Estelle Nadel—a life of extraordinary resilience and accomplishment

May 20, 2024 | Article, Newsletter

The Musical Celebration of Life for Estelle Nadel z”l began with a clear lilting soprano voice floating throughout the room. But no one in the choir was singing.

Instead, everyone was listening to the recorded voice of Estelle singing “Shtiler, Shtiler” a Yiddish song written in the Vilna Ghetto which begins with the words “Quiet, quiet, let’s be silent.”

Estelle NadelA child from rural Poland, who survived the Holocaust by escaping from jail and hiding in silence for two years in the attic of a barn, Estelle refused to be silent for the rest of her life.

She sang on stage in a displaced persons camp after the war and, with her voice, opened the door to a life in the U.S. for herself and her surviving siblings.

She published a marvelous graphic memoir, The Girl Who Sang, about her escape from certain death during the war.

She was a well-known and beloved member and lead soloist of both Jewish and non-Jewish choirs in California and Colorado.

“When I would email the choir inquiring as to which singers would be available for upcoming services, without fail, Estelle would almost always be the first choir member to respond, saying ‘I’ll be there!’” said Linda Leonard, Temple Sinai Choir Director Emeritus and the organizer of the musical celebration of Estelle’s life. “One of my sweetest memories of Estelle is how she always signed every email ‘Love, Estelle.’ Everyone, indeed, loved Estelle in return.”

Estelle shared her story with any audience who asked her to speak, including March of the Living, but she particularly sought out young people. To them, she said, “I want you, the young people, the next generation, to carry our stories on and someday tell your own children that, yes, you knew a Holocaust survivor. She was real. It really happened.”

Even at her own memorial service, Estelle would not be silenced. The song she sang, written in a wartime ghetto, includes the lyrics, “Future brings a smile.” On March 17 at Temple Sinai, two choirs, friends, family, and another Holocaust survivor honored her memory with music, stories, and smiles.

“I remember once when I was at Estelle’s house, she was staring at her granddaughter Liora with this huge smile,” said Barbara Zeidman, in a tribute to her long-time friend. “I asked her why she was smiling. And she said to me, ‘Because I won.’ That was how Estelle saw her family. It was her victory.”

“She was kindness personified, and she loved people,” Fred, her husband of 71 years, said. “I could never understand how she could love people the way she did after what she went through. But she did.”

What she went through

Estelle Nadel died peacefully on November 28, 2023. She was born Enia Feld in December 1934 in Borek, Poland, a small town near Krakow. She was one of five siblings in a tight-knit extended family, living close to relatives and cousins. Life was good, until September 1939 when Hitler’s forces invaded Poland. She was five years old, ready to start her education, when Jews were banned from local schools.

In 1942, Enia’s father, older sister, and one of her three brothers were arrested and taken to Auschwitz. She never saw them again. The remaining family went into hiding. At night, her mother would go out looking for food for the family. One night, her mother never came home. She had been captured and killed, leaving behind her young daughter with two older brothers. One of the two brothers ran away in the hopes that he could pass as non-Jewish.

Enia and her brother continued to survive in hiding until the Germans found them. They were taken to a local jail where they were locked in a basement room. The two escaped from the jail by squeezing between the bars of a window but were separated in the escape. Eight-year-old Enia made her way across the countryside of Poland to the home of a non-Jewish neighbor where she was reunited with her brother, aunt, uncle, and cousin.

For the next two years, the family hid in the attic of the neighbor’s barn. They could speak only in whispers, and they could not stand because the attic ceiling was so low. When they were liberated by the Russians, Enia’s muscles had atrophied to the point where she could no longer walk. A Russian soldier carried her back to her family home. She was 10 years old.

Reunited with both her brothers, Enia planned to go to Palestine. When that fell through, the three traveled by train and on foot for months to get to Austria in the hopes of finding American soldiers. When they arrived, they were placed in a camp for displaced persons. There, someone overheard Enia singing and recruited her to perform in a camp production of the story of Esther. An American soldier saw the performance and asked if Enia wanted to go to the United States.

On the ship bringing her to America, Enia sang for joy. To other passengers, she was known as “the girl who sang.” On April 1, 1947, at the age of 12, she arrived in New York. She changed her first name to Estelle, to sound more like an American. She went to school for the first time in her life. When her brothers could not care for her, she was adopted by the Nadel family. They moved to California where she lived for the next 53 years.

In California, she was 17 when she met and married a charismatic young man named Fred on a blind date. In what can only be called beshert, his last name was also Nadel. Estelle is survived by Fred, her three sons and their wives, and five grandchildren.

Celebrating Estelle

Led by Temple Sinai Senior Rabbi Rick Rheins, the Musical Celebration for Estelle included musical numbers that were favorites of hers and also paid tribute to her memory, sung by the Colorado Hebrew Chorale and the Temple Sinai Choir. Soloists included Temple Sinai Cantorial Soloist Ruthie Lipshulch, Leah Peer, and Leah and Grant Hamilton.

Osi Sladek, another child Holocaust survivor also filled the room with his voice in two musical tributes to his friend Estelle and shared his memories of her.

“I stopped counting all the kisses and hugs I got from Estelle,” he said. “I cannot imagine that she is no longer with us.”

Cover of The Girl Who Sang by Estelle NadelIn their tributes to Estelle, her friends described a woman who overcame the traumas of her childhood, refused to see herself as a victim, and lived a life of kindness and optimism.

“The definition of redemption is the action of saving or being saved from sin, error, or evil,” said Leah Peer, as she prepared to sing “May the Redemption Come Soon.” “In a very real and practical way, singing was the source of Estelle’s redemption from the evil of her Holocaust journey.”

Rondi Frieder organized a sale of Estelle’s book at the Celebration of Life, with all proceeds going to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in memory of Estelle.

“Wouldn’t it be great if every library in Colorado—in America—had Estelle’s book,” Frieder said. “We can make that happen.”

In the end, Zeidman summed up the life of her friend simply. “Estelle was a Jew. A Holocaust survivor. A mother. A grandmother. A fantastic soloist. A soprano who enriched the lives of the choirs she sang with. A dyed-in-the-wool Democrat. But to me, Estelle was mostly my friend. And I feel incredibly fortunate to have known her.”