity. Her features spoke of the eastern part of Europe, something of the Romany was there, but what struck me most were those dark eyes with their delicate bright edge the flash had made, staring so forcefully back at me and in a manner which was not replicated by any of the surrounding photographs. It then occurred to me that this beguiling face was of a girl now dead and who had died unjustly, prematurely, yanked out of her authentic life purely by being here at the wrong point and wrong place in history. Though clearly a deficient means to compensate in any way for this atrocity, I resolved there and then to find out who this face left stranded by chance on camera film belonged to, those proud eyes which seemed to resolutely question and belied forbearance. I felt it was right to at least find out her name, who she was and where she lived, something of her story to offset the injustice of her fate. Even these basic details of an individual’s identity the Nazis had sought to bury. It seemed in that moment entirely wrong to just walk on and leave her, as if by doing so those who murdered her would have triumphed yet again. At least then I would be actually remembering just one of these people, not just scanning images out of curiosity; her existence would at least be properly acknowledged, reconstructed even, and she could be counted amongst the once living rather than the forever dead. However, immediately following such thoughts I questioned myself for potentially falling prey to some specious romanticism, some nostalgic whim that might appear disreputable or at best irrelevant faced with the brutal realism of her plight. But no, I felt suddenly driven to act. I had to put an identity to this face, if nothing more.

Files containing lists of Jewish transports from Mechelen, Kazerne Dossin. Photo by the author.

Thus I set out to Mechelen from Brussels to visit the little museum dedicated to the Jewish deportees housed in the Dossin Barracks and rather nervously explained my quest. Laurence and her staff were intrigued at the sudden appearance of an Englishman with an unusual request and were keen to assist. But right away something didn’t seem right. Despite the photograph, they could find no trace of the dark-eyed girl in plaits anywhere in their records. How then had she been included on the picture boards when there was no evidence of her name on the lists? Was she an interloper, a photograph of someone else unconnected which had got mixed up with the victims? They could provide no answers but were determined to dig deeper. I left disappointed, but at the same time emboldened by the sense of mystery now surrounding the Jewish girl. Then a few days later I had a call from Dossin to say that after much sleuthing and false dawns they had found her! A computer glitch had inexplicably omitted only her from the records, but they had located a series of documents proving her identity, her relatives and origins, and her last known address in Brussels. The relative documents were duly sent on to me, everything they had, everything left about this person in the whole world, just three forms and a couple of photographs.

Her name was Estera Pesa Nasielksi. The family Nasielski had arrived in Brussels in the early thirties from Poland and settled in a working class district near the Gare du Midi. Rana Nasielski, a widow, owned a modest grocery business. There were two brothers also mentioned, one was a carpenter, the other a travelling salesman. As for Estera, I soon realized scanning the documents that the photograph I had seen was of a younger Estera and the striking girl had matured into a young woman of fuller figure by the time of her entrapment. She worked as a secretary in Brussels, but where? There is no trace. Her life appeared mundane, unglamorous, a typical immigrant working class family in a poor Brussels quarter, labouring hard to make ends meet. Her two brothers are mentioned on the Jewish registration document of 1941, but must have either been deported earlier or somehow escaped as they were not taken to Mechelen with their mother and sister. I imagined Estera and her relatives going through the slow ratcheting up of privations in Brussels in the years and months leading up to their deportation, their leper status confirmed by signs everywhere forbidding them entry to a park, to a cinema, a seat on the tram, as gradually their lives shrunk and shrunk to the deceptive sanctuary of their little nondescript house near the busy train station. Two long years they had to endure the gradual constriction of civil liberties, the sense of being pariahs in their adopted country, as the net inexorably tightened. They were poor and vulnerable, unprotected and unwanted; even more so being immigrants, every day setting out on a potential circumnavigation of the abyss.

Nasielski home, Brussels. Photo by the author.

Armed with an address, that last address before Mechelen, I travelled to Brussels to find the house where the family Nasielski lived, imagining that it would be long gone and my search would be fruitless. But no, it was there on a bleak corner and of the right vintage, a poor residential street near the train station in an area which could never have been attractive. The corner entrance door was bricked up and a bland wall of dirty white greyish plaster remained. The walled-up doorway is always a brutal statement, a rude inversion, a betrayal. The cramped rooms occupied by the Nasielski family took up only the ground floor. The building seemed closed up, or even down, lifeless, as if symbolically it had been abandoned since their departure, as if this dwelling place itself had ever since rejected normal animated life. The bricked-up corner door was a statement of finality. I tried but I could not imagine Estera here. I could not imagine her leaving and entering this building eighty years ago, back and forth to her job as a secretary in the city centre. It was a tomb. I took a photograph, looked around me hopefully for clues and not expecting to find any, left.

In those early days no one could have imagined… Once the crafty cajoling Germans had the cards neatly stacked and locked away, the names, the addresses, the Jewish citizens were doomed.

Here on my desk were copies of the documents; first a Jewish identity card, required to be filled out by all Jews from the early days of the occupation. How some rushed obediently to the city hall of Brussels to hand in their registration cards, while others queued reluctantly but still hopefully before the desks. In those early days no one could have imagined… Once the crafty cajoling Germans had the cards neatly stacked and locked away, the names, the addresses, the Jewish citizens were doomed. The Belgian Jews had supplied their future executioners with everything they needed when the round ups came. As so often during the process of their ‘Final Solution’, the SS had worked out in advance how relatively easy it was for the victims to be coerced into their own murders. Then there was the transport list in all its horrifying bureaucracy and apparel of normality. A typewritten list with pencil annotations showing transports and who was on them, in this case the name Nasielski. Estera had been deported with her mother. The documents clinically proved that, unless they escaped, neither had survived their arrival at Birkenau. I recall the moment I learned that stark fact, which I had expected but hoped might be otherwise and yet this slim hope of escape was no vain indulgence but was based on historic events. For there was in the case of her transport a chance Estera could have escaped a lethal end at the camp, for she and her mother languishing at the Dossin barracks for weeks had finally been selected for Transport 20 in April 1943. This transport was unlike the others before or after it. A special wagon was attached to the train at the last moment containing nineteen special prisoners, those who had previously tried to escape from a transport and political prisoners who knew immediate execution awaited them at Auschwitz. Scattered amongst the other wagons were more prisoners eager to break out. At the same time and feasibly with their knowledge, a young Belgian Jewish resistance cell headed by twenty-one-year old Youra Livchitz, a doctor, had hatched a bold but almost suicidal plan to halt a transport from Mechelen before it crossed the frontier to Germany and set as many prisoners free as possible. It is impossible to know whether Estera was party to any of this before she embarked on her final journey, what exactly she might have learned if anything in Mechelen.

On 19 April 1943, the twentieth convoy set off from Dossin like all the others before it, but at a later hour, heading for the border with Germany. On board there were 1,631 Jewish men women and children. Two of them were Estera Pesa Nasielski and her mother Rana. This train was the first to use cattle cars, as previously there had been third class carriages with sealed windows from which it had been potentially easier to escape. Armed with only a pistol, a torch and a fake red stopping light, the three members of the Jewish resistance cell, through sheer bravado, were crucially able to stop the train in open country between Mechelen and Leuven before it reached the border. Although the guard consisted of fifteen military policemen and an SS officer, they failed to foil the attack since they were in a rear guard van near the Special prisoners and were initially slow to react to what was happening further up the convoy. The liberators managed to get at least one wagon open and release seventeen people at once, before shots were exchanged. Taking advantage of the confusion and darkness, prisoners fled from other parts of the train while it was stationary and even as it continued at a slower than normal pace on its journey to the frontier; one twenty-two-year-old woman managed to cut through the wooden bars over an air vent with a bread knife she had concealed and slipped through into the night. In all 223 people managed to escape the train whilst on Belgian territory and of these 118 remained at large in the days that followed, despite an intensive man hunt by the furious SS.

The stopping of Transport 20 in its tracks was incredibly the only act to liberate prisoners from a Jewish convoy in the whole of occupied Europe during the war.

I tried to imagine Estera at this moment of possible escape as the train ground to a halt, as she heard the shouts and cries, gunshots, the sound of people fleeing. Which car was she in? Was it one of those the assailants managed to open? She was young and probably fit, she could have jumped, taken this rare chance to gain freedom, so did she think about it? How long did she consider the possibility? Did she deliberate, hang on too long, miss the brief window of chance as others must have done? But Estera was with her elderly mother, who may have dissuaded her, told her to stay calm and wait, not get involved, better to risk the next ‘work’ camp than launch oneself unknowing into the night. The elderly generally were more fatigued, more easily deceived, more respectful of authority and reassuring promises. Perhaps someone saw Estera, someone escaping and tried to persuade her to jump, shouted ‘Go, now, or it’s too late, save yourself!’ Perhaps… But Estera is not named in those who fled the train, living or dead. She stayed and did not leave her mother. The terrible irony of this transport is that the fate of those who did not escape was all the more explicitly lethal because of the assault on the train, for when they arrived in Auschwitz, the SS in their rage determined to gas a higher proportion of the prisoners, and 70 percent of these were women. So the liberation of Transport 20 was but a roulette chance of escape; if you chose to remain on the train or your car was not opened then there was even less hope for avoiding death immediately on arrival at Birkenau. Such daring actions by rescuers were extremely rare. The stopping of Transport 20 in its tracks was incredibly the only act to liberate prisoners from a Jewish convoy in the whole of occupied Europe during the war. And Estera had been on that very convoy and had not survived.

Now in 2018, I stand before the same squares of faces again and Estera is still there aged around fifteen or sixteen in her plaits secured with silk ribbons, but this time I know who she is. She exists for me now at least as a person with a family and background, a country of origin and an existence of twenty-four years which can be proved, which she lived with all her senses and in freedom up to the point when a deranged genocidal regime implausibly assumed the highest office in Germany. This much is known, but much else remains for the imagination to fill in. Estera did not like others of her age leave behind a diary or a journal; we have no knowledge of her personality, her passions nor her disappointments, her aspirations, or dreams. All that is left is a photograph of a girl with a magnetic gaze and a sheaf of yellowed documents kept in a shoebox.

Estera did not like others of her age leave behind a diary or a journal; we have no knowledge of her personality, her passions nor her disappointments, her aspirations, or dreams.

Inevitably I have wrestled with the imagining of Estera’s final moments or, as in all such cases, merely created a bearable vision of the intolerable reality which we know to be true; a vision of Estera wearily yet anxiously descending the steps to the vast undressing room of Crematorium 1, or 2, or waiting in the grove of birch trees by 3 or 4? Dutifully she is tying her shoelaces together and placing her clothes on a peg amidst the bawling of guards and chivvying of the pyjama-clad Sonderkommando wraiths. There is Estera stood with her mother, no different to tens of thousands of other innocents, amid the din of the Auschwitz shop floor. But I indulge in such a vision only because I once stood in that same place as a completely free young man in the late afternoon of a bitterly cold February day in 1994, when I was the only ‘visitor’ it appeared to the whole of the Birkenau site. That day, knowing nothing of Estera Pesa Nasielski, having read scant testimony of the condemned, I descended the five or six worn brick steps into the ruins of the undressing room of Crematoria 2, which then in an age before mass tourism was permissible. I stood in the long space littered with rubble from the collapsed ceiling, noting the shorn bases of the pillars and I could see where the gas chamber had been, a transept to the right whose equally long rectangular shape was also a deceiving chaotic mound of masonry, bricks, and concrete. What remained were outlines, shadows.

It was only when the light began to fail that I noticed the single burning candle someone had earlier placed in the pile of shattered and upended concrete slabs which were once the gas chamber roof. The triangular alcove they had chosen created a barrier against the wind, permitting the lone candle to continue burning undisturbed until its energy was exhausted. Snowflakes began to alight on the machinery wreckage at that very moment, and began to create shallow drifts there, their uninvited appearance somehow exacerbating the unremitting silence. The sense of aloneness was all encompassing but not just physically, for there was literally nothing, no ghosts of the massed dead to speak of, no satisfying sense of a presence, neither victim nor perpetrator, only the absurd necessity of the wide marble memorial slab nearby, the indecently photogenic survivor brick chimneys from long since rotted barracks receding in perspective towards unfinished ‘Mexico’. Only the sheltered candle flame and its changing movement. The snow was falling more heavily now, harrying me back up the ramp, followed by the indecent creak of the last birdsong from the bare screen of poplars.

Perimeter of Royal Park, Brussels, 2007. Photo by the author.

WILL STONE is a poet, essayist and literary translator who divides his time between East Suffolk, Exmoor and the continent. His first poetry collection Glaciation (Salt, 2007), won an international award for Poetry in 2008. Subsequent collections Drawing in Ash (Salt, 2011), The Sleepwalkers (Shearsman 2016) and The Slowing Ride (Shearsman 2020) have been critically appraised. A fifth collection Immortal Wreckage will be published in 2024. Will’s published translations from French and German include works by Stefan Zweig, Joseph Roth, Georg Trakl, Rainer Maria Rilke, Gérard de Nerval, Georg Simmel, Maurice Betz, Emile Verhaeren and Georges Rodenbach. Will’s latest published translations published were Nietzsche in Italy by Guy de Pourtalès (Pushkin Press, 2022) and Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach (Wakefield Press, 2022). Letters around a Garden, a collection of Rilke’s letters in French will appear with Seagull Books in 2024 and Conversations with Rilke by Maurice Betz will be published by Pushkin in January 2025. Will has contributed reviews, essays, poems and translations to a number of literary publications including the Times Literary Supplement, the Guardian, the Spectator, Apollo Magazine, the White Review, Modern Poetry in Translation, Agenda, Irish Pages and Poetry Review.


Top image: Estera Pesa Nasielski circa mid-1930s. 


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